Suzanne Pomerantzeff, ‘Ms. P’ on Teaching Dance
You can hear the full. . .
conversation on Arts In. . .
Suzanne Pomerantzeff, or Ms. P, is celebrating 50 years of teaching dance at St. Petersburg’s Academy of Ballet Arts. She taught for 25 years at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. Her students have learned to love dance and many have gone on to build professional careers.
Ms. P talked with Barbara St. Clair for the Arts In podcast. Here are some highlights. . .
“In order to be a really good teacher, you have to be passionate about what it is that you’re doing. And I’m passionate about the arts and I’m passionate about dance.
“It’s not like you look at a child and say, ‘Oh, that one’s going to be a professional dancer.’ Because as they train, they reveal themselves. You can see the gift. You can see the sensibility that the arts means something to them — but you don’t know if they’re going to be able to take the steps or the movements or learn the choreography or be musical, as you’re training. And so they become very close to your heart.”
“No one expected me to be a dancer when I was little because I was very ill with rheumatic fever. And was in bed and didn’t know how to walk anymore. Couldn’t step upstairs, but I told the whole world I was going to be a ballerina and I’m sure they thought I was a little nuts. . . I’d never seen a ballet. I just felt inside of me that I had to speak the music.
“I had the perfect little body that looked like a gorgeous dancer on the outside. I had the artistry inside. But my body didn’t work. . . We didn’t know at that point that I was born with a back defect that was going to prevent me from pushing my body where a dancer’s body at that time had to go. And I used to think I would be a better dancer if I could ask questions or if I could talk to my teacher and you didn’t [then].
“So when my own body really undermined me and I became a teacher. I thought to myself, well, I’m going to talk to them and they’re gonna talk to me and we’re gonna find this path going forward.”
On what makes a true dance artist. . .
“I think it’s having the compulsive need to say something about a subject that you can’t use words for. Sometimes it’s saying the joy that a piece of music brings inside of you, that just makes you want to explode with joy or passion but there isn’t words for that. . . And that feeling that you want to move someone else’s heart and soul.”
After injury derailed her career as a performer, Pomerantzeff started the Academy of Ballet Arts with her teacher, Lester Jacobson. She also founded the St. Petersburg Ballet, a student company that performs in the Bay Area.
“When I look back from the age I am now and look back 50 years, that [injury] made it possible for all those kids to dance. What if I had gone to be a professional dancer and the studio didn’t exist and I didn’t exist as a teacher?
“There wasn’t anything professional going on in St. Petersburg, and now there’s hundreds of dancers who didn’t know they were artists when they were little, that are performing.”
Suzanne Pomerantzeff taught at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School for 25 years, from its beginnings. She started as an adjunct teacher in the school’s first year, and then became the Dance department chair.
“It’s kind of like the Fame high school in the famous movie. . . We imagined ourselves dancing on the cafeteria tables — but the school doesn’t have strong cafeteria tables.
“We shaped the program in my personal philosophy as a teacher, that every single student that stands in front of me, I teach them as if they’re going to be professional.
“They have the training that they need to make the choice, and then if they want to go on and be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a mother, a business owner, they also have the discipline and the skill to look to a goal and accomplish it. Every one of the arts teachers had that same philosophy.
“So we were turning out dancers, people wanting to make the long trip to Gibbs at 4:30 in the morning, which is when the buses pick them up if they’re not living in St. Pete. And to work as hard as they need to do and to stay after school, be there on weekends.
“It’s also a test because my feeling is, why go to high school and then go on to college and major in something that you’re not sure you want to do? So in high school, we created that professional atmosphere, that professional expectation with all the academics on top of it. And almost all the kids are in AP or honor classes.”
On why she made sure the Gibbs dancers performed at other schools.
“Because unless somebody exposes you to the arts, you don’t know that you’re in love with it. A kid who sits there and just doodles in his notebook during class doesn’t know that he could possibly be a visual artist unless somebody exposes you to that.”
On the Academy of Ballet Arts’ new adaptive ballet program.
“I’ve always blended my dancers that had special needs into my regular program, and I’d never really thought of having a separate class for them until a grandparent came to me and asked if I would start something special, particularly for Downs syndrome and autistic kids. . . My favorite is a little girl named Caitlyn. She had a disease that hardened her body piece by piece, and when I got her, all she could do was move her eyes and one finger to run her wheelchair. She performed in our Nutcracker. She danced with us, did our summer intensive, challenged my creativity to the limit.
“Dance really is for everybody. I have adult students who always wanted to dance when they were younger and never had a chance, that are doing it now. And one of them asked me the other night, ‘Um, do you think an adult can ever go en pointe?’ I said, why not? We’re not waiting for your bones to mature!
“Why not? It’s the most important thing to me about the arts. All of the arts are for everyone. No matter what you think your natural ability is — which only gets the door open, if you have natural ability — it’s your passion for it.”
Ms. P welcomes young a diversity teachers at the Academy of Ballet, dancers who teach classical ballet by embracing techniques from a range of styles including modern and African dance.
“Lester gave me the best line I could ever pass on to anyone else who wants to teach — ‘The minute you think, you know it all, stop teaching.’ And that’s always been my mantra. What do I need to know new?”