Paige Larson is seeing tiny fingerprints on the window of her new studio in West Duluth, seemingly the curious peeks of tiny humans interested in what is going on inside the building.

Rightly so.

The space at 5815 Grand Ave., an iconic West Duluth spot with the signage of its past life still visible, hasn’t been active for about 20 years — until now. She and her husband, Aaron Larson, have converted the former Danish Bakery & Deli into Raise the Barre, a classical ballet studio for students age 3 and older. The focus is inclusivity — whether that means flexibility for students uncomfortable in traditional ballet attire, or offering a spot on the sprung floor for a dabbler who also plays soccer.

Her school's motto: "Ballet is for every body."

"Classical ballet is still classical ballet," she said. "There are traditions. Some traditions can be bent a little bit."

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The uniform policy is flexible and movements specific to boys or to girls do not have to be in this studio.

Raise the Barre will begin offering lessons Sept. 7 and Larson is hosting an open house from 4-7 p.m. Aug. 26 at the studio.

Ballet instructor Paige Kohler Larson talks with visitors in her studio Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Ballet instructor Paige Kohler Larson talks with visitors in her studio Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Connection to the past

Bold black letters bisect the grey building, a nod to its past life as Danish Bakery & Deli — though the business closed in 2001. It’s one people still talk about. In early August, when it rained during the Spirit Valley Days parade, Larson said people gathered under the awning and reminisced about it.

“I’ve been trying to find photos of what it looked like,” she said on a recent tour of the one-room studio.

The Danish Bakery opened in 1954 and was described as a “community fixture” when it closed in 2001 because of then-owner Denny Swanson’s health concerns. In a story about the bakery’s final days, it was painted as a place with a steady stream of customers — some who might rap on the glass door for a pastry before the shop even opened for the day.

One clerk admitted to setting aside glazed doughnuts for regular customers who hadn’t made it in yet.

Meanwhile, in Spooner

Around the time the Danish Bakery & Deli was closing, Larson was a high school student in Spooner, Wisconsin, taking over ownership of the local school — the one where she first learned to dance — with her older sister.

By the time she was 12, she was making daily trips to Duluth to attend the School of the Minnesota Ballet. She danced summer intensives at Joffrey New York and Midwest, Boston Ballet and North Carolina School for the Arts.

She was hired by the American National Ballet under artistic director Armondo Maldonado during a heady four-year period when Duluth had two professional companies.

In the mid-2000s, Larson was in a car accident that severely damaged the muscles in her neck and back and ended her professional career. She shifted to musical theater productions, like the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Cats,” “White Christmas,” and “Chicago.”

Supplies to help young dancers sit on a shelf at Raise the Barre Ballet Studio on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Supplies to help young dancers sit on a shelf at Raise the Barre Ballet Studio on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“It was a hard transition — being a strict ballerina type, and then going to musical theater,” she told the News Tribune in 2012, while in rehearsals for “A Chorus Line,” where she was in the role of Sheila — a dancer who knows her professional career is winding down and wonders what’s next — opening a studio?

Peter Froehlingsdorf met Larson when they were both in a local production of "Pippin." Most recently, he brought her in to create choreography for Duluth East's fall musical "Freaky Friday," which opens Halloween weekend.

"Paige is super inclusive and willing to work with anybody and everybody, regardless of dance experience," he said. "She's super creative, her ideas are fresh, and she develops a rapport with students really quickly. And she really cares about the health and safety of dancers."

Raise the Barre

In recent years, Larson taught at the School of the Minnesota Ballet where she is known as Ms. Paige, with her collection of small cones, ribbons, wands and a small plush cow that serves as an audience for tiny dancers.

“One of her specialties is the little, little kids,” said Amber Burns, who has worked with Larson in theater productions for the past decade. “She has a program that she designed herself that she is using that has all sorts of toys in it. The kids are interested in it and they’re learning.”

Here, in her own space, those props are proudly displayed at the forefront in white square cubbies fit with red bins.

Ballet instructor Paige Kohler Larson at her studio Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Ballet instructor Paige Kohler Larson at her studio Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Larson said that through the pandemic, and teaching classes either via Zoom or with masked kiddos, she has come to realize that this is really what she is meant to do. Her husband was adamant, she said, that she start her own studio.

"I just needed to have my own space," she said. "I could tell there was a void in this town for classical ballet. Otherwise, it's all competition (dance).

Larson said she is looking forward to making her own schedule, meeting students and parents, designing her syllabus. Plus, she admitted: "I love spreadsheets."

Larson moved into the new space in May. In mid-July she installed the Harlequin sprung floors with marley surface, moveable barres, and a logo wall that looks like a great place for a selfie.

Earlier this week she was waiting on one thing: her mirrors, which will be moveable.

Information

What: Raise the Barre ballet studio

Where: 5815 Grand Ave., Duluth

Open house: 4-7 p.m. Aug. 26

Classes start: Sept. 7

Online: raisethebarreduluth.com