With claims of high- pressure pitches lodged by women who spent large sums on lessons, officials open case.
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2002
A Palm Harbor widow's complaint that a dance studio pressured her into spending $257,000 has ballooned into a multiagency investigation of several local studios.
Local and state law enforcement officials have received about 30 complaints from current and former students of the Dance Place and other studios. Investigators are "looking at this as exploitation, rather than as a civil matter," said Pinellas County sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita.
The complaints began after a Jan. 26 St. Petersburg Times story detailed Audrie Jones' complaint against the Dance Place at 550 Main St. in Safety Harbor.
Mrs. Jones, 74, said the studio used flattery and high-pressure sales tactics to get to her to sign those contracts. In 18 days, she spent $257,295. She later stopped payment on two checks totalling $150,000 and filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Office.
"It kind of snowballed on me," she said. "It just wasn't clicking that I was writing these big checks. I don't know why. I just wanted to dance."
Her story prompted others to come forward.
Clearwater lawyer Louis Kwall represents 10 Dance Place customers who say they were manipulated. Several have filed complaints, he said.
"Generally, they say they were pressured into signing up for additional classes that would probably last longer than their lives," Kwall said.
Kwall said his clients spent between $20,000 and $200,000 at Dance Place, which has studios in Safety Harbor and Clearwater. While all of his clients are women, most of them seniors, Kwall said they are a diverse group. They range from 50 to 77. Some are retired. Others are professionals. Some are divorced.
"Some of them spent their life savings on dance lessons," Kwall said.
Michael Pasquarelli, owner of the Dance Place, characterized the people complaining as former students who got what they paid for and now want to "jump on the bandwagon" in hopes of landing a refund.
The investigation, detectives said, involves the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, Florida's attorney general, the Pinellas County Department of Consumer Protection and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, which regulates the dance industry.
Pasquarelli worked at Aragon World Dance Studio in Port Richey in 1991 when charges were filed against the owner. Pasquarelli was not prosecuted, but was called as a witness.
The owner and a manager, David B. "Vic" Andrews, were convicted of fraud and grand theft. Andrews, who served a five-year prison sentence, now works at Dance Place.
Audrie Jones said Andrews drew up the contracts she signed for hundreds of dance lessons, trips, parties and competitions.
Pasquarelli said the studio never pressured anyone to sign contracts. But he knows that people unfamiliar with the dance industry may blanch at what some of his students spend. Some of his students have spent more than $500,000, he said, and many have spent more than $100,000.
And the studio has always provided the services in the contracts, he said.
The studio has brought in 1,000 new students per year over the past two years, he said. If there are a couple of dozen complaints from people who want a refund, he said, that's not bad. The vast majority of students are satisfied, he said.
One of those is Bert Morgan of Palm Harbor, a student at Dance Place for three years.
"People here have always treated me squarely," said Morgan, who said she's in her 70s. She takes lessons there regularly and participates in ballroom dancing competitions, parties and exhibitions.
Asked how much she spends, Morgan replied, "I could've bought a yacht, but a yacht isn't my thing. This is within my means. I am not pressured for money and I enjoy what I do."
As for Audrie Jones, Pasquarelli has said he may have moved her along too quickly.
"I feel we will still work out a refund with her," Pasquarelli said.
Mrs. Jones isn't the only one demanding a refund, he said. Since the article about Dance Place ran, Pasquarelli said, the demand for refunds "has been like a run on the stock market." But the studio is not legally obligated to provide a refund if the student is medically able to fulfill the contract, he said.
Joyce Brassette, one of those who complained to the Sheriff's Office, said even a bona fide medical excuse hasn't gotten her satisfaction. Brassette said she collapsed from an asthma attack at the studio. She provided the studio a note from her doctor who advised she should not continue dancing.
But she said she has yet to receive a refund on her $995 contract. Mrs. Brassette, who lives in a modest mobile home in Clearwater, said that may not seem like a lot of money compared to the money spent by others, but it's a lot of money to her.
-- Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.