As I approached the Palladium Theater last December to attend a performance of Black Nativity, I happened upon a crying child and his mother on Fifth Avenue N.
Like me, mother and son hoped to see the holiday musical. But the event had grown so popular over the years that, on this night at least, ushers were turning people away from a packed house. The tearful little boy was being pulled away.
Arriving solo, I feared I would be turned away, too. But one of the production people sneaked me inside and steered me to a stool perched high above the audience in the lighting booth, in a cramped space with the lighting and sound technicians. Turns out it was the best seat in the house.
In the five years I've attended the production, the audience has watched with nervous tension as some of the ballet dancers wobbled a bit on pointe. But on this night, the three angels took the audience's breath away. They were that good.
As a patron of the city's burgeoning arts programs, I've watched young dancers of all hues evolve from stumbling to stunning, from tentative to confident, from awkward to vigorous.
Under the artistic leadership of Paulette Walker Johnson, the children of Soulful Arts Dance Academy honed their skills and quickly became a part of the cultural fabric of the city.
So how do you continue the mission of Soulful Arts without Johnson?
That question is left to a board of directors led by Antonio Chase, an accountant in Hillsborough County.
The dance academy, formed in 2003 by Johnson and Sonia Raymund, operated out of a studio at 290 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N. The organization exposed children to the arts and routinely offered scholarships to those who couldn't pay — even when there was uncertainty about the doors staying open.
The academy included an executive director, a manager and Johnson, the artistic director. But from the outset, the hierarchy was muddled. Insiders say it appeared that the manager worked for one director and against the other.
Under Johnson's tutelage, the dancers performed in the productions Manhattan Casino, The Bomb-itty of Errors, Romeo and Juliet and Crowns as well as at First Night and events at the [email protected]
From the outside, the academy seemed to flourish, with proteges going on to New York, performing in film and theater, and attending prestigious schools and dance programs like Juilliard, Alvin Ailey and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
On the inside, the organization was rife with drama. When Raymund and her money departed almost two years ago, she left a board ill prepared to move the organization forward. Some thought the board did not appear to live up to its fiduciary responsibilities. The infighting continued.
The breaking point came in April, when an emotional Johnson made a tearful plea to the audience during the spring recital, sharing the news that her beloved academy was in financial straits. Trouble was, the board of directors had wanted that nugget to remain under wraps.
News accounts about debt and high rent ensued. Months later, Johnson was dismissed and the academy had to close temporarily.
Johnson says her purpose has always been to teach. "God gave me the creativity to teach. That is my art. A lot of people have lost sight of that. The mission has always been about the children."
With Soulful Arts set to reopen Monday, the board of directors — down to just three members — has hired a new artistic director, Kandace Nunn of Tampa, a former dance instructor at SADA.
So what's next for Johnson?
"Right now I'm not sure," she said, "but I will keep my head to the sky, asking God, what's next?"
This much seems clear: With the current board a shambles and the founding artistic director relegated to the sidelines, the children lose.
• • •
On Thursday, not long after the dust had settled from the fisticuffs at City Hall, the St. Petersburg City Council unanimously approved the renaming of Preston Avenue S to Paris Avenue S.
It was on that street on April 5 that Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, 8, was killed when more than 50 bullets were fired at her home. She was shot in a front room, where she had been sleeping. Three bullets struck her in the back.
A month later, council member Karl Nurse introduced the measure to rename the street to honor the memory of the little girl.
The renaming will take effect on April 5, 2010, the first anniversary of her death.
Sandra J. Gadsden is editor of Neighborhood Times. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or [email protected]