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A 96-year-old ballet instructor’s advice? ‘Keep moving’

Miss Pepa Dodge teaches a 55-and-older class at Huntington Academy of Dance.
Miss Pepa Dodge teaches a 55-and-older class Monday afternoon at Huntington Academy of Dance in Huntington Beach.
(Susan Hoffman)
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Adored by her students, a 5-foot-2-inch dynamo instructor of classical ballet and Spanish dance, Miss Pepa Dodge never misses a day of work — even at 96 years old.

“Her continued dedication to her art and her students is an absolute inspiration,” said Director Kimberly McEachern of Huntington Academy of Dance, where the nonagenarian teaches classes in partnership with the Huntington Beach Senior Center in Central Park, and with quite a loyal following. “What is most remarkable is her work ethic, energy level and enthusiasm, especially considering her age. She always arrives at the studio dressed in full ballet attire with a huge smile on her face.”

According to McEachern, nothing stops this woman. “Miss Pepa,” as she is affectionately known, even taught a day after eye surgery, and during the pandemic her husband set up a camera so she could teach her classes on Zoom while her students were in their homes.

“She is so totally devoted to classical ballet and Spanish dance and is such a delightful person, we all adore her,” McEachern said.

Miss Pepa Dodge holds a photo of herself performing dance during the early days of her career.
(Susan Hoffman)

Miss Pepa was 19 years old when she first experienced ballet. “I was taking care of a child and was asked to take her to her ballet class,” Miss Pepa said. “I saw 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds in the class, and within a day I joined the class and then the director got me a scholarship to study in New York.”

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She trained directly with Vincenzo Celli in New York, once a performer and choreographer in Italy. As a teacher of the world-renown Cecchetti method of ballet training in the U.S., Miss Pepa enjoyed a career in which she developed into a respected performing artist with tours in the United States and all over Europe, referred to as a “living legend” among her peers.

Miss Pepa was born in Reggio Calabria, Catona, Italy in 1927 and at 5 years old moved to the U.S., where she lived on a coal barge with her father. After the health department got wind of the inappropriate living conditions for a child, she moved with her father to a friend’s attic in Brooklyn. Her mother passed away around that time, and Miss Pepa said she spent some time in foster care.

Miss Pepa Dodge takes her 55-and-older class through ballet poses.
Miss Pepa Dodge takes her 55-and-older class through ballet poses at Huntington Academy of Dance in Huntington Beach.
(Susan Hoffman)

Terry Lee of Huntington Beach has a 43-year history with her ballet instructor since beginning ballet lessons with Miss Pepa in 1980.

“She’s the most amazing woman I’ve ever met in my life,” said Lee. “Her work ethic is like none other I’ve ever seen. She truly cares about her students.”

Miss Pepa says she wants everybody in the class to do their best. She stresses the importance of maintaining correct body alignment and isn’t shy about making the individual necessary corrections. “She’s hands on, coming over and pulling our shoulders back to be as close as possible to body alignment,” said Lee. “She just never stops and stresses to keep that body moving and continually be active. She’s a true inspiration to me, and it’s been an honor for me to have known her all these years.”

Miss Pepa, who hopes to inspire others, believes the secret to a long life is to “stop eating, keep moving.” She attributes living a long life only with “God’s help.”

“Live a clean life and accept whatever you can and work it through,” she said. “I want people to understand that they have to stop and be grateful for what they have and turn everything around and say, ‘I have been blessed.”

As if she’s not busy enough, Miss Peppa has also taught water aerobics at the YMCA for 47 years and maintains a current schedule of seven classes a week.

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