Petaluma Profile: Marcella Contessi Smith dances through life

Ballet instructor describes her colorful adventures around the world|

“Slowly, slowly! Beautiful, beautiful!”

That has been ballet mistress Marcella Contessi Smith’s guiding principle since she was a nine-year-old ballerina in the ballet “Faust,” at Florence, Italy’s Theatre Comunale Opera House.

“I learned to dance opera and ballet in the classic Russian-style,” Smith says, 90, “from the great Najinsky’s daughter, Kyra. And I was good.”

So good, in fact, that she was dancing solos at the age of 17.

Smith’s international dancing career lasted 26 years, including coveted positions at the Theatre Lirico of Milano and the Quirino of Roma.

“I danced for the President of Mexico while on tour,” Smith says. “Then, after I returned from Mexico, I danced and acted in a movie with Sophia Loren. She was two years younger than me and very pretty. I taught her the dancing movements and we were very, very good friends. The movie isn’t any good. I just did it for the money and used a stage name.”

When Smith first moved to the United States she found herself in Kentucky.

“Kentucky is not a good place for dance and opera,” Smith admits, “but I heard that San Francisco appreciated artistry and had a symphony and an opera and a ballet. Kyra Najinsky was living there ... not dancing or teaching, but writing poetry and painting. She was glad to see me and introduced me to others. I soon began teaching ballet in a San Francisco building which shared space with a karate studio. I took karate, and surprised the karate master how high I could swing my leg. His name was Mr. Smith and I became Mrs. Smith. Ever since I broke my leg [two years ago], I can’t swing my leg that high anymore.”

Petaluma ballet students have been learning the “correct” way to dance from Mrs. Smith for over 35 years.

“Dance is everything,” Smith explains. “When I hear music, the choreography comes to me in my head. I include the pas-de-trois in “The Nutcracker” because I saw Baryshnikov. Education is my mission. Even though I am 90-years-old, and have to explain more now than demonstrate, I take time with my students to make sure they do things right. If they pay attention and keep trying, they get better and better.”

Mrs. Smith has decided to step down as Artistic Director of the Contessi Ballet, and has gifted the business to its Board of Directors, who will continue the enterprise as an educational nonprofit with guest instructors.

On a typical day at the Contessi Ballet studio near Penngrove Market, as students begin to arrive at for classes, the respect and affection they have for Mrs. Smith is evident.

“They love her,” says Contessi Ballet board president Kathleen Mankowski, “and her graduates return over and over to play parts in “The Nutcracker.” This year, we are collaborating with the Napa Valley Ballet for performances of the entire two-and-a-half-hour ballet at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park [on December 7th and 8th and in Napa on December 9th], complete with our own sets, painted canvas backdrops, and professionally made wardrobe of costumes. It’s the real deal.”

“Whenever I travel back to Italy,” Smith interrupts, “they ask me, ‘Why do you repeat the same ballet every year?’ I answer, ‘I have done “The Nutcracker” for 40 years, because in America “The Nutcracker” is Christmas. It is the music, the story, the dreams, the dancing. Everything in “The Nutcracker” is nice.”

(Contact Gil Mansergh at

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