GULFPORT — Brianna Melton is as serious a ballet student as it gets.
During her freshman year in St. Petersburg High’s International Baccalaureate program, she had already spent four summers training with ballet companies across the country and narrowed her college choices to a select few.
Melton has since pulled off a dizzying pivot. The new plan replaces college with an online business degree. Since graduating in May, she has already been dancing five to six hours a day at the school of her choice, her own.
Melton, 18, helps his parents run the St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory, which opened on February 5. She will dance with other students on Friday in the school’s first fundraiser, a mix of ballet and modern dance.
With the hiring of artistic director Servy Gallardo, the family believes Brianna can give her the kind of training she needs to dance professionally, and on a faster track than college could provide.
“It was actually an easy transition for me, dance-wise,” Melton said. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed of and always wanted. I didn’t think something like this could happen so big and so fast.”
The truth is that she has been preparing for years. At age 7, she changed teachers, then wrote a letter to the previous instructor explaining why.
“She said she wanted to be a professional dancer and she wanted to be pushed harder,” said Brian Melton, 46, her father.
There are other children like her, the family believes. That’s why they open the conservatory.
“People thought we opened this just for Brianna,” Brian Melton said. “But we’ve had this idea for years.”
Brian Melton and his wife, Anna, both work as bank managers. They used basic market analysis in their decision to go for it, not just hopes and dreams. The idea came eight years ago when Brian Melton was scanning a list of donors at the Patel Conservatory in Tampa.
“I saw that 30% of donors live in St. Pete,” he said.
At the same time, he saw parents ferrying students from St. Petersburg to Tampa or Sarasota for ballet training.
“I said, ‘They’re leaving the area when they could stay here, where they were raised,'” Brian Melton said.
However, the recession has put a quick damper on any plans to change that. The economy improved, but the family still needed a strong and skilled leader. What ballet instructor available could provide the level of expertise the school needed?
The answer came last year, when Gallardo, a former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Venezuela, the San Jose Cleveland Ballet and several other companies, agreed to become artistic director. After two decades of professional dance, Gallardo has taught and choreographed at Peoria Ballet, the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, and the Ballet Academy in Cary, North Carolina.
The St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory offers evening ballet classes for students ages 4-18, another for adults of all ages, and a daytime pre-professional program for dancers ages 12-18. It already attracts students from several states and Canada.
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“People in St. Petersburg and Gulfport don’t know we’re here, but all over the world they do,” Brian Melton said.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.