The four women at the ballet barre are smiling.
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There are no mirrors in front of them, jazz music surrounds them and their instructor is encouraging.
As they stretch, bend and plie, you can see the muscles loosening and movements become graceful.
It’s the Gentle Exercise class, taught by Paula Fiel every Monday and Wednesday from 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at the Smith Flat House.
After the economy went south in 2008, Fiel closed her Placerville Performing Arts Center in Diamond Springs and took a break.
“I had 10 years of owning a very successful dance studio, teaching as many as 15 classes a week. It was really nice to take a break from that,” she said.
Fiel has a history of turning bad news into something better.
A dancer since the age of 3, Fiel was accepted at the San Francisco Corps d’Ballet at 17, preparing for life as a professional ballerina. When she completely tore her hamstring, the damage was not repairable and her professional career was over.
“I was devastated,” said Fiel.
She went to college, earned a degree in recreation therapy, and began working with oncology and cystic fibrosis patients at Stanford’s Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.
Using her dance background, she taught movement and tap classes, instituted a wheelchair dance therapy program and produced an exercise video for cystic fibrosis patients.
After moving to Placerville in 1996 with her husband and two children, Fiel worked with amputees, those with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and burn patients at Shriner’s Hospital before deciding to open a dance studio to teach jazz, tap, ballet and musical theater.
She also volunteered as choreographer for Imagination Theater, working on many musicals.
Now, she is re-inventing herself again by combining her experience with dance and rehabilitation.
Gentle Exercise opened in February at the newly renovated Smith Flat House. The class employs all of Fiel’s favorite things — pilates, yoga, ballet and jazz — to strengthen, tone, build bone density, balance and flexibility for people who are recovering from injury, people getting back into exercise after giving birth and for those who want a great but gentle workout designed to keep people from injury.
“I always ask when someone starts, if they’ve had an injury, and then I tailor the stretch for them,” said Fiel.
She plans to offer classes for those with arthritis as well.
When the women enter the upstairs studio, their sneakers come off and the ballet shoes go on. After a half hour at the barre, they do yoga and use light weights for standing exercise and then move onto yoga mats where they do additional exercise using stretch bands.
Each class ends with a deep relaxation guided imagery.
“This is their favorite part,” joked Fiel. “It’s been fun to watch their improvement — and it’s only been two months.Ballet barre work is the best workout I’ve found for your whole body. Much of what we do is like physical therapy.”
“I’ve known Paula for about 14 years as a dance teacher, when she taught my son. Now it’s my turn,” said Beckie Gallaway, one of the class participants as Fiel walks around the room, modifying movements for some and intensifying them for others.
Nancy Summers of Camino said she took ballet as child and loved it.
“Barre work is such a nice way to stretch and tone,” Summers said.
Diana Stauffer of Placerville enjoys the small class size and not being pressured, while Shirley Himes said, “Paula gives us a good stretch without hurting my back.”
Gentle Exercise is held from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at the Smith Flat House, 2021 Smith Flat Road in Placerville, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The cost is $12 per class or $78 a month.
Call Fiel at 530-409-2861 to sign up or for more information.