Marissa Salemi-Giacobbe, owner of the Breaking Ground Dance Center, guides the dancers in its Petite Company. Photographs by Danielle Brody.
On a recent Friday evening, Marissa Salemi-Giacobbe walks through a group of girls in the waiting area of her dance studio, stopping a few from doing handstands as she makes her way into the office.
Salemi-Giacobbe then switches from business owner to instructor, moving to one of the five classrooms in the Pleasantville dance studio. She has been balancing the two roles since she opened the Breaking Ground Dance Center about 10 years ago at age 23.
Standing in front of the Petite Company, a group of girls ages 9 to 12 sporting jazz shoes, bright outfits and high pony tails, Salemi-Giacobbe guides and critiques them as they jump, spin and dance to “We Go Together” from “Grease.”
The studio owner reminds the girls to count, jump higher and, most of all, smile, showing them her biggest grin. They flash huge smiles in response. After rehearsing for a dance competition the next day — which the Petite Company would go on to win — Salemi-Giacobbe divides the girls into two groups to work on presentation.
Salemi-Giacobbe also spent her childhood dancing, competing with a company at her dance school in Rhode Island. At age 4 she followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, who were also dancers. The artistic family also includes a grandfather, who played the trombone behind Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, and her brother, an actor.
A performing arts scholarship at Manhattanville College and the desire to be closer to New York City brought Salemi-Giacobbe to Westchester. She minored in dance and majored in developmental psychology, having always wanted to have a degree in something outside of dance.
“I never, ever wanted to be a studio owner,” she says. “People used to ask me when I was younger, ‘Don’t you want to own a studio, because you love dance so much?’ I never thought of it as an option for me.”
Once she started teaching children’s dance classes in college, however, she changed her mind as she realized she loved passing on her passion for dance.
She saw the need for a studio in Westchester that offered the same quality of instruction to casual as well as professionally minded dancers. About a year after graduation, she found the space in Pleasantville and opened a studio on what she says was a whim, using both her education and dance background to work.
“I’m so glad I did it then,” she says.
She started by teaching classes and enlisting dancer friends to work with the studio’s 60 students. She wanted to give it her best shot, and if it didn’t work out, then get a master’s in developmental psychology.
Salemi-Giacobbe hasn’t had time to get that master’s. In 10 years, some 4,000 students have come through the studio that now boasts more than 500 students and has received local recognition.
Admitting it was hard to start the dance studio at a young age and with no business background, she read books, attended seminars and workshops and learned from her mistakes.
Salemi-Giacobbe remembers a strict “tough love” teaching style when she was a dance student, something she appreciates now but doesn’t follow. She trains the faculty to give students encouragement.
“We really want every kid to leave feeling good, with self-confidence,” she says. “Our goal is not to have the best dancers around. Our goal is to produce great kids that are ready for the real world.”
When asked about some of her dancers’ achievements, Salemi-Giacobbe doesn’t start with competitions won. She gushes about students going on to prestigious dance and academic schools and landing great jobs. She is just as excited about former students going to law school as she is about one who just got accepted into New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“My favorite part is seeing the growth in the students and knowing that we had a part in that, and that they gained self-confidence through their growth.”
For more, visit breakinggrounddance.com.