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Dancing to her own beat

Luisa Meshekoff moved to Tampa when there were few possibilities for dancers and bought a warehouse in an undiscovered section of town.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002


CHANNEL DISTRICT -- Dancer Luisa Meshekoff never expected to live in Tampa.

Culturally, it lacked the zest of New York City, where she was born and raised.

Artistically, it lacked the opportunities for dancers determined to make a living.

Still, it seemed full of possibilities.

Meshekoff moved to Tampa 15 years ago. She had visited while performing at the University of South Florida and was dating a musician who got a job with the Florida Orchestra.

"It appeared a lot more fertile and friendly artistically than it in fact was," she says. "Maybe I like the challenge."

Initially, Meshekoff lived in a condo south of Gandy Boulevard and traveled back and forth to New York for performances and rehearsals. Then, in 1993, her parents sold their building in New York, forcing her to find new studio space.

She was planning to leave Tampa, when a friend told her about a warehouse for sale in the Channel District, a yet undiscovered urban enclave on the edge of downtown. With a little vision, the 16,000-square-feet building would make a functional and creative place for dancing and living.

In 1994, Meshekoff bought the former grocery warehouse on N 12th Street for $200,000. It needed a lot of work, she says. Graffiti covered the walls.

"I was really living in squalor for a while," recalls the slender brunette with a penchant for tools and repair.

"I think renovation is a bad habit."

Meshekoff, now 38, turned most of the first floor into a dance, music and exercise studio, with a mirrored wall, fitness machines and, even, a harpsichord. She made part of the second floor her living space and a middle mezzanine her bedroom.

It was quite an accomplishment. Warehouse living was virtually unknown in Tampa, and she had no model to follow. When it came to the Channel District, she was a pioneer.

The brick warehouse serves as headquarters of the Dance Project, a satellite studio for New York City-based dancers. The nonprofit group was founded in 1992 to help aspiring dancers, coordinate community performances and offer classes in yoga, ballet, tango and modern dance. Meshekoff also rehabilitates injured dancers and athletes using a stretching exercise method known as gyrotonic.

Finding her niche hasn't been easy, she says. Local funding for the arts is limited and, without an executive director, Meshekoff must balance her time between dancing and administrative duties.

"It's been a very difficult road," she says with a sigh.

"I'm chief, cook and bottle washer."

Meshekoff put on her first ballet shoes at age 6. She learned her first steps from a friend in a Bronx school library before classes.

She attended the former Harkness House for Ballet Arts for several years and took to the stage at age 9.

By her late teens, her body started feeling the effects. At 19, she tore her Achilles' tendon, mandating a much-needed rest.

"Ballet is a demand on the body, but it doesn't have to be," says Meshekoff, whose steel calves and flat stomach put most 20-somethings to shame.

While recuperating, Meshekoff met yoga teacher Juliu Horvath and shifted her focus to 18th century and modern dance.

"You do 44 Nutcrackers in a season and you don't want to hear the music again," she says. "I was sugar-plumed out."

Meshekoff joined the New York Baroque Dance Company when she was 20, traveling to performances across Europe. She describes those years as high in adventure and low in pay.

Meshekoff performed with the company for about 10 years, then left to pursue new challenges. She teamed up with John Parks, a dancer and USF faculty member who co-founded the Dance Project, and lined up shows at area venues, including the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Ringling Museum in Sarasota.

Her next show is set for 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the Grand Salon of the University of Tampa. Seating is free. Meshekoff and Erin Zimmerman will perform 18th century Baroque dances for an upcoming Lincoln Center Library documentary.

She hopes the show educates, entertains -- and sparks local interest in dance.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

LUISA MESHEKOFF

  • AGE: 38
  • OCCUPATION: Dancer.
  • HOW SHE PAYS THE BILLS: Giving dance, yoga and rehabilitation classes.
  • HOMETOWN: New York City.
  • RESIDENCE: Two-story, 16,000-square-foot warehouse in the Channel District.
  • FAMILY: Single without children, although, "I think I have birthed this building."
  • COMMUNITY SERVICE: Spaying and neutering alley cats, and finding them homes.
  • PRIVATE EXTERMINATORS: Four males upstairs. Two females on the ground floor.
  • IF NOT A DANCER: Astronomer.
  • HOBBY: Working with tools.
  • MODES OF TRANSPORT: 1979 BMW driven by J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) in the television series, Dallas; 1968 Thunderbird.

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