Carol Paumgarten, ‘Den Mother’ to a Dance Scene, Dies at 76

Carol Paumgarten, the co-founder and longtime artistic director of Steps on Broadway, a dance studio that became a sweaty New York institution that indiscriminately welcomes elite ballerinas, children in leotards and everyday New Yorkers with “Flashdance” fantasies, died on Sept. 24 at a hospital in Glen Cove, N.Y. She was 76.

Her son, Nicholas Paumgarten Jr., said the cause was complications of neurosarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease.

In 1979, in a darker and harsher New York, Ms. Paumgarten opened Steps as a dingy one-room studio and as something of a one-woman show: She handled everything from cleaning its bathrooms to managing its payroll.

She went on to nurture three generations of New York dancers, becoming an instantly recognizable presence with her long silver hair and stylish black outfits as she presided over roomfuls of bodies in motion.

Today, with 11 studios and a revered faculty in a three-story space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Steps is an internationally renowned mecca in the dance world, drawing — until the pandemic lockdown started in the spring — more than 3,000 dancers through its doors every week.

Stars of the dance world like Misty Copeland, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Julie Kent have all trained in front of the mirrors and barres at Steps. So has Madonna. But Ms. Paumgarten strove to make sure that it was equally a haven for everyday New Yorkers who just wanted to dance.

“I think there is a huge misconception that there’s not a place for everyone at a dance school of this nature,” she said in an interview for the website 6sqft in 2015. “Everyone has a place here.”

In another interview, she said, “We have dancers over 40, over 50, over 60, and I do believe over 70, and they do a damn good job.”

Nancy Bielski, who has taught ballet at Steps for 25 years, said it was Ms. Paumgarten who “started the idea of a studio that is open to professional dancers as well as people who love to dance.”

“This approach is looked down upon by some professional schools,” she added, “but Carol never cared about what they thought. They’d call it a generic approach, in an insulting way, but here you can see the greatest ballerina in the world dancing next to your mailman.”

Carol Marshall was born on June 11, 1944, just outside Philadelphia, in Bryn Mawr Hospital, and grew up in nearby Wayne, Pa. She was the middle child of Frederick and Pauline (Foraker) Marshall. Her father owned a factory that produced the vinyl bricks used to make phonograph records; her mother was a homemaker.

Ms. Paumgarten attended Westover, an all-girls boarding school in Middlebury, Conn., and graduated in 1968 from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in art history.

She loved movement, and what the human body is capable of, from the start. As a teenager she was a competitive figure skater, and she played in the junior tennis nationals, representing Philadelphia, when she was 13. When her Aunt Julie took her to see Broadway musicals, she was dazzled.

In 1966 she married Nicholas Biddle Paumgarten, who became an investment banker and later a managing director of J.P. Morgan & Company, and they moved to Manhattan. There, at 27, Ms. Paumgarten took a class at the Alvin Ailey dance school and became smitten with dance.

“It’s a whole way of being,” she told 6sqft. “I think it’s a way of seeing things.”

Ms. Paumgarten founded Steps, originally on West 56th Street and Broadway, with Patrice Soriero, a jazz choreographer. The studio moved to what became its three-story space in 1984. Directly above the flagship Fairway Market at 74th Street and Broadway and reachable by a creaky elevator, Steps became a colorful addition to the culturally rich Upper West Side, with storied landmarks like the Beacon Theater and the Ansonia apartment building nearby.

In its new, roomier location, Steps expanded, introducing children’s programs, lectures, scholarships and disciplines like tap dance and musical theater.

The 1980s were also a time when Ms. Paumgarten witnessed firsthand the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the city’s dance community.

She and her husband bought out Ms. Soriero’s share of the business in the 1990s. Last year, Ms. Paumgarten’s contributions to dance were acknowledged by the Chita Rivera Awards, which recognize excellence in dance and choreography. In a text message, Ms. Copeland called Steps a “dance community staple” that offers dancers “a sense of community, support, love, and unbelievable opportunity.”

In addition to her son Nicholas, a staff writer for The New Yorker, Ms. Paumgarten is survived by her husband; another son, Alexander; two sisters, Bundy Casella and Pauline San Roman; and four grandchildren. She lived in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

Ms. Paumgarten began developing a debilitating inflammatory disease about five years ago, and she gradually pulled away from the day-to-day management of Steps. As the pandemic gripped New York in the spring, she contracted the coronavirus but soon recovered, her son Nicholas said.

Steps has been closed since March, but its instructors are teaching virtual classes, called “Virtual Steps,” from the studio.

Nicholas Paumgarten Jr. said that as his mother followed the news of the pandemic from her hospital bed on Long Island, she didn’t seem worried about her dance studio’s future.

“Never in a million years did she think Steps wouldn’t continue forever,” he said. “She was an optimist, and she was a big believer in New York.” He added: “She became a den mother to this great and crazy New York circus. The typical dance impresario is a tyrant at best. She was just the opposite.”