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Patel Conservatory at the Straz marks 10 years of teaching arts

Ballet dancer Gabrielle Beach came to the Dr. Pallavi Patel Performing Arts Conservatory when she was 11 years old. Today the 16-year-old is training at the Royal Ballet School in London.
Ballet dancer Gabrielle Beach came to the Dr. Pallavi Patel Performing Arts Conservatory when she was 11 years old. Today the 16-year-old is training at the Royal Ballet School in London.
Published Jan. 14, 2015

Gabrielle Beach was 11 when her ballet teacher left for law school. The move left the young ballerina searching for a new dance home.

When her family discovered the Dr. Pallavi Patel Performing Arts Conservatory, Beach was entranced. Her last studio didn't even have air conditioning, and here was a world-class venue visited by all sorts of famous dancers.

"I automatically thought, 'This is a great place,' " said Beach, now 16 and training at the Royal Ballet School in London. "All the teachers were so caring and they really gave personal correction, and just generally wanted the best."

She's one of thousands who have trained at the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in arts education. An event on Jan. 28 marks the anniversary, with performances from Patel students in Ferguson Hall.

Though 10 years isn't much in the grand scheme of an institution, it was an important period of learning and growth for the Patel Conservatory.

The idea was to create something between a full-time conservatory like the Juilliard School and weekend classes at Miss Susie's. Students would pay varying tuitions for classes in dance, theater and music, held in an expansion of the Straz Center.

"It wasn't just for preprofessionals," said Straz Center president and CEO Judy Lisi. "It was also for people who have a love of the arts, but perhaps they couldn't have it as a career. ... It was kind of an experiment because there really was not a model of this."

Dr. Pallavi Patel and her husband, Dr. Kiran Patel, made an initial $5 million donation, boosting millions more raised for an endowment. The new conservatory boasted springed floors for dancing, sound-dampening walls and a dedicated performance space.

The student body started at 600 and has grown to top 3,000 in more than 100 classes. That's everyone from teens in the conservatory's Rock School to adults in acting classes to kids with special needs in music therapy. Patel has doled out more than $1.6 million in scholarships.

The conservatory was accredited in 2012, making it possible for students to get school credit for classes at Patel. The accreditation process also forced conservatory leaders to take detailed stock of what was working and what wasn't.

Of all its accomplishments, Patel's dance offerings under noted dancer Peter Stark have become the most polished. The preprofessional Next Generation Ballet and the 2014 summer Junior Ballet Intensive have attracted students from around the world.

Some Patel alumni have gone off to land prominent jobs. They have performed in Wicked, Spring Awakening, Matilda and Godspell on Broadway, landed parts on The Vampire Diaries on the CW, danced with the Hamburg Ballet in Germany.

"It was kind of a zigzag as you learn and grow and see what works," Lisi said. "Our dance program is really second to none. It's just a high-level program. Our theater is also really good. Not as good, but it's getting there. There's so much in music we're still looking for, sort of all levels of music and concentrations in all specialties."

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The biggest challenge now, Lisi said, is space. The conservatory has outgrown the three-story, 45,000-square-foot facility, and students are tripping over each other. Looking for ways to expand is a priority going forward, Lisi said. And the conservatory's mission and focal points are constantly being refined.

But for some students, the conservatory is a second home just as it is. Emily Schultz lives on Harbour Island and is homeschooled. A turn in a production of Kiss Me Kate hooked the 15-year-old on theater. She has performed in Patel productions of The Tempest, Oklahoma, Hairspray and The Agreeable Husband. She takes choir, voice and tap lessons. And she has a social circle.

"It helps a lot," she said. "I got scared moving here and I didn't know anybody. Going to Patel has helped me know people and have friends."

She's there six days a week, and is hoping to go more.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.