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Big Shoes to Fill

By Sharon McCaman

This past June, Suzanne Pomerantzeff, a legend of the Tampa Bay Area dance community, retired from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts (PCCA) at Gibbs High School. Ms. P, as she was affectionately called by her students, was responsible for the development of the PCCA dance program and, until her retirement, served as the ballet department chairperson. Suzanne touched the lives of many people during her time at PCCA, with her reach going well beyond that of the dance department and her dancers. 

For many of us (her students), Ms. P was so much more than just a teacher; she was our friend, our mother, our mentor, our confidant.  She selflessly gave her personal time, energy, and sometimes even her money in helping us achieve our dreams. Whether a student needed a ride to a show or an audition or home, she and her trusty van were always there to help. She even took it further by offering her own home on many occasions for students in need. Ms. P sacrificed so much for her students, going far above and beyond what was expected of her as a public school dance instructor.  All her efforts centered on ensuring that her students had the skills, discipline, and opportunities necessary to become successful dancers.  

Ms. P enriched the lives of her students by offering them a well rounded experience of what the dance world had to offer. As a result of her connections in the dance community, Ms. P was able to expose her students to a variety of different types of dance – everything from Russian Folk Dance to African Dance to the Native American culture. It was not enough for us to just be ballet and modern dancers. We had to be more! And Ms. P made sure that everyone of us had the opportunity to do just that.

She provided her students with several professional dance opportunities such as her annual staging of the Nutcracker. She also spent countless hours training and preparing dancers to participate in events like the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), an international ballet competition. Ms. P was also very generous in offering scholarships for many of the PCCA students to attend the annual Summer Intensive workshops offered through the Academy of Ballet Arts (ABA) – a nonprofit, pre-professional dance academy which Ms. P co-founded in 1969 and for which she continues to serve as artistic director. 

Ms. P has often been recognized by the dance community for her contributions. In 2013, the Florida Dance Association presented Ms. P with the prestigious Nancy Smith Award which recognizes outstanding leadership and advancement of the art form of dance in the state of Florida. Ms. P was also awarded Youth America Grand Prix’s Best Choreographer award in 2006 and Best Teacher award in 2006 and 2007. In 2003, she received a grant from the SURDNA Foundation to travel to Ireland and produce a ballet on Irish history.   

Ms. P's background and training includes the San Francisco School and the University of Utah, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ballet. She performed with the San Francisco Ballet, Ballet West, Tampa Ballet and Virginia Ballet.

Even though her awards and performance history are impressive, Ms. P's real legacy rests with her students. Dancers under her instruction have gone on to perform at prestigious ballet companies including: American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey, American Dance Theatre, David Parsons, Moiseyev Dance Company, Colorado Ballet, Cleveland Ballet, Houston Ballet, San Diego Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Kiel Opera Ballet, Frankfort Opera Ballet, Repertory Dance Theatre; and touring shows including: Riverdance, Lion King, Cirque de Soleil and Mummenschanz.

So many artists would not be where they are today without the generosity, support, and love of Suzanne Pomerantzeff. We all owe her a huge debt of gratitude. Her retirement from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts means the end of an era. Her feet may be tiny, but she leaves behind some terribly big shoes to fill.

Ms. P generously put my choreographic work in front of audiences, directors, and dance decision makers. She allowed me to flourish as a young artist and trusted my vision. She is a true teacher, a creator and a selfless giver.

- Sir Brock Warren (Class of 2004)

Ms. P is an insightful teacher and a wonderful friend. Suzanne Pomerantzeff is a strong woman and proud mother who cultivated the inner talents of so many, including me. She encouraged you to be better and to do better. She loved you no matter what and only wanted the best for you. That is why I and so many others call her Mama P.

- Kenneth Shelby Jr. (Class of 2012)

Ms P's generosity and dedication is of extreme importance in my life. I am now living in the USA working with movement rehabilitation after having a career in dance and if I track back, none of this would had been possible if it wasn't from Ms P. Her letters of recommendations brought me here from Brazil, allowed me to dance in San Francisco and dance and study in Boston and her love and passion kept me positive to believe that great things happen.

- Helena Piccoli (Class of 1996)

Ms. P nurtured us all by showing us a world beyond that which we knew. She allowed us to dream big, and then open the door to chase those dreams.

- Erik Wagner

Ms. P was not only a wonderful ballet instructor, but also a mentor. She continues to be supportive of all her students and is always there to lend an ear and/or a helping hand or advice. Although she will be greatly missed at PCCA,  I am so thankful we are still able to reach out to her outside of school. She has always made herself available,  and for all she's given, both within the dance community and among all her valued students, we will all be forever grateful. Ms. P truly is a treasure that we are all privileged to have worked with and know. I know I personally will always value the influence she has had on my life and love her dearly for it. I hope she knows how much she is appreciated,  she deserves every ounce of that love!

- Sara Mastry (Class of 1998)

As a student in the dance department at PCCA, Ms. P was ever willing to give me guidance and opportunity in our dance community. I learned valuable lessons from her to practice in everyday life as well as in the classroom.

- Ashley Penman Dashputre (Class of 2002)

Ms. P provided her students with a safe space to be themselves. She didn't just teach us how to dance, she taught us how to use our imaginations, to dream big and, at times, to fail. Even her students that do not continue into dance are equipped with the skills to go out and do whatever they set their minds to. There are no words that communicate how thankful I am to her.

- Jolynn Brown (Class of 2001)

When I think back to significant moments in my early dance training I remember vividly the influence Ms. P had on my trusting in myself and letting me discover my artistic voice. Specifically when she coached me in the role of Clara in the Nutcracker. There was one rehearsal when I was fighting with Fritz over the Nutcracker and we actually broke the Nutcracker. I burst into tears, terrified that I was going to be in BIG trouble for breaking the Nutcrac ker. Ms. P however saw that my reaction was genuine and instead of getting angry she used that opportunity to show me that real emotions go into dancing. That I didn't need to "pretend" I could be real. As scary as showing emotions can be I remember that rehearsal and Ms. P's comforting words every time I am confronted with an emotional artistic challenge in my professional performing career. The beauty of teaching is that your positive impact on students can last their whole lifetime. I am grateful that Ms. P saw an opportunity to nurture a young dancer when other teachers might have been angry or frustrated.

- Helen Hansen

If someone were to ask me where to go to learn ballet in the area the person I would recommend would be Ms. P. I have know her since I was 11 and although at times she might be tough she is the most caring person I know. She truly wants the best for each and every one of her students and she will greatly be missed at Pinellas County Center for the Arts even if someone thinks she’s just a student walking around campus. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the physical and mental support that Ms. P has given to others and myself at PCCA.

- Colleen Hanlon (Class of 2010)

Whenever I think of Ms. P, I hear her soft voice filling me with encouragement to never give up on my goals and dreams. To this day, 17 years later, I think of her and I am in complete comfort and confidence!

- Carrie Shanks (Class of 1998)

Ms. P profoundly impacted the lives of each and every one of her students, even those who pursued careers far different from those in the ballet world. Take it from me, a current medical student at the University of Florida who is pursuing a career in a pediatric specialty. Part of the medical school application process included the personal statement, an essay about why you would like to be a physician and what qualities give you the ability to effectively do so. In my personal essay, I largely attribute the young woman I am to my ballet training and my instructors, the most important of whom was Ms. P. She is a woman who taught me the time-management skills to effectively navigate my pre-medical courses. She taught me to work well under pressure, training me to effectively compete in the Youth America Grand Prix competition. She taught me self- discipline, an attribute crucial to the life of a physician. Most importantly, she always supported me and taught me to be confident in myself and my abilities. I honestly cannot say enough wonderful things about Ms. P and everything I learned from her and she has impacted my life more than she probably knows!

- Francesca Regina (Class of 2010)