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Competition has local dance scene hopping

By MARINA BROWN, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001


TAMPA -- The fall launch of the Classical Ballet Training Program enters the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center into the mix of arts venues, public school programs, small local ballet companies and private studios that politely vie for dance students and their parents' dollars.

TAMPA -- The fall launch of the Classical Ballet Training Program enters the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center into the mix of arts venues, public school programs, small local ballet companies and private studios that politely vie for dance students and their parents' dollars.

Many dance students shift frequently from teacher to teacher and studio to studio. A master class, an instructor with scholarship connections or a better performing venue are powerful attractions that strain the allegiances local studios need to stay in business.

"In our impact on local studios, we're always careful to be a good neighbor," says Joyce Wehner, education director at Ruth Eckerd Hall, which is looking to expand its dance offerings to include ballet. But it's not surprising that private studios are watching the performing arts centers' plans with some nervousness.

Cheryl Lee, owner of the Cheryl Lee Dance Studio and director of a youth ballet troupe, reflects the kind of wait-and-see attitude of others in this ever-changing business.

"I'm up for any good ballet in the community," she says. "We'll just see how it works out. Maybe we can call it the next episode in "As the Pointe Shoe Turns.' "

Although both the Mahaffey Theater and Ruth Eckerd Hall have educational programs that are involved in dance instruction, TBPAC's program is the first that could draw top students away from private studio instruction. Ruth Eckerd isn't yet offering ballet; a program loosely affiliated with Mahaffey requires students to take at least two classes a week at their home studio.

Each of the performing arts centers says its mission is to enhance interest in music, theater and dance and provide broad access to performing arts training. The Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg also provides dance instruction to accepted students through the public school system, but students there also generally are enrolled in private instruction.

When Ruth Eckerd Hall's new education building is completed in about 14 months, it will include "an eclectic space, but with a large rehearsal hall in which we may enlarge our dance education mission to include training in ballet and modern," Wehner said.

Currently, local dance instructor Paulette Johnson teaches jazz and hip-hop at Ruth Eckerd to approximately 60 students during the summer. Johnson presents the Chocolate Nutcracker in December as part of Eckerd's Community Arts Program.

At St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, the emphasis is on master classes connected with performances, said Steven Dupre, president of the Mahaffey Theater Foundation.

"One of the foundation's roles is to raise money to bring in guest teachers and sponsor workshops in dance. We presented a master class with Jean-Pierre Bonnefous of the North Carolina Dance Theatre last fall and had a marvelous turnout," he said.

Through a separate corporation, Friends of Dance, a small ballet company called Les Jeunes Danseurs offers a performing venue for youthful dancers from studios throughout the Tampa Bay area. Those dancers are required to take at least two classes a week at their home studio, said Dupre. Cheryl Lee, Dupre's wife, is director of Les Jeunes Danseurs.

For the last 30 years, Judith Lee Johnson, owner of a private studio, has been teaching dance in Pinellas County. A second youth ballet company, the Florida West Ballet, rehearses at her studio twice a week. Until earlier this month, Haydee Gutierrez, director of TBPAC's new program, had taught at Johnson's studio.

Still, "There are plenty of students to go around," Johnson insists. "Each studio provides a little something different."

Yet, she acknowledges that if Gutierrez's program draws on her "15-plus" advanced students, "I could be hit hard."

Josette Manougian, owner of the Tampa Ballet Center, expressed stronger reservations about the new program. Manougian was a student of Gutierrez and later taught at her studio in Tampa, and said she thinks that although her high standards are appropriate for professionals, she can be too verbally harsh to some students.

"Haydee's teaching style can be terribly upsetting to young dancers -- she'd be better off coaching professionals," Manougian says. "Her teaching turns out some phenomenal dancers -- if you can take it." Suzanne Pomerantzeff, director of dance education at Gibbs High School and owner of the Academy of Ballet Arts, a private studio, says she doubts Gutierrez's program will take much business from local studios.

"Haydee is a brilliant teacher; totally focused, yet what she has to offer is for a tiny part of the community. Not every student has the intensity that she will demand."

Pomerantzeff recalls that when the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs started its dance department, "People thought we'd siphon off all the good dancers because PCCA is free. Well, it didn't happen like that.

"High quality lifts your quality. I personally think the whole dance community will profit from a high-caliber, preprofessional program."

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