HOBBS, N.M. — The story can be seen in the floor.
Dozens of perfect circles line the outer walls at Maciolek School of Dance, worn into the wooden floor.
They mark the dreams and all the lives who have stepped onto the floor, and then tapped, jazzed and plie'd their way into adulthood.
But as of last Friday, the floor had a big chapter come to an end. After 50 years of instructing thousands of girls and boys, Maciolek School of Dance is closing.
And Karen Salb is retiring.
Just how many students have graced her studio doors? Hard to say. But more than likely 20,000. Perhaps even 30,000. Salb never really kept track of it that way.
Salb's 50-year journey in Hobbs began in 1970 when she was still a dance student at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. Needing income to support herself, the opportunity to teach dance in Hobbs came up. So she commuted. Going to college in Portales in the morning, teaching dance in Hobbs in the evening and then driving back to Portales late evenings.
"I came down here and I had probably 25 students," she said.
She married the love her life, Tom, the same year. Eventually, they relocated to Lubbock so Tom could pursue his masters. She continued the commute.
As the number of dancers grew, Salb and her husband realized Hobbs was a good business opportunity and a way to continue her passion. So, they built the studio now sitting at 1849 N. Jefferson Street in 1978.
Her studio is known for three large annual productions.
In the beginning, it was the spring recitals. That grew from just one day performances to recital performances that happen over several days as the number the girls and boys wanted to take dance grew most every year.
"My first recital I probably had ten people in the audience," Salb said. "We now have thousands."
The Nutcracker Suite show began in 1992. For several years prior, the studio's dance students teamed up with a traveling tour of the Nutcracker out of Albuquerque. When that came to end, she adapted the story line and did her own production. Again, it started small but eventually grew to four performances, often with four different lead dancers in the main parts for each night's performance.
In 2004, she added the Irish Festival. Salb's daughter Tes had been a dancer in her mom's studio for all her years growing up. After high school, Tes attended Notre Dame and continued to take dance lessons. One of her teachers introduced Tes to Irish tap. Tes insisted her mother learn from her the dance style as well — mother was now the student and the daughter was the teacher. Salb took what she learned, brought it back to the studio and began with just a handful of students. And again, the enthusiasm for the dance style grew, the number of people taking Irish tap grew and so did the show's production.
Salb's resume is not confined to just her dance studio productions. She has choreographed more than 30 musicals. Thus, many people never involved with her studio have seen her work at some point.
For years, she helped choreograph musicals at the then College of the Southwest. Shows like "Dream Girls," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Hello Dolly" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat." She choreographed shows at Hobbs High School — "West Side Story," "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Annie Get Your Gun." She's choreographed shows at New Mexico Junior College and the Community Playhouse — "The Macado," "Guys and Dolls," "Beauty and the Beast," "Jekyll and Hyde," "Wizard of Oz," "Pump Boys and the Dinettes," "Nunsense" and "Addam's Family Musical."
"I loved choreographing for Glynese Floyd. And I loved choreographing for the high school and the Playhouse," she said.
She was born Karen Maciolek in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and moved to Albuquerque in 1954 when her father took a position with Sandia Corporation. The oldest of five children Karen, began her dancing career with Natalie Krasnoff, a Russian born and trained ballerina. It is her family and her dance instructor Salb said instilled her since of purpose and standards when it comes to dance — and life.
"To be professional is when you are given a task, you're doing it to the best of your ability ... out of respect for the audience and then the audience will give you respect. I learned that from the Russian teacher and I learned that from my parents," Salb said.
She would remain at the Krasnoff School of Fine Arts until graduation from high school gaining experience as a featured dancer with the New Mexico Ballet Guild, Mozart's Fine Arts Club, Albuquerque Light Opera, and Santa Fe Opera.
She also trained in tap and jazz, studying with notable instructors including Judith Pilgrim (Gower Champions dance partner in New York). Grace Doty and Alan Howard from Ballet Rousse de Monte Carlo. Salb participated in ballroom training and competition and earned a Silver and Bronze Medal at the National Ballroom Competition as a high school student.
After graduation from high school, she attended Eastern New Mexico University majoring in physical education and minoring in dance. And in 1968 she represented Portales in the Miss New Mexico Pageant, which she won and then she represented New Mexico in the Miss America Pageant and received the Miss Congeniality Award.
Her awards over the years are long and numerous, everything from the N.M. Governor's Award — Outstanding Women in New Mexico in 1998, Joe and Joyce Walker Awards for Outstanding Artist of Lea County in 2014 and the Eastern New Mexico Outstanding Alumni Award in 2019.
Salb runs a tight ship. Dancers are expected to arrive on time. They are expected to be ready for class. Salb knows sometimes people whispered behind her back she was "mean." Other times they would say it to her face. But she said her high sense of respect and responsibility and expecting professional standards are core values she adores about dance. And those same standards are invaluable in life. Being a dancer, being a well rounded, good person, and being self-disciplined are all intertwined.
"A structured program like our program was, it's not about being the best dancer. It is about developing ... into a person who can give back to their community in all different facets, whether it be the arts, whether it be a garbage collector, whether it be the president of a university," Salb said.
"I love that when they leave they become respectful and good human beings no matter where they are," Salb said.
More times than she can remember, parents and students who stuck with her year after year would later tell her how much those standards and expectations made a difference, made them better, even those who initially called her "mean."
She recalls recently a former student who only took a couple of classes many years ago and is now an adult in the medical field. That student stopped dance because she told Salb dance just wasn't for her. Yet, now as an adult, the ripples of Salb's lessons live on in her now as an adult.
"She said to me, 'Everything I learned in dance made me a better person,'" Salb said.
Salb recalls a boy in dance who also participated in rodeo. The first year, the boy's father objected to him being in dance and vowed his son would not be back the next year. But the next year came and the father insisted his son take another year of dance. Seems dance made his son a better cowboy.
"He was one of the top rodeo'ers because he had balance," Salb said smiling.
Yes, the elaborate productions like the Nutcracker are nice but Salb said the simple rewards were just as important. Salb said those little moments of gratitude and knowing she made a difference in thousands of kids lives are satisfying.
"When I started out I just wanted people to see that dance was good for the kids," Salb said. "The studio was a good safe place for children."
While the studio was an outlet for the children, it also is a safe place for parents to bring their kids. Salb witnessed many a parent better themselves as their kids did the same on the dance floor.
"This building holds more than dancers," said Salb, explaining she has seen parents start careers, like nursing, or battle medical issues or bankruptcies as the oil crashed in the 1980s.
Through the years the studio brought in professional dancers, took dance teams to competitions and went traveling, and also provided numerous scholarships for students to take dance or grants to bring in artists to perform for the community.
Salb also passed on the love of dance to her daughter. One of her favorite memories is the time she spent teaching and dancing with her daughter, including Tes' senior year of dancing to the song, "Reach."
"By the time she performed (Reach), I was amazed at her abilities," said Salb, a proud mom and a proud teacher.
THE TIME IS RIGHT
While the name of Maciolek has come down from outside the building, the building will be occupied by the next generation of dancers. One of Salb's students and now teacher, Mika Newey, will reopen the building as owner and artistic director of Studio M School of Dance and Music. Janey Roan, also Salb's former student, will join in as the ballet director.
"Karen has been a huge part of so many people's lives their entire lives, age 3 all the way to adulthood," Newey said. "She leaves a huge legacy behind."
"It is time to hand it off," Salb said of the transition, pleased her passion and standards will live on in Newey and Roan, and hopefully even more students for another generation. "They can do phenomenal stuff. I can be in the audience cheering them on."
Salb is staying in Hobbs. She said she'll keep busy with her hobbies — things like cooking and gardening — as well as helping her husband in his office. She also hopes to take a class or two, maybe even a dance class. She never has not known being active, energetic and enthusiastic.
"I've been dancing since I was 5. I'm 71 now," Salb said.
She also wants to let the public and audiences who purchased thousands of tickets over the years know how grateful she is.
"I just want to thank Hobbs and Lea County for being supportive," Salb said. "I applaud Lea County for becoming the audience that the arts needs here."
But what is she going to miss the most? The answer is not simple. Fifty years hold a lot of memories.
It is one of the few times Salb pauses in telling her story.
The emotions overwhelm for a moment and then she speaks.
"Walking into the building," Salb said, choking back happy tears. "I'm going to miss the kids... Miss the staff... The families."