A new location to honor a life-long legacy in dance
Dance Alive National Ballet has launched a campaign to raise $5 million to build a 22,000-square-foot cultural center in northwest Gainesville. The new center will include a dance and music academy, outreach programs and a black-box theater for performances and rentals.
The campaign is the culmination of a family’s dedication to promoting dance and music.
“Level your chin, like you could put a book beneath it,” ballet instructor Kim Tuttle tells her students. “Chest up. Even gaze,” she continues, walking around the room, guiding dancers’ legs and arms into proper position. “That’s it,” she says when satisfied. “Now you look like serious dancers.”
The class is pointe I, the first step on a professional, or even just very impassioned, dance path. The preteen dancers are clad in pastel-colored leotards, pink tights, and pink pointe shoes; their hair is pulled back into tight buns. Tuttle, her own hair swept up in a loose chignon, is dressed all in black — yoga pants and a scoop-neck T-shirt. She demonstrates positions in her Saucony running shoes.
Tuttle’s know-how comes from her experience as a dancer herself, and a teacher for nearly five decades at Pofahl Studios, Gainesville’s storied dance studio that was started by her mother, Mary Ellen Pofahl, in the mid-1950s.
Since 1980, Tuttle, 75, and her sister Judy Skinner, 78, have been sustaining and expanding their mother’s vision for a place that continues to train dancers in the fundamentals of ballet, contemporary, tap, jazz, acrobatics and hip-hop.
Pofahl is also home to one of only a few professional dance companies in Florida, Dance Alive National Ballet (DANB), which performs seasonally in Gainesville and tours nationally and internationally. Its dancers hail from Brazil, Japan, and Cuba, and the U.S., including a few locals, who trained at Pofahl starting in childhood.
Planning for a new location
Despite having so much artistic clout, Dance Alive’s and Pofahl’s magic has been happening in a very understated environment — a building on the edge of the Grove Street neighborhood that they purchased in the 1970s.
The building's interior has a distinctly vintage feel, with the same orange barres since the studio started, and burgundy shag carpet in the reception area that’s lined with church pews for waiting parents. In the back is a small storage room stuffed with dance paraphernalia — ballet slippers, costumes, CDs of past performances, a sewing kit.
But the homey, old-school charm has given way to a practical reality: “We’re out of room, and we have been for a while,” says Tuttle, matter-of-factly.
A few years ago, they began envisioning a plan to change that, and at the beginning of this year, they unveiled a capital campaign, called “Soaring to New Heights,” to raise funds for a new home in the heart of Gainesville.
They have $2 million in committed funds and will need three times that for the entire project, Tuttle says. They have zoning committee approval and are awaiting a final decision from the city commission. They hope to break ground next year and open the doors to the new studio in 2026.
The new facility would be the corner lot of Northwest 34th Street and Northwest 39th Avenue, next to the Gesthemane Lutheran Church. The five-and-a-half-acre, tree-lined property would include one large building, designed by local architect James Blythe, to house three dance studios, three music studios, a black box theater, and an art gallery.
“The company [Dance Alive] has such a great reputation,” says board member Tim Cannon, a former professional dancer himself. “We want to preserve that for Gainesville first and Florida second.”
Cannon adds that the new space would also be an arts center for the community that’s distinct from the University of Florida, and could foster more space for the city’s strong, but overlooked arts community. Dance Alive came about during a fertile period in Gainesville’s artistic history — in the mid-1960s, alongside the birth of the Hippodrome Theatre and the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra.
“We all loved and supported each other,” Tuttle says. “It was a confluence of art in Gainesville.”
All in the family
Many dance studios are family-run businesses, explains Susan Scannella, Dance Alive executive director, who also trained at Pofahl in the 1970s.
“Often the parents make the name of the studio, and the children are raised with that, and then take over,” Scannella said.
Pofahl’s is a case in point. The studio was started in the mid-1950s, shortly after the family moved from Minnesota to Gainesville for father Kimbel Pofahl’s job as the president of the local gas company.
Skinner and Tuttle were reared in a world of high expectations and love of the arts, especially dance and music. Their mother danced; their father sang. Their parents met during one of Mary Ellen’s performances — their father saw her and was immediately smitten.
As children of the Depression, their parents “had to work their way, and it was expected that we would, too,” Skinner says.
Mary Ellen Pofahl was tough-minded with her girls. “She flat-out told us, ‘I’ve already done it, and I’ve done it better than you will ever be able to,’” Skinner says. Tuttle adds that it wasn’t that they were encouraged to dance. “It was expected.”
Their mother had a dancer’s body, but both girls inherited their father’s stockier frame. “We were on diets from the time we were hatched,” Skinner says.
Students of Mary Ellen remember her top-notch instruction and beautiful presence.
“You kind of hung on every word that she said,” says Scannella, recalling that Mary Ellen would demonstrate positions at the barre, always donned in a black scoop-necked leotard and pink tights, with a sheer black skirt hiked up to reveal her long lines.
She’d write names of dance positions in French on a blackboard and make sure her students knew about the composers of the pieces they performed, Scannella recalls. She took students to train in New York City, and hosted guest artists from the New York City Ballet at Pofahl.
“We were being prepared to take those literal steps into the professional ballet world,” says Scannella, who danced professionally for many years.
Tuttle, who majored in music at the University of Florida, was ballet mistress with the Zurich Ballet and was on the staff of the Stuttgart Ballet. Skinner received a master’s in education and taught elementary school, along with dance classes. After their mother died, they took over the studio.
“We inherited the strength that she had; the energy and the drive,” Tuttle says. “She was really smart, too.”
The rise of Dance Alive National Ballet
One of their mother’s dreams was to create a professional dance company. In 1966, she started the Gainesville Civic Ballet with a string of local dancers who received token pay for performances. In the 1970s, an agent at one of their traveling shows offered to represent them, and the company took off, acquiring dancers from all over the country. They changed their name in the 1980s to encompass their growing global reach.
“The seed was planted with their mother, but they’ve exceeded any expectations,” Scannella says. Fifteen years ago, they hired two dancers from Brazil, and several Brazilian dancers have since followed. Most of their hiring is done by word-of-mouth. Tuttle, who is artistic director, looks for good dancers who are also good people.
“It’s really important that everyone gets along in a small company,” she explains.
The age range of Dance Alive dancers is wide: the youngest is 18, and the oldest, 51, is Andre “Andy” Valladon, also the company’s assistant artistic director and one of the two Brazilian dancers who came 15 years ago.
Watching Dance Alive rehearse one day, Tuttle whispers, “You marvel at all of them, but he’s the one who really moves you.”
That’s because even as dancers’ bodies may diminish over time, their life stories enrich the soul of their dancing — and that’s something that Tuttle looks for in dancers. The company’s mission statement on its website is “Elevate your being through the art of dance.”
“You don’t see artists who are criminals,” Tuttle says. “It makes something better out of you. It puts you in a higher state.”
That message is accessible even to the children who take dance at Pofahl. Saturday mornings are a scene of adolescent chatter, joyful movement, and pure focus. Skinner mentions one student who is going through a rough time but comes here “and just lets it all out.” Another 11-year-old girl does pre-class warm-ups in the lobby with both grace and metronomic precision. “She’s a ballet dancer,” Tuttle says, without hesitation.
The students all have the benefit of masterful instruction — from both Tuttle and Skinner, as well as the Dance Alive dancers. “You have people who have done it at the highest level, instructing kids,” Tuttle says. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
More information on the Dance Alive National Ballet Capital Campaign and how to donate to it is available at the website:https://dancealive.org/capital-campaign/