When children straggled to the door with dance shoes in hand but no class inside, it hurt the most.
"That's what gets my heart," said Paulette Walker Johnson.
Until last weekend, Johnson was artistic director of Soulful Arts Dance Academy, overseeing the dance development of children from different backgrounds, economic and social situations. But now, she must clean out her desk and pack her CDs of dance music. She must turn students away with a sad, "There's no class today, baby."
She has been fired. And Soulful Arts has entered into what they're calling a state of dormancy, stopping all classes and performances until further notice.
It's the culmination of leadership shakeups and the nonprofit studio's long battle against debt. About $15,000 in the hole, the board of directors voted 3-1 to suspend the academy, starting last week, with the hope to reopen in the future. Parents and board members will talk about the next step in a town hall meeting Thursday.
Soulful Arts, formed in 2003 by Johnson and Sonia Raymund, operated out of a studio at 290 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N. The organization was designed to expose children to the arts regardless of their race or bank account. Classes were $50 each, but Soulful Arts routinely offered scholarships to those who couldn't pay tuition — even when it stretched them thin.
Students from toddlers to teenagers received ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, modern dance, instrument and voice training. They danced in big competitions, benefits for AIDS and sickle cell anemia, gallery openings, social events and countless recitals. They put on the Black Nativity at the Palladium Theater, one of St. Petersburg's most popular annual holiday performances.
Parents were notified through e-mail of the school's closing, but some didn't get the information and showed up to class as usual. The kids were heartbroken.
"We are trying to teach young people about accountability and about responsibility and about being tenacious and seeing things through all the way," said Arilee Still, whose two daughters danced at Soulful Arts for years. "To me, it just seems like the rug has been pulled out from under my girls."
When times were good, Soulful Arts had 275 students and acquired corporate sponsorships that helped keep the operating budget around $50,000, Johnson said. But over the years, the financial picture became much bleaker. This year, despite an array of fundraising efforts, the budget was nonexistent and enrollment was at 142, but Johnson had hoped to see it climb.
The financial aspect of running an organization has a big learning curve, Johnson said.
"I've learned a lot in the last six years," said Johnson, 51. "I've learned that I have come into the door with a great passion, and I still have that passion. My passion is creating, my passion is teaching, my passion is developing young lives. And, you know, you take the arts and you have to mix the business with it. That's the part of it I have to learn."
Landlord George Rahdert, an attorney who represents the St. Petersburg Times, worked with Soulful Arts to lower the studio rent from $6,100 to $1,500 a month.
"While it has been a terribly worthy endeavor, from my perspective, they just were not adept at diversifying their financial base of support, and these are the horrible tragedies that fall out," said Rahdert. "I didn't want the rent to be the reason that the program would die."
Soulful Arts leaders brought in Antonio Chase, an accountant they hoped could assist with the financial side. He recently took over as board president after Marilyn Fudge resigned for personal reasons. Chase could not be reached for comment.
Saturday, Soulful Arts students gave their final performance at the St. Petersburg Woman's Club. Johnson hugged them as they primped hair and put on makeup.
"Everyone have a great show," she said. "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you."
Toddlers in tutus waddled to When You Wish Upon a Star. Young girls kicked to Respect by Aretha Franklin. Dancers in sequins twirled across the stage to Sing, Sing, Sing. They stopped and struck a final pose.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.