ST. PETERSBURG — The doors are open for little feet to return to the floor at Soulful Arts Dance Academy.
But now, they'll be dancing for a new leader. Kandace Nunn, a former Soulful Arts teacher, is the St. Petersburg nonprofit studio's new artistic director, overseeing the dance training of about 150 students.
Nunn, 25, is a familiar face around the studio at 290 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N. She taught African, modern, jazz and hip-hop dance there in 2006 and 2007. Nunn, a Blake High graduate with a bachelor's degree in dance education, has trained in Tampa, New York and Africa and has a long resume of performing and choreographing. She danced in national touring productions of the Backyardigans and OZ, the Musical.
"I want the students to get even more involved in the community," said Nunn, who got her start dancing in church. "I think that's so important for Pinellas County and St. Petersburg. I just want to have a positive brand of SADA. Whenever someone thinks of SADA, they think, 'That's a great school. I want to send my children there because of the contributions to the community.' "
She is drafting plans for the studio, which may add liturgical and authentic African dance to its offerings. She hopes to make the studio feel more like a conservatory — fun, but focused on training. She'll emphasize showing up on time, keeping a neat appearance and perfecting technique.
"I feel I definitely have big shoes to fill, but I'm just so excited to be a part of SADA once again," she said.
She replaces outgoing artistic director and Soulful Arts co-founder Paulette Walker Johnson.
"I bless them," said Johnson, 51. "I say continue on. Soulful Arts Dance Academy was a happy place. I pray that Soulful Arts continues to be a happy place."
Johnson was fired during a point of financial turmoil at the studio this month. Soulful Arts, which had a deficit of $20,000, went into a state of dormancy, stopping all classes. Parents and students rallied, urging the board of directors to reopen before students found new places to dance.
They listened. The school opened again Monday, albeit with a slow start. One child showed up for class in the afternoon, but 10 more arrived later in the evening, Nunn said.
"We sent out a lot of e-mails, but we did expect for Monday to be slow," said Nunn. "We expect for it to really pick up."
Soulful Arts is operating thanks to $20,000 in community donations that will keep the studio running until at least Nov. 19.
"Our hope and dream is to go much further than that," said board president Antonio Chase.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, pitched in some of his own money and recruited other donors in the community. Recent mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons gave $1,000. Lakewood High graduate and Advantica EyeCare president Richard Sanchez and his wife, Sharon, donated $15,000 through their foundation. The Soulful Arts board is working on a longer-term solution — to develop a potential partnership with St. Petersburg College.
Since 2003, Soulful Arts students of all races and financial situations have trained in ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, modern dance, instrument and voice training — some paying $50 per class in tuition, some receiving scholarships. They danced in big competitions, benefits and recitals. Dancers at the academy made up the majority of the cast of Black Nativity at the Palladium Theater, one of St. Petersburg's most popular holiday shows.
Nunn hasn't ruled out the possibility of pulling off the Black Nativity again this year.
"I think it would be a good thing to just stay posted," she said. "Stay tuned. Nothing is impossible."
"Kids are coming back excited. I'm excited. I think that's the most important thing. There is hope."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.