Dance studio gives a kick to his café


Yasha Michelson, co-founder of Paper or Plastik Cafe in Mid-City, is not a typical café owner. And his café is not typical either.  

Michelson teaches dance and shops around town for the most exquisite coffee beans he can find. His business now combines those two passions.

Seven years ago, Michelson and his wife, Anya, turned an abandoned printing shop at Pico Boulevard and Ogden Drive into a coffeehouse and restaurant with an adjacent dance studio they rented out to other dance teachers. Now, he is taking his business to another level by teaching dance classes there, which he hopes will help attract more customers to drink and eat breakfast, lunch or dinner at the café.

“The café is a magnifying glass into my studio,” Michelson, 59, said. Many customers come to buy a cup of coffee but end up enrolling in one of his dance classes, which combine dance, meditation and pantomime, he explained. And, quite literally, the café’s mezzanine is lined with windows that overlook the studio. 

In 1973, Michelson was 16 years old when he and his family moved from his native Sukhumi, Georgia, to Israel, part of the mass emigration of Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. In Israel, he served in the army, graduated from university and studied martial arts. He married and has three children. During that time, he also developed a passion for teaching and dance. But instead of following his dream, Michelson decided to launch a business to support the family. He and his wife started a clothing line and boutique store called “Hannah M.” 

Anya Michelson, now 58, was born in Kishinev, Moldova, and was 18 years old when her family moved to Israel. She earned a bachelor’s degree in contemporary literature but found a passion for designing clothes. 

The work brought them to a fashion show in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago, and the couple fell in love with the city. After returning to Israel, they decided to sell their business and try their luck in the U.S.

In the following years, Michelson tried to parlay different hobbies into careers, juggling theater, photography and production of feature films. Finally, he decided to follow his dream of opening a dance studio.

It took him a while to find a perfect spot. In 2007, Michelson walked into the former printing shop warehouse in Mid-City and could envision a future dance hub there.The sprawling and high-ceilinged studio had an adjacent area with a loft. When Michelson showed the space to Anya, it didn’t take the two coffee lovers long to realize that the adjoining space could make a perfect café. 

The couple recycled equipment and furniture left from the printing shop, turning them into mismatched chairs, tables and wooden benches.

“We didn’t think about creating a profitable business,” Michelson said. “We just wanted to create a piece of art.”

The name for the coffeehouse came when Michelson was in a line at a grocery store and a cashier asked him what kind of bag he wanted. “What a beautiful name for a coffee shop,” he said. Michelson later altered the spelling of one word, using “plastik” instead of “plastic” since it seemed “cooler” and would attract attention, he said.   

Besides coffees, Paper or Plastik sells omelets, sandwiches, salads, full dinner entrees, beer and wine; some of its baked goods are produced on the premises and others are bought from family-owned bakeries elsewhere. Since its opening in 2010, sales have grown 200 percent, Michelson said. The number of part-time and full-time employees has grown from seven to 25 over the last six years and the café attracts a loyal neighborhood following.   

“Everything turned out to be much better than we expected,” said Yasha Michelson, as he sipped a cup of green tea on a recent afternoon. “Our main idea was not to be like anyone else, so we improvised and allowed our imagination to lead us.”

And Michelson’s imagination took him to create the dance studio, which he named Mimoda, an abbreviation for mime and dance. 

On a mid-December evening, Michelson stood in front of a small audience in the studio. Dressed in black slacks and black sweater over a white shirt, he put his right foot forward and paused, drawing a circle with his arms. A group of several dancers mimicked his moves. 

And on the other side of the wall, baristas were grinding coffee beans and brewing tea.

On weekdays, the Mimoda studio rents space to instructors who teach ballet, yoga and acting classes. Michelson teaches free dance classes two times a week and hosts free live music concerts on Wednesdays.

A few years ago, Michelson created Jazzo, a form of physical meditation that could be used by dancers regardless of their physical training to find their personal dance style, stay fit and release stress.

“When people dance in a group, they are connected with each other,” Michelson said. “When people dance, they don’t think about killing their neighbor.”

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