Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Teaching Duo Says Goodbye with Last Dance

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Teaching Duo Says Goodbye with Last Dance

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Woods

Rhonda Stampalia remembers the first time she saw Phyllis Penney.

Nearly 30 years ago. Stampalia, a professional ballerina at the time, was having lunch with a friend upstairs at The Landing when she looked down and saw this woman "sort of draping herself over the stairway bannister."

She realized who the woman was and what she was doing: checking out the space to see if it would work for some students from the new arts school to perform a modern dance piece.

Stampalia said to her friend, "That must be that Dr. Penney."

"I think what she said was 'that weird lady,' " Penney said with a laugh.

They had talked on the phone. Penney called to see if Stampalia would be interested in choreographing some ballet at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. Stampalia said no, she was still focused on performing. But a year later she joined Penney's dance staff.

They've been working together ever since - nearly three decades with thousands of dance students, countless awards, many happy moments and a few sad ones.

Which makes what will happen Friday night bittersweet.

One of the last dances.

Penney is retiring at the end of the year. So the 30th annual "Extravaganza" - the event that every year showcases some of the best art being done at Douglas Anderson - will be Penney's last as chairwoman of the dance department.

The department has come a long way from those early years, when they taught classes in the gym, dodging volleyballs that came flying over a dividing wall.

One thing that hasn't changed: Stampalia still calls her colleague and friend "Dr. Penney," even when they're not in school settings.

"She laughs that I continue to do it," Stampalia said. "I'll say, 'Dr. Penney,' and she'll say, 'Yes, Miss Stampalia.'"

This detail - one woman using a formal title, the other finding it amusing - is an example of something they each describe in separate conversations: They are opposites in many ways.

Even how they talk about their differences is different.

Penney speaks rapidly, the old stories pouring out, spinning in all different directions before coming back to the original point. Stampalia chooses her words carefully, speaking slowly, her emotions occasionally bubbling to the surface.

This contrast extends to, or perhaps starts with, their approaches to dance. Penney comes from a modern background and is all about giving students freedom. Stampalia comes from a ballet background and is all about the discipline. Together, they both say, the contrast worked beautifully.

"I think professionally Dr. Penney and I are quite the dynamic duo," Stampalia said. "And it's important for me to say I can't thank her enough."

Some of us say "thank you" with a card or a note. Stampalia and some of her ballet students plan to do it with a piece for Penney at "Extravaganza. …

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