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Fifty years is a long time to keep dancing. 

As this milestone anniversary nears at her Academy of Ballet Arts, Artistic Director Suzanne Pomerantzeff remains undimmed. Affectionately known to her students as Ms. P., the 71-year-old arts leader keeps her feet moving forward, and speaks passionately about the lives that dancing has transformed. 

“Part of the philosophy of the school is that I’m teaching a whole child,” she explained from her Kenwood studio’s lobby. “Choreography, combinations, the self-discipline of the body, the commitment, but also kindness, sharing, self-motivation — all of that is a part of being trained.” 

Literally thousands of students have moved along the barre under her guidance during the Academy’s decades-long journey. The institution now serves as home base for the St. Petersburg Ballet Company and the St. Petersburg Folk Ensemble of Russian folk dance. 

Helen Hansen French. Photo: Tom Kramer.

The occasion of ABA’s 50th birthday will be marked with a two-day gala event next year featuring master classes and a performance at The Palladium starring such ABA alumni as Helen Hansen French, Jared Brunson (Complexions Contemporary Ballet), Jalen Williams (Maryland Ballet Theatre), Marquis Floyd (Dance Theatre of Harlem), and many others who are lined up to celebrate five decades of superior dance training. 

“That’s a very long time to be in business, and I intend to be here when we get to 75,” said Ms. P., tilting her long ponytail with a sly smile. “I tell my kids I’m going to be teaching when I’m 195.” 

For a time, it seemed like she might never dance at all. As a child, Suzanne took ill with rheumatic fever. She was confined to bed with painful muscle contractions from age 2 to 6 years, watching a mobile of dancers circle above while getting massages from her mom. When she recovered, Suzanne attended ballet school to learn how to walk, and threw herself vigorously into the task. Her efforts prevented a subsequent spinal defect from crippling her, doctors said. “I did everything as fierce as I could,” she said. “All that stuff the teachers taught, I did it 30,000 times harder than anybody else.” She went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in ballet from the University of Utah, performing with the San Francisco Ballet, Ballet West, Tampa Ballet, and Virginia Ballet. 

When Suzanne came home to Florida from college, there was no classical ballet studio in the St. Pete area, and other dance spaces were shuttered for the slow summer season. Her dad suggested filling the gap by opening an independent studio.

In 1969, Suzanne and ABA co-founder Lester Jacobsen rented their very first space, opening two days a week at the Garden Club on St. Pete’s Sunset Drive. One parent donated $50 to buy them an ad in the then-St. Petersburg Times. They charged $10 a month for admission to once-weekly classes, kicking off with just “two students, one barre, a very old record player and two records,” Suzanne said.

“We made our own costumes, our own masks, our own sets,” she said. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve earned through our hard work.”

“I tell my kids I’m going to be teaching when I’m 195!”

Photo: Tom Kramer.

The grassroots operation received a few city and state arts grants, but never depended on them. Everything Suzanne earned went back into the business. She supported herself teaching at Gibbs High School (and its arts magnet, Pinellas County Center for the Arts) until retiring from there five years ago after developing the dance department. During that time she did not draw a salary for any of her Academy classes or choreography.

“Every penny counted for something,” she said. “Everybody went without paychecks at first, to make sure we could make the rent.” She got students of all skill levels engaged in real shows with distinct roles, rather than recitals where each dancer performs the same steps. This honed professional skills, as they presented audience-friendly numbers in Pinellas County schools, retirement centers, hospitals, local museums, and any other venues Ms. P. could book.

“Not one of my kids will ever be turned down for a professional job because they lack performance experience,” she said.

Many dancers attribute their success to working with Ms. P. She nurtures each talent and sees herself taking the stage through her students, who have danced with dozens of prestigious companies, including American Ballet Theatre, Cirque du Soleil, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Kiel Opera Ballet, Riverdance, and San Francisco Ballet.

Her former pupil Calvin Royal III is making history as a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, where he and superstar ballerina Misty Copeland were the first black dancers at ABT to perform a lead couple’s roles (in Harlequinade), while Ephraim Sykes (a 2019 Tony nominee for Ain’t Too Proud…) has danced across dozens of Broadway stages. Many of these protégés keep in touch with Ms. P, sharing good news with her and the Academy as it continues to grow. 

The school relocated four times before settling at its current space in December 2001. The bright, mural-covered building stands out along 1st Avenue North at 29th Street. Roughly 130 students are on the current roster, and everyone gets individualized support.

The going monthly rate for classes is now $60 — still a bargain, and Ms. P. has always kept a generous scholarship policy.

That’s how instructor Daniel Johnson, 29, got the support he needed when first arriving at the studio to train as a boy. On scholarship, he earned his keep taking out trash, cleaning mirrors, sweeping floors, and replacing light bulbs. “I built this studio with my bare hands,” he laughs, pointing out that the help he received was always more than just monetary.

“All the things that people told me I would never be able to do, I did, because Ms. P. stood by my side my whole life, encouraging me,” Daniel said. “When I first started dancing, most people told me, ‘You should look into another profession.’ But [she] encouraged me to keep going.”

Ms. P with Daniel Johnson and Marsha Wilson, former students who are now her fellow teachers. Photo: Tom Kramer.

When Daniel was 12 he studied under Edward Villella at the Miami City Ballet’s summer program. He went on to attend The Boston Conservatory on full scholarship, graduating as a dance major and joining New York’s Nai Ni Chen Company for two years.

Like many former Academy students, he returned to teach and perform after coming home to St. Petersburg. Marsha Wilson, who also studied under Ms. P. on partial scholarship, did the same thing after dancing professionally with Milwaukee Ballet and Southern Ballet Theatre (now known as Orlando Ballet). Marsha began her lessons at age 10, and at 56 she’s now the Academy’s longest-serving instructor. 

“That’s a great telling of what [Suzanne has] given to so many students, that they want to come back,” she said. “In order to develop a dancer you have to get them to a certain point, and then kind of shove them out of the nest and let them fly. But then look at how many have wound up still coming back. They feel like this is home.”

“Thank You, Ms. P!” is the fourth installment in duPont REGISTRY Tampa Bay’s series “How Did We Get Here?” by writer Mitzi Gordon and photographer Tom Kramer, who are charting the Bay area’s creative renaissance by meeting with transformative and inspiring arts leaders whose perspectives shed light on how the region shifted from sleepy suburbs to thriving cultural hub in just a few decades. Previous interviewees included museum curator Lynn Whitelawtheater veterans Rich and Mimi Rice, photographer Herb Snitzer and painter Carol Dameron.

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