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Pointe of perfection

Josette Manougian's dance school offers ''serious classical ballet training.'' Her critiques are gentle, but her standards are tough.

By KEITH BLOUIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003


[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Josette Manougian leads a class in advanced ballet at Tampa Ballet Center. In the background are Karla Ledoux-Coton, left, and Nicki Spencer, right.
VIRGINIA PARK -- Behind a plain storefront with a green- and white-striped metal awning, five of Josette Manougian's adult students are sweating to get it right.

For Manougian, teacher of classical ballet and director of the Tampa Ballet Center, that means using the correct dance technique and showing proper alignment of the body -- legs, feet, shoulders, head, arms and hands.

It's her way of creating a sense of beauty in South Tampa.

"Let's do it again," says Manougian as she restarts the tape player. "Try this, and if you're having a hard time with it, too bad. All the steps are easy and you just have to put them together."

The women, in their 40s and 50s, most of them wearing black leotards, their heads held high and their hair pulled back, pick up where they left off during the two-hour Tuesday morning workout. They've all had previous ballet training and are enrolled in an intermediate-advanced class.

"You're off the music," Manougian tells one of them. "Up on the count. You can't go down on the count. Point your foot."

Manougian demonstrates what she means. She's wearing a black, fringed dress that hits the knees and pink ballet slippers. Her bobbed red hair bounces as she steps and glides over the worn wooden floor, and her brown eyes light up her face as she smiles.

"Smile a lot," she instructs them. "It helps."

The women catch their breath as they watch her move and listen to her gentle critiques, delivered as a smooth blend of English instruction and French ballet terms. They show utter concentration as they catch the note and begin to cross the mirrored room -- first two together, then the remaining three together -- in a series of elaborate ballet moves.

"This is serious classical ballet training," says one of Manougian's adult stars, Karla Ledoux-Coton. "It's for people who want to become proficient classical ballerinas and for those who want to be professional ballerinas."

Manougian has about 70 students of varying ages taking classes at the modest studio at 4219 W Bay to Bay Blvd. Dancers like Ledoux-Coton may train five days a week, others only once. The monthly cost for classes ranges from $70 for one class weekly to $160 for five classes weekly.

She accepts dancers no younger than 7 -- "unless I make an exception," as she did with 11-year-old Bianca Lopez-Isa, now pointe, "who looked at me with her button eyes."

She does not audition her students. She admits that many quickly leave her school because either they don't love ballet or they're not up to the work.

Dancers enter the studio through an alley running between the one-story building and an adjacent hardware store. A small courtyard in back with palms, bromeliads, bougainvillea, crotons and a rose bush provides a transition from the world of traffic and commerce.

Just inside the 900-square-foot space is a small vestibule with a desk and well-worn chairs, decorated with mirrors, prints of paintings by Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet and a single travel poster featuring a ballerina. Near the back door, someone painted a cascade of pink and blue flowers descending the stark white concrete block walls. Behind the wall toward the street is the dance room, the barre on one side, full-length mirrors on the other.

Manougian, 65, stands straight against the barre. She slouches to illustrate the indifferent posture of lackadaisical students, the ones who don't last long with her. She has not danced professionally. In fact, she did not begin to study ballet until she was 31.

A native of France, she came to Tampa 34 years ago with her husband, Manoug Manougian, a professor of mathematics at the University of South Florida.

"I was a bored housewife," she explains with only the slightest accent, "but I was very energetic."

She tried swimming in hopes of working with marine animals but found herself drawn to ballet. She studied with Haydee Gutierrez, then the Ballet Mistress at USF, and now the director of the classical ballet training program at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Manougian taught with Gutierrez for many years at the Classical Ballet Center of Tampa, leaving to start a ballet school for inner-city youths. Later she taught at the Tampa Ballet Company.

"I got tired of working for other people," she says. "This place was available for rent and I rented it, and now it is my eighth year here. I do exactly what I want."

Nicki Spencer practices on the barre with other members of the advanced ballet technique class on a recent Tuesday evening at Tampa Ballet Center.
What she wants includes an annual spring concert featuring the most accomplished dancers, rather than a recital featuring everyone, particularly neophytes. ("I never use the little ones unless I need munchkins.") She casts her students as she likes and cares less about body size, height and proportion than about having a good dancer perform. She adds, "I always stage things that are classic. It's much better than my crummy choreography."

Some of the dancers who train at the Tampa Ballet Center have danced professionally, including Robin Pollara and Ryan Bogart, who has his own ballet school in Citrus County. Ledoux-Coton, a Tampa neurologist, studied at the New York City Ballet and, at one point, considered a professional career. Other students started later in life and simply enjoy dancing and performing.

Among the center's aspiring dancers are Jackie King and Meredith Anderson, both students at Plant High School. King attended a ballet camp last year at the California University of Pennsylvania. Anderson attended camp at the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Manougian is glad to see her younger dancers go off to college where they may continue to dance seriously, but she says she doesn't encourage professional dancing. She figures those who are most serious will dance in spite of anything she or their parents tell them. Lately, she's been happy to see several former students follow Ledoux-Coton's example and study academics while continuing to dance.

By late fall, Manougian already had been rehearsing the big numbers for her spring show, and that meant extra days of dancing for the performers. Many spent the Christmas season performing in a variety of Nutcrackers.

But no one's complaining.

Ledoux-Coton and Pollara, who works for a software company in Tampa, train extensively, perform each spring and also help out with the show's staging and logistics. One year when Manougian was ill, they kept the studio in business for five months, teaching classes, paying bills and cleaning up.

Even young dancer Lopez-Isa would rather rehearse for an upcoming show than go out with friends, say, on a sailing trip. Her mother, Alba Lopez-Isa, praises Manougian for giving her daughter such a good foundation in ballet and for making her strong.

"Dancing," she says of Bianca, "is all she wants to do."

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