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Island Profile: Suzette Smith, helping Shelter Island feel good

Suzette Smith, owner of Shelter Island Pilates & Barre has helped quite a few Islanders feel better about their bodies, and for this she has devoted and grateful fans. But as a child, she was an unlikely candidate for careers in dance and fitness.

“I was really clumsy and lanky and my parents were worried about me,” she said.

They decided to sign Suzette up for tap-dancing lessons, even though they couldn’t afford lessons for her sisters and brother.

“At first it didn’t help,” she said, “I was bad. The teacher wanted to take the taps off my shoes because I was off the beat, and my mom marched down there and said, ‘You’re not taking those taps off.’”

The memory of feeling awkward motivates her work today. “Now I know what it is to be comfortable,” she said. “You’re not hiding. You don’t have to be more than you are. That’s a sense of freedom.”

Suzette grew up in Milford, Connecticut where her parents, Pat and Fred Smith, high school sweethearts, raised four kids with Suzette in the middle between older sister Michele, younger sister Robin, and brother Ricky.

Suzette is tight with her family, including her niece and goddaughter Lindsey Shortell, and niece Saron Smith Hardin, who works with Suzette in her business and is, said Suzette, “like a daughter.”

Suzette showed an instinct for entrepreneurism as a child when she walked around her Connecticut neighborhood looking for houses with dirty windows to ask the homeowner if they’d hire her to wash them. She got quite a few takers. “It was my first job,” she remembered. “I saw an opportunity, and I made money.”

The tap-dancing lessons paid off when Suzette got a scholarship in high school to the University of Massachusetts for the summer to study dance. “It was very exciting to be among dancers,” she said. “A big adventure, and it lit my fire.”

She graduated from Central Connecticut College with a degree in marketing, but quickly realized she wouldn’t be happy unless she could figure out a way to make dancing her livelihood.

Suzette began to study seriously, working with Lee Lund, a former Broadway dancer from “Cats” who had a studio in Milford. The 80s were the days of “Flashdance,” a heady time in the dance world. “We were having super fun,” Suzette said. She moved to New York, continued to train as a lyrical jazz dancer and worked hard to make a career, landing a job performing with a musical theater troupe called A La Carte, at a supper club in Oslo, Norway.

One of only two Americans in the troupe, Suzette spent two years doing television appearances and cabaret at a time when supper clubs, not to mention Americans, were considered a little out of the ordinary by Norwegians. “It was very exciting,” she said.

With New York as her base, she continued to dance, and soon landed another job in Porto, Portugal where she spent two years. Next, she started a ballroom dance company, Sophisticated Steps, offering dance instruction to wedding couples, and teaching swing dances and the lambada at parties.

When she volunteered to teach dance in a program for at-risk children in Manhattan, her work got noticed, and she was hired by a New York City Public School located in the same building to teach dance to elementary students, leading to her second career — teaching.

Suzette got a Masters from Cambridge College in Education, and went on to teach dance and choreography at the Professional Performing Arts School. During her 12 years teaching in New York City schools she worked with City Center to connect New York public school students with high quality professional dance, and won an award for choreography.

Suzette had just started teaching dance at the Professional Performing Arts School, when her mother called to say that she had discovered a lump in her breast, had it checked out, and was O.K.. Suzette immediately examined herself and found a lump in her own breast. Unlike her mother, Suzette discovered she had a cancer that required surgery and multiple sessions of radiation.

“It woke me up to my spiritual side,” she said. “I was 38. It made me take a look at what I value.”
Suzette began to reexamine the trajectory of her life. She learned about food and nutrition and about Reiki, a form of alternative medicine. “I learned that it’s hard to be happy if you don’t have your health – for me, impossible,” she said.

In 1990, Suzette had taken advantage of the break in the school calendar to work as a waitress for the summer at The Chequit, her first experience of Shelter Island. Eleven years later, she was a cancer survivor, struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, and shaken by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She decided to take a year off from teaching in New York and go back to Shelter Island. She’s lived here ever since.

Eventually, she found a house to rent on Hedges Road with enough space for mat classes and recreated herself as a business owner focused on fitness and wellness. As she did with her first two careers, Suzette got training; Pilates at the Kane School of Core Integration, as a booty barre Plus instructor, in Reiki and Transformational Breath practice, and in Zumba and Nia dance instruction. In 2004, she established Shelter Island Pilates.

Active in the Shelter Island Chamber of Commerce, for four years Suzette has helped organize the Christmas tree lighting. She’s also done the warm-up for the June 10K and October 5K runs.

She discovered that long-term rentals on Shelter Island are hard to come by, forced to move five times in her 15 years on the Island. “Buying a home was my biggest dream come true,” she said.

Finding affordable housing is still a big problem for her as a business owner, since her employees face the same housing problems she had before she found a house she could buy.

Suzette recently hosted a family reunion in her new place. “Shelter Island is home for me,” she said. “My parents retired and they sold our house, and we all scattered, so it’s really nice to have a home.”

Now, the awkward girl who couldn’t get her taps straight helps people get in tune with their bodies in two studios on the Island, and her Pilates and barre classes are popular year-round. “The work helped me relax, to express who I am,” she said. “People wanted to listen to what I have to say.”

Lightning Round

Favorite place on Shelter Island? My home.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? The Algarve, Portugal.

When was the last time you were elated?  When I could finally buy a house here after having to move so many times.

What exasperates you? Waiting in line.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The day we light the Christmas tree.