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'Dancing makes me fearless'

Charlotte Johnson survived intolerance and a severe concussion. She's now headed to Juilliard.

[Times photo: Krystal Kinnunen]
Charlotte Johnson, 18, stretches with her children's ballet class at the New Place in Tampa's Ybor City. Charlotte received a $27,000 scholarship from New York's Juilliard performing arts school, which will cover her tuition and housing for the next year.

By CHAUNDRA PERKINS
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 26, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Charlotte Johnson let her right leg sail and her fellow ballerina did the same. For a moment, there was symmetry.

Then her partner's foot collided with Charlotte's right temple. She collapsed, unconscious.

When she awoke, she was surrounded by people. "I couldn't talk or move my right arm," Charlotte said. "I have never not been able to talk."

She remembers her friends crying.

"That was the scariest thing," said Suzanne Pomerantzeff, one of her dance teachers. "I felt like that was my own child laying there."

Charlotte, 18, suffered a concussion and would need physical therapy to realign her posture.

Her movements were out of synch. Her neck muscles weakened by whiplash, Charlotte's head tilted to one side. A month went by without dancing.

When she could work out again, Charlotte had only two weeks to prepare for an audition for Juilliard, the renowned school of the arts in New York City.

"Two weeks is really not enough time to get ready," she said.

Charlotte's late uncle Edward saw in his niece, then 7 years old, a gift for movement. He was a dancer and he took Charlotte to see his friend Pomerantzeff, who runs the Academy of Ballet Arts in St. Petersburg.

"You could tell by the end of the first class," Pomerantzeff said. "She was the first little one I had who explored the floor."

Most children like to jump and be in the air, but Charlotte trailed her scarf along the floor.

Charlotte's family -- mom Debbie, two older siblings and two younger siblings -- could not afford the training, but Pomerantzeff gave the Childs Park resident a scholarship.

"She would always stand out in the snow scene," Debbie Johnson said. "Look at that little black swan up there. That's my little black swan."

Pomerantzeff said of Charlotte's mother: "She believed in her artistic ability without even understanding it. I think it takes a strong person to do that."

Ms. Johnson admitted: "I was ignorant to the arts. I let them do the dance part and I just do the getting-her-there part," time-consuming for a working single parent.

Charlotte and her mother also remember prejudice -- from her classmates and family.

[Times photo: Krystal Kinnunen]
Charlotte teaches ballet moves to Roberto Cezair, 8, at her class in the New Place. Roberto's father, Doughtrill Cezair, said the class helped his son release energy.

Mother watched daughter in class: "They would be in a huddle and she would be just standing there by herself," she said.

Charlotte said the other parents would look at her strangely and that some of the girls in her ballet class would ignore her if they saw her at school. "I figure if they have a problem with me, that's their problem, not mine."

Relatives, doubtful of dance as an aspiration, questioned Charlotte's choice. When she was in middle school, her aunts would ask, "You still doing that? Black people don't do ballet."

Her athletic father, Nathaniel Johnson, would suggest that "You can be a superstar running track," Charlotte said.

The lack of support hurt her self-confidence, but she held her ground.

"I want to do this," she would say. As she remembered, a broad smile was punctuated by a dimple in her left cheek.

"She enjoyed it and she stuck with it," said her mother. "It has paid off."

Charlotte attended the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.

Students in the program receive traditional education as well as instruction in their specified area of artistic study. Johnson said she would attend four academic classes and three PCCA classes each day.

Many of her peers quit.

"They felt like it was too much dancing," she said.

Others were dismissed for not maintaining adequate grade point averages. PCCA requires a minimum 3.0 and a 2.5 for academic courses.

Charlotte said the program was strenuous. After a day of classes, rehearsals would run until 9 p.m. and later.

At PCCA, she studied different dance forms, such as jazz, folk and character, but she found herself in modern.

"I don't know why," she said, "but modern just looks good on my body."

Charlotte stands 5 feet 9 inches and her mahogany skin accentuates her athletic muscularity.

In the summer of 1999, Johnson received a fellowship to participate in a six-week dance program at New York's Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.

"At first, I thought, 'what mother in her right mind would send her child to roam around for the summer?' " said Ms. Johnson.

After some thought, however, she found a family member to take Charlotte in so she could attend. "I haven't been a lot of places or seen a lot of things," Ms. Johnson said. She didn't want her daughter to be as sheltered.

Charlotte returned to New York in the summer of 2001 with another Alvin Ailey fellowship. She placed third in a national competition with a modern dance solo, "Sweet in the Morning."

During her senior year at Gibbs, she began teaching ballet to young children at the New Place in Tampa's Ybor City.

Doughtrill Cezair brings his three oldest children to Charlotte's classes.

For his eldest Roberto, 8, Cezair said the class has been a godsend. It helps his son release excess energy.

Charlotte also picked up a weekend job at Kash n' Karry. Balancing it all was overwhelming, she said, "But if you really want it, you gotta do it."

The rehearsal for PCCA's fall semester performance was a Saturday night after work, Dec. 1. With the concussion and subsequent therapy, Charlotte couldn't dance until January.

She worked with her physical therapist and started participating in the lower-level classes at school to regain her strength.

The audition, Jan. 20 at the high school, consisted of a ballet and modern class to observe the applicant's technical skills, then a solo to exhibit performance skills.

Charlotte was the only PCCA student to audition. She figured she had nothing to lose.

"Dancing makes me fearless," she said.

She performed a modern piece taught to her by a French choreographer during her time at Alvin Ailey. "I didn't think I did too well," Charlotte said, "but I guess they did."

Mary Gray, associate dean of admissions at Juilliard, said the school has an applicant pool from all over the world. Charlotte was competing against about 400 other dancers.

Juilliard called Charlotte in late March: She would receive a $27,000 scholarship to cover her tuition and housing for the year.

"A scholarship of that magnitude is not common," Gray said. "Of the 700 students at Juilliard, fewer than 20 have that scholarship."

Charlotte is working this summer to save for living expenses at school. She leaves for New York Sunday.

"I'm happy for her, but I'm worried as well because of the times that we're living in. But I'm sending her in the name of Jesus," her mother said. "As Americans we cannot live in fear, and I don't have an alternative to offer her if she doesn't go."

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