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Monday, Jan 21, 2019
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Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

GULFPORT — Brianna Melton is as serious a ballet student as they come.

By her junior year at St. Petersburg High’s International Baccalaureate program, she had already spent four summers training with ballet companies across the country and had 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’s already dancing five to six hours a day at her school of choice — her own.

Melton, 18, is helping her parents run the St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory, which opened Feb. 5. She’ll be dancing with other students Friday in the school’s first fundraiser, a mix of ballet and modern dance.

With the hire 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, dancewise," Melton said. "This was something I always dreamed of and always wanted. I didn’t think something like this could happen so big and so fast."

The truth is, she’s been preparing for years. At age 7, she changed teachers, then wrote a letter to the previous instructor explaining why.

"She said that she wanted to be a professional dancer and wanted to be pushed harder," said Brian Melton, 46, her father.

There are other kids like her, the family believes. That’s why they’re opening the conservatory.

"People thought we opened this just for Brianna," said Brian Melton. "But we’ve had this idea for years."

Both Brian Melton and his wife, Anna, 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 to Tampa’s Patel Conservatory.

"I saw that 30 percent of the 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 are leaving the area when they could stay here, where they were brought up," Brian Melton said.

The recession put a quick damper on any plans to change that, however. The economy improved, but the family still needed a strong, qualified leader. What available ballet instructor could supply 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 come aboard as artistic director. After two decades dancing professionally, Gallardo taught and choreographed at the Peoria Ballet, the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia and the Ballet Academy of Cary, N.C.

The St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory offers evening ballet classes for students 4 to 18, another for adults of all ages and a pre-professional program during the day for dancers ages 12 to 18. It is already attracting students from several states and Canada.

"People in St. Petersburg and Gulfport don’t know we’re here, but around the world they do," Brian Melton said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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