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Teaching dance, dreams in Dade City

(ran PW PS editions)

With unflinching devotion to her discipline, Sally Blackwood has raised the barre for students at her studio in Dade City for 35 years.

The best words Sally Blackwood ever heard as a little girl were "Let's pretend."

"When you pretend, you are not limited by anything: size, shape or position in life," the 63-year-old dance instructor said.

Blackwood has been teaching at her workshop, Blackwood Studios, in Dade City for 35 years, taking her students' imaginations to new heights with her love for them and her expertise in the dance disciplines.

As several girls flitted and pranced around the studio on a recent morning, playing fairies and goblins, Blackwood stood among them giving instructions.

"Now, kick your feet, bounce and look ugly, but don't touch the fairies," said Blackwood as the pretend goblins cavorted and glided around the make-believe fairies, who were posed in their prettiest positions. "Don't scream, just use your face to be scary as you learned in the theater class."

Just a few minutes earlier, she was instructing the make-believe fairies to dance beautifully.

"Flutter your magic fairy wings," she said as they flitted around the room with pastel netting attached to their arms. "Oh, how pretty, Chloe, what a beautiful pose."

Four-year-old Chloe Yount is one student who seems to glow under Blackwood's tutelage.

She smiles as she dances, a look of confidence on her tiny face.

At the end of class, Blackwood tells them that they all get a gold star. "Because you were all stars today," she says as each child curtsies for her.

Afterward, warm hugs and kisses are exchanged as the children run off to their next class.

One of the summer sessions includes choosing three costumes from Blackwood's extensive collection and playing dress-up.

"We take their pictures, too," said Blackwood. "We have discovered the most fun games start with "Let's pretend.' "

The Summer Dance and Fun Camp provided all day, half day and single classes in ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, musical theater, crafts and etiquette during July. Regular classes resume after Labor Day.

The petite Blackwood, who wears her red hair cropped close, began dancing in Lakeland, where she was born and raised. She continued her studies in New York with the Joffrey Ballet Company.

"I was with them for six months and was invited to work with their apprentice company," she said. "But I came home and got married instead."

She and James "Woody" Blackwood have been married 42 years and have two daughters, Mary Ann Blackwood, who teaches at the studio, and Glenda Jeter, who lives in Sarasota.

Before his retirement, Woody owned a shop in Dade City. Now, he restores the antiques he used to sell.

Blackwood's first studio originally was in a funeral home.

"When we first opened, children would come in and say "My granddaddy was laid out here,' " she said. "I would respond that the house is much happier now with dancers in it."

Blackwood owns three houses next to each other on Meridian Avenue, a couple of blocks west of downtown. All three were studios at one time or another. If the wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor mirrors could talk, what stories they would tell of hopes, dreams and dancers doing pirouettes.

Now one of the buildings is stuffed with props, costumes, jewelry, feathers, netting, scarves and bits and pieces of the things dreams are made of.

Sewing machines, thread and scissors are on tables in one room where sparkles, glitter and spangles are scattered on the floor.

"We make all our own costumes and rent them out," said Blackwood, the official costumer of Florida Dance Master's Main Attraction performing troupe. "We have thousands of costumes in here. The kids can rent them and save the expense of having to buy them. That means they can be in six dances instead of only two if they had to buy the costumes."

Blackwood rents her costumes to many professional ballet companies through the Southeast.

In the middle house is her office and a small boutique where dance shoes and leotards can be purchased.

The shop is stocked by Dance Boutique of Tampa.

"When I can, I take a ballet class from Sally," said Judy Odom, who owns the retail dance supplier in north Tampa. "She is a real nice lady and a good teacher. She manages to get a lot out of the kids without ruffling too many feathers with the children or their parents."

The third building houses the three studios complete with barres, mirrors and plenty of room for dancing and dreaming.

Sixteen-year-old Sara James has been taking ballet, jazz and acrobatics from Blackwood since she was "a little girl."

"She is good and has experienced teachers," said Sara. "They make what they teach you fun."

Another dancer who says she is not Blackwood's best but maybe her oldest student is Gail Reynolds, 51.

"I called her in 1980 and said I never took ballet before and I am over 30," said Reynolds. "Sally laughed and said, "Who isn't?' My class means a lot to me; I really love it and Sally is a real inspiration."

Reynolds says there is a real camaraderie in her adult class.

"Some have been taking lessons since they were children," she said. "We are very supportive of each other."

But it is not only fun, it is hard work, which has brought kudos and awards to the studio.

Les Etoiles Dance Company was formed in 1994 and since then has won three gold and two silver medals in the Florida Dance Masters Royal Dance Festival for the local studio. It also won first place in the Spotlight on Talent group category three of the four years it has competed, with a second place honor the other year.

Several of Blackwood's students have gone on to professional careers, including Helen Delight Walters.

"She became a soloist with Agnes De Mille's company, out of New York," said Blackwood of her former pupil. "Many of my students are with Disney, at Las Vegas, and some are teaching at universities."

Michelle Hitchner Wilson, another of her students, graduated from the Boston Conservatory.

"She is now with a modern dance company," said Blackwood. "She is one of my prize pupils."

In her spare time, Blackwood likes to go to Disney World with her daughter, Mary Ann.

"We have annual passes, and we go whenever we can, to get ideas from their shows," she said. "We talk my husband into going fishing so we can go to Disney."

This month, Blackwood and her husband will tour the South in their new motor home, then it is back to business with an open house the last Thursday of August.

_ Michelle Jones covers central Pasco community news. She can be reached at (813) 226-3459. Her e-mail address is jonessptimes.com.

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