Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, Suzanne Pomerantzeff can see herself as that small but spunky Indiana girl, confined to her bed on doctor’s orders, dreaming of the day when she would be able to dance like there was nothing else in the world.
She was little Suzie Turner then, sick with rheumatic fever but determined to beat the odds and grow, swan-like, into a lithe and beautiful ballerina.
And dreams do come true. Just over 53 years ago, when Pomerantzeff co-founded St. Petersburg’s nonprofit Academy of Ballet Arts, she wasn’t convinced that teaching younger generations how to dance should be her life’s work.
However. “Looking back at that 21-year-old dancer who was brazen enough to start a studio, I think: I always should have been a teacher,” she says now. “I mean, I love to perform, I love being onstage, but in a way as a teacher you’re onstage in front of your students, as well as when you perform with the company, as I did for a long time.
“So many of the kids I’ve trained are professionals, so it isn’t like my career ever had to stop. They’re all dancing for me.”
Indeed, thousands of girls – and boys – have studied ballet with “Ms. P” over the decades, and even though the majority danced into other walks of life, there have been some who have gone on to impressive professional careers with, among others, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Met, Cirque de Soleil, Cleveland Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Parsons Dance, Frankfort Opera Ballet, Houston Ballet and Kiel Opera Ballet.
So yes, it’s vicarious for her, in a manner of speaking. “It’s just amazing, and I think that’s what inspires the little ones here, because there’s so many people who came from this studio.”
This weekend, the Academy’s annual production of that ballet evergreen, The Nutcracker, is onstage at the Palladium Theater. In between rehearsals, Pomerantzeff, 75, took a few moments to talk about the past, the present – and the uncertain future.
She was 2 years old when the diagnosis of rheumatic fever arrived. “Back then,” Pomerantzeff says, “in order to avoid the heart problems that came with rheumatic fever, you were on total bed rest. You weren’t allowed to stand but five minutes a day. You’re lying flat on your back. They didn’t even let you have a nice pillow.”
She remained prone until she was 6. Her mother read to her and told her stories; they listened to music and talked about how it made them feel.
Significantly, Mom made Suzanne a mobile that hung over her bed – pirouetting ballerinas.
One of her favorite stories involved the Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso. “At the same time I was in bed with rheumatic fever, she was in bed with sandbags holding her head, because she had detached retinas,” Pomerantzeff recalls. “The story was in the newspaper. She used to practice her steps with her fingers on the bedspread. And in my little girl mind I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’ I didn’t know any steps, but I made things happen with my hands and arms.”
She made up her mind, then and there, that she was going to dance. And when she was declared healthy enough to get out of bed and enroll in public school, her mother let her take ballet lessons, too. “I had to literally learn how to use my body again,” she says. “I was carried up and down stairs, all the way, until I was 9 or 10.”
There’s a framed photo in the lobby of the Academy of Ballet Arts. It’s little Suzie Turner, aged six-and-a-half, at her very first performance. She has skinned knees in the picture. “My ballet slippers are two sizes too big. I still have that tutu at home, and it’s the size of a 3-year-old’s. Because I didn’t grow when I was in bed.”
Her father, a hospital administrator, moved the family to California. In Marin County, 13-year-old Suzanne auditioned and was accepted into the San Francisco Ballet’s school.
She attended the University of Utah and earned a BA in Dance Performance. She performed with the San Francisco Ballet, Ballet West and several others.
At 21 came another health crisis. After a back injury and a bout of serious muscle spasms, doctors discovered she had a congenital birth defect in the lower portion of her spine. It had affected her hips, and her gait, her entire life. But no one had noticed it before.
The doctor said since this malformity issue was present since birth, Suzanne should by rights be hunchbacked, with an S-shaped spine, but because she had spent four years virtually immobile, her spine was impeccably straight. “It’s kind of frozen in places, but it’s straight,” Pomerantzeff says with pride.
That’s when all thoughts of a professional dancing career fell by the wayside, she remembers. “The back defect would have just made a mess of touring, because I can’t travel in a bus or a car very long. I can’t sit around; I have to be moving in order to feel the best that I can.”
When her dad accepted a job with Mound Park Hospital in far-off St. Petersburg, Florida, Suzanne came along.
It was while taking lessons with local dance instructor Lester Jacobsen – “he was the only professional teacher in the area” – that the idea for a ballet school was born. “Lester was trying to get me back in shape. He was unhappy at the school where he was teaching, because they were giving him all baby classes,” Pomerantzeff says.
“And everyone respected Lester; he guest-taught at lots of studios. Nobody had a bad word to say about Lester.”
But there were no full-time schools teaching classical ballet. And during the slow summer season, everything that existed shut down.
“So my dad, who was trying to tell me I needed to do something else, said ‘In the gap, why don’t you two start your own studio, since there’s not anything here that satisfies either one of you?’ So we did.”
The St. Petersburg Academy of Ballet Arts began with one barre, one record player … and two students. A sympathetic parent bought them a $50 ad in the St. Petersburg Times.
From those humble beginnings, it grew. It also outgrew its first home, and its second, and its third.
Suzanne worked with the “babies” and beginners; Lester took the intermediates and advanced students. To her surprise, she was good at it: “I have a knack for taking a movement that’s complicated and breaking it down into itty-bitty steps,” she says. “And I know how to use the words that create images.”
As the years went on, there were changes: She married Russian dancer Andre Pomerantzeff in 1976; their son was born five years later (the couple are now divorced). Jacobsen retired in 1992.
She established a ballet program at St. Petersburg College, and was instrumental in the formation of the Pinellas County Center for the Arts, the magnet program at Gibbs High School; she taught dance there for 30 years, retiring in 2014.
In 2003, she received a grant from the charitable arm of the SURDNA Foundation to travel to Ireland and produce a ballet on Irish history.
The international ballet competition Youth American Grand Prix awarded her its Best Teacher award (2006 and 2007) and Best Choreographer award (2006).
In 2013, the Florida Dance Association presented Pomerantzeff with its prestigious Nancy Smith Award.
There are now six full-time dance instructors at the school, in addition to Pomerantzeff.
The ongoing development of St. Petersburg is inching closer to her front door. The building that’s housed the Academy of Ballet Arts and its school of Russian folk dance since 2002, a former optometry office, is going on the market soon. Although it hasn’t yet been listed, because her landlord graciously says he wants Pomerantzeff to have ample time to firm up a new location.
So far, she says, no such luck. “There just isn’t anything that’s available that’s affordable,” she says.
So the search continues, as the newest generation of young dancers rehearses The Nutcracker for this weekend’s performances.
Suzanne Pomerantzeff has danced along the well-lit stage of life, every glissade, arabesque and attitude punctuated by periods of frustration – and almost unimaginable happiness and pride.
“People had said to me all along the way ‘Why don’t you teach?’” she says. “I always said no, because in my head teachers were people who weren’t talented enough to be a professional. Where I got that idea, I don’t know. But for me, being a professional dancer, dancing onstage, touring, that’s what I was dying for. And what I felt was my destiny.”
After 53 years, she adds, that mindset has changed. “I can’t imagine not doing this as a profession.”
The Nutcracker is performed several times Dec. 2-4 at the Palladium Theater. Tickets are available here.