SISTER BETH Answers the Call at St Joseph Ballet Company

Times Staff Writer

The ballet teacher, wearing the black leotard, skirt and sweater with the sleeves characteristically rolled up, walked over to the record player in the corner of the rehearsal studio in the basement of a downtown Santa Ana church.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony filled the room.

"First position, and . . . " instructed the teacher, Sister Beth Burns, a Catholic nun who has the unlikely distinction of being a trained ballerina.

Alternately snapping her fingers and clapping her hands in time with the music, Sister Beth offered gentle criticism and enthusiastic encouragement to her students as they executed a series of graceful port de corps (forward and backward bends at the hip) and plies (knee bends):

"Nice and steady, ladies.

"Lovely! Yes! Oh, I'm so proud of you!

"Oh, Shani, that's so good!"

Warmed up, the girls next began a series of difficult steps: rapidly brushing and pointing their feet one inch off the floor.

"When will our bodies ever catch up to our minds?" joked Sister Beth, breaking into song: "To dream the impossible dream . . . "

The girls laughed.

"No," said Sister Beth with a smile, "it's possible."

For Sister Beth, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, the "impossible dream" is indeed possible.

Two years ago, motivated by her belief that "the richness of our artistic expression should not be restricted to the privileged," Sister Beth's dream was to provide ballet classes to Orange County youths who otherwise could not afford them.

Last January, after a successful six-week pilot program in the summer of 1983, her dream came true.

It's called the St. Joseph Ballet Company.

The nonprofit troupe, supported by grants and donations, offers young people, ages 9 to 18, classes in beginning and advanced ballet four afternoons a week at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.

If the dancers' families can afford it, they pay $10 a month. Scholarships are available for those who can't afford the nominal monthly fee, and practice clothes, shoes and costumes are provided for everyone.

In its first year of operation, the St. Joseph Ballet Company has attracted more than 100 girls and boys: a diverse ethnic mix that includes Latinos, blacks, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Japanese or, as Sister Beth puts it, "just about everybody."

"Many of my dancers have a lot of talent but they don't have the resources to develop it because dance training is an extremely costly venture," she said. "I think the thing that drives me on is that talent is so precious, and it's a crime to waste it."

Currently, 29 students are enrolled in the beginning class, and 13 are in the advanced class. The only criteria for being accepted into the St. Joseph Ballet Company, according to Sister Beth, are "desire and a little bit of coordination."

"Basically, whether they become good dancers depends on whether they have the dedication to stick with it," said Sister Beth. "It's exciting for me to offer this opportunity. My dancers can really grow in a short period of time because they come so often."

And in the process of growing as dancers, Sister Beth observed, the dance students develop discipline, self-esteem and a sense of achievement.

"I really do think that if young persons realize their talent, they look at their future in a brand-new way and don't put so many limitations on themselves," she said. "By investing in themselves, they gain hope."

Friend to Students

As members of the St. Joseph Ballet Company, they also gain a friend.

"Sister Beth has played an important part in my life," said Tracee Turnbaugh, 13, a member of the advanced class. "I don't think anyone in the class just thinks of her as a dance teacher. She also helps us with our inner feelings and our confidence. We've had days where everyone comes in really grumpy, and we sit and talk about what's going on so we can get it out and have a better class. Sister Beth makes it really special."

"She's not like any other teacher; she's like a friend," said Dominique Rumps, 13, who also has two sisters in the class. "She helps you out when you have some problems--she's just a real nice person to be with, and she hypes you up."

The dance students, however, aren't the only ones who have been taken with Sister Beth.

'Tremendous Dedication'

"I'm one of those people who are infected by her enthusiasm and commitment," said Santa Ana City Councilman Dan Young, who serves on the ballet company's advisory board. "She has such tremendous dedication to the program and the kids that you find, as a helper or advisory board member, you get all caught up in the excitement she has."

"I enjoy Sister Beth immensely," said advisory board president John Johnson, owner of a Laguna Beach inn and a longtime ballet aficionado. "It's such an incredible program, and it's so incredible to watch when she's working with the children. The rapport, I find, is just amazing."

"I love these kids and I care about their whole lives," explained Sister Beth during a break before class one afternoon in the ballet company's office, a small room in the church basement with ballet pictures thumbtacked to the walls.

She was sipping tea out of a mug, a gift from a friend, that is decorated with ballet shoes and the quotation: "Dance is the only art wherein we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made."

'Beauty and Justice'

It's a fitting statement for the sister, who believes that through dancing, "we express our full selves because we use our whole bodies to express what's in our heart.

"The reason I love directing the St. Joseph Ballet Company and the reason it's gaining support is because it is bringing beauty and justice together in a way the kids just love."

As she talked, Sister Beth's attention was frequently diverted beyond the open office door to the hallway where her students had begun to filter in. "Hi, Laura! Are you going to change, dear?"; "Hi, Edie!"; "How are you doing, kiddie?" she would say as each student caught her eye.

Sister Beth, who also plans Christian service programs for the Campus Youth Ministry at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, agrees that teaching ballet is a "unique ministry for a sister."

"It's not too traditional; I certainly could agree with that," she said with a grin. "It takes people a while to put together 'nun' and 'ballet.' "

But for Sister Beth, the words "nun" and "ballet" are virtually synonymous. As she says, "dancing is in my blood; it's the way God made me."

As a child growing up in Portland, Ore., she fell in love with ballet from the moment she saw her first ballet dancer on the "Ed Sullivan Show" at the age of 4.

By the age of 8 she was taking ballet classes--she laughingly recalls putting on dance recitals for the neighbors--and when she enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, it was as a dance major.

But then, in her sophomore year of college, she stopped dancing completely.

"I was searching," she explained. "Somewhere in the back of my mind, I didn't think that going the route of being a professional ballerina would make me happy.

"I was really searching for beauty in being a dancer, and I realized I needed to look somewhere else for what I was looking for. In the next couple of years, I really started to feel God's presence, and that's when I made the decision to be a sister."

After graduating from college with a liberal arts degree in 1978, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange convent, where, she said, "I bought into the stereotype that 'nuns don't dance.' "

But a nun at the convent, "my novice director, suggested I take some ballet classes again. I think she sensed something was missing in my life," said Sister Beth.

"I believe God won't let expressing myself through dance die in me because that's one of the real touchstones where He and I meet--through that beauty of dancing."

And as soon as she began dancing again, Sister Beth said, "all sorts of opportunities just popped up for me to use this gift": She has danced in churches during Mass, choreographed dance programs for grade-school students and taught dance at Rosary High School in Fullerton for two years. And, of course, there's the St. Joseph Ballet Company.

"I really believe God wants the St. Joseph Ballet Company to be because it's not easy to start a new program like this," she said. "So many flukes have happened to make it work."

The first "fluke" was writing a grant proposal--her first--for the pilot program in 1983 and having it accepted by the Ahmanson Foundation on her "first try."

"They just believed in the dream," said Sister Beth.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange also believed in the dream. The convent has been subsidizing Sister Beth's salary as artistic director of the ballet company. (The sisters, however, won't be able to continue the subsidy next year, and the advisory board is planning fund-raisers to help continue the program.)

Won Foundation Grant

Since the program started, the St. Joseph Ballet Company has received a second grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, in addition to grants from the Disney Foundation, the Irvine Co., Mission Viejo Co. and several other firms.

Mervyn's Department Store, Nordstrom, Les Steinhardt and Dance France also have donated dance clothes and, "as a wonderful example in ecumenicalism," Sister Beth noted, the Episcopal Church of the Messiah donates the practice space.

The St. Joseph Ballet Company also has received support in the form of free ballet tickets from the Long Beach Ballet Company, the Joffrey Ballet Company and the American Ballet Theatre.

As guests of the American Ballet Theatre, Sister Beth said, 25 of her students were allowed to watch Cynthia Gregory, one of the top American ballerinas, in private rehearsal and, just minutes before curtain time, they were escorted across the stage where they were able to observe the ballerinas already in costume.

Her students, Sister Beth recalled, "were enraptured."

Performed in Public

"Most of them had never been in a theater before. And then, of course, in our classes they were so inspired that they worked harder than before. It was marvelous."

Sister Beth's students also have received ample opportunities to perform before the public, including performances at the Orange County Fair last summer and at eight elementary and high schools over a two-day period last fall.

"It was a marvelous experience for them," Sister Beth observed. "The kids at all the schools couldn't stop applauding."

The St. Joseph Ballet Company's next public performances will be on March 29 and 30 at the Santa Ana City Hall Annex.

It will, in effect, be a return engagement for the ballet company, which made its public debut at the annex last June. Over a two-night period, 30 of Sister Beth's most qualified dancers performed before an audience of more than 300.

The two dance concerts, appropriately, were titled, "Dreams Come True."

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