St. Joseph Ballet Company in Santa Ana is a dance group on its way. Directed by Sister Beth Burns, the 2-year-old company has won an $87,000 grant from the Minneapolis-based Dayton Hudson Foundation that will allow hundreds of youngsters a chance to dance and explore the world of ballet.

To be spent over three years, the money is one of the largest private grants ever awarded to an Orange County arts-for-youth organization.

The Dayton Foundation, an arm of the parent company of Mervyn’s Department Stores, selected St. Joseph Ballet after a nationwide search for quality arts programs for children. The ballet company is one of only three California arts groups receiving part of a $1-million commitment by the foundation and one of six recipients nationwide.

(Other California recipients are the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts of Los Angeles, $123,000; and California Poets in the Schools of Sacramento, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Los Angeles, $50,000.)

The grant gave St. Joseph Ballet’s supporters more than enough reason to celebrate. On Thursday afternoon, more than 100 dancers at Lathrop Intermediate School--where Sister Beth and four assistants have been holding a series of workshops--leaped, pranced and cavorted at a formal announcement of the grant, while a group of parents, supporters and Santa Ana Unified School District officials watched. After a 90-minute dance workout set to taped accompaniment of “Love of Another Kind” by Christian rock singer Amy Grant, youngsters were sweaty, hot and tired but giggling, squealing and happy after their performance.


“Something new is happening in Orange County, something full of hope with the dignity and freedom for young people to pursue what they dream,” Sister Beth Burns said. “You can see in these young people’s faces that their joy is real.”

Thursday’s performance marked the highlight of the first of 10 weeklong “DanceFree” workshops. On Oct. 12, starting at 10 a.m., dance hopefuls who wish to audition for St. Joseph Ballet Company will try out at Episcopal Church of the Messiah, where the company has been rehearsing until it can find more permanent studios.

Girls and boys picked to join the company attend two to four classes a week and take field trips to see professional dance performances such as American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem. Dancers also get to perform in public schools and institutions throughout Orange County.

Tuition and company membership costs $10 a month, and the grant money will be used to offset expenses for those who cannot afford it.

When Sister Beth founded the ensemble in 1983, she said she believed dance training should not be restricted to those who could afford the high costs. At present, 58% of the members of the company, whose ages range from 9 to 19, come from families whose incomes are below the poverty line; 68% are Hispanic. A grant from the Ahmanson Foundation helped start a pilot program. Later, there were numerous benefactors including the Disney Foundation, the Irvine Co., Mission Viejo Co., C.J. Segerstrom and Sons, Coors Inc. and donations of dance gear from Nordstrom’s and Mervyn’s department stores.

At Thursday’s ceremonies, Orange County Superintendent of Schools Robert Peterson called the program, which is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, a “magnificent effort.”

“What you’re doing here and now is opening up another avenue that you’ll follow for your lifetime,” he told Lathrop students.

Next week, Sister Beth and her assistants will be holding workshops at various Santa Ana schools, where 100 youngsters are expected to take part at each location.

“These young people would not be dancing without this grant,” she said. “By the end of the program, hundreds more will have been exposed to dance. I don’t know of any other arts program in Orange County that gives so much to so many for so little.”