If professional dancer John Pickett had turned into Magic Johnson as he pirouetted across the indoor basketball court of Los Angeles County's Central Juvenile Hall on Monday, he could not have received a heartier reception than he did from the 160 inmates.
The lanky Pickett and two other members of the City Hearts Performing Arts troupe performed at an assembly designed to entertain incarcerated youths and to gauge interest in an elective dance instruction program at the hall's high school.
The response was overwhelming.
With whoops of delight threatening to drown out a booming cassette of the rap group Run-D.M.C., youngsters swayed in their graffiti-gouged seats while Pickett and his companions demonstrated a series of dance forms ranging from ballet to break dancing.
But the place really began to rock when Pickett requested volunteers.
Hesitating at first, a couple of youngsters finally stepped forward. Then, buoyed by a response of cheers, a steady stream of youths surged to the front of the gym.
"We have enough, we have enough. Thank you very much," shouted Pickett before he could be inundated by the audience of juveniles held for crimes ranging from burglary to murder.
"It's a way they can gain self-esteem by doing a simple activity that they can achieve," Pickett said after the 45-minute session. "The young men enjoyed it."
This fall, school officials said, Pickett will return on a weekly basis to provide instruction. The program, which is still in need of public or private funding, is one of several community service efforts sponsored by City Hearts.
For a few seconds Monday, there was some question as to how positive the response would be to Pickett and his sweat-suited partners, Robert Gilliam and Kim Jeske.
After explaining that the program is titled "Say Yes to the Arts," Jason asked the audience to "say no to gangs." Instead, the youths, almost in unison, shot back, "Yes," with many also flashing gang hand signals.
According to Principal David G. Flores, 90% of his wards are affiliated with gangs.
But then the music kicked in, and scowls turned to smiles.
"It's great the way they came here to see us," said one youth, who has been held for five months on charges of attempted murder. "Dancing could keep you off the street, it's something to do instead of hanging out and getting in trouble.
"Now, if you don't have a sport, you either turn to selling dope or to straight gang-banging."