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BARRIO BALLET : Directed by a 31-Year-Old Nun, Dancers--Mostly Latino and From Poor Families Themselves--'Touch the Souls’ of Youth

Jeers from the audience spattered like rotten tomatoes as the dancers took their places.

The pachucos roughhousing in the auditorium were a tough audience.

Students enjoying a break from classes, but not looking forward to a ballet program, jostled restlessly and talked loudly.

Profanities knifed across aisles, followed by raucous laughter.

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Fearful but resolute--even confident--45 Santa Ana teen-agers started their performance. Ever so gradually, the audience became quiet . . . serious . . . reflective.

When the lights came back on an hour later, there was no applause; students sat in moody silence. A lanky 15-year-old Latino--a collage of tattered denim, leather and chains with a gang scarf knotted around his right calf--brushed away a tear with the back of a tattooed fist.

A lone, tentative clap rang out. Then another. Soon the whole auditorium vibrated from a thunderous ovation.

Ballet for the street-wise Home Boys from Santa Ana’s barrio?

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“We were very nervous about performing at Santa Ana High School,” says Sister Beth Burns, director, choreographer and guiding light of the St. Joseph Ballet Company. “I heard from a boy I had counseled in Juvenile Hall that it was the toughest school around. He was afraid to walk down the halls without his knife.

“But our dancers, mostly Latino and from poor families, wanted to perform there, to reach out, to touch their souls,” she says.

“The students felt a powerful connection with our dancers and the themes of our dances. We managed to touch their souls. What more can any performer ask?”

What were the powerful themes that quieted and touched these youngsters? The ones they live with. Burns wants dance to address problems facing young people, especially inner-city children, every day.

“Street Games” examines the dynamics of gang hostility and its tragic consequences.

“I interviewed an expert on gang behavior from Occidental College,” says Burns, 31, a Loyola Marymount graduate. “I wanted to find out what, if anything, could influence gang violence. He said that gang workers--former members who try to iron out gang differences--are highly regarded by all gang members. They feel these workers are the only people they can really trust. If something happens to a gang worker, it really shakes up the gangs.”

“Street Games” tells the story of a gang worker who tries to break up a fight caused by one gang member writing graffiti in a rival gang’s territory. The gang worker is killed trying to unite the warring gangs. Members of both gangs are so shocked by his death that they develop an emotional but not physical unity. The audience is left to reflect on one person’s ultimate sacrifice for that brief moment of unity.

“In another dance, called ‘Bright Driven Star,’ we perform to the music of ‘Firebird’ by Igor Stravinsky,” Burns says. “It is a very rousing and inspiring piece. I tell the audience before the dance that stars in the sky are overwhelmingly huge and beautiful. But really, they are just a cold rock, a mass of simple chemicals. I explain that each and every member of the audience has the opportunity to shine brighter than any star ever could because God gave them the ability to love, sacrifice, share, laugh and be compassionate.”

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Since its inception in 1983, her company has been touching the souls not only of its audiences but also of its performers. Made up of dancers ages 9 to 19--68% of whom are Latino and 90% of whom are from low-income families--the group is the only dance company in the county that seeks out and trains young people who could not otherwise afford the chance to dance.

“One of the problems of these inner-city children,” Burns says, “is they see no future for themselves. They see a vicious circle where there is no escape for them. They will end up in the same kind of life style their parents are trapped in.

“Our dance program allows these children the opportunity to grow in self-esteem, self-discipline, and to strive for achievement through the intensive training and performance schedule.”

An annual dance concert is given each spring, as well as performances at community and civic events, schools and convalescent homes. All students, whatever their level of talent, dance in these performances.

Tryouts for the dance troupe are held twice a year at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana. “To be accepted, all you have to do is show a little coordination and a lot of desire,” Burns says.

For $10 per month--which is waived if the family can’t afford it--members are supplied with dance costumes and given instruction in classical ballet and jazz two to five times a week, depending on their level of ability. Burns teaches the classes.

The energetic, vivacious nun came from a family of four girls and has been involved with dance since she was young. She had no desire to become a nun until she entered college. While there, friends talked her into attending services each night before dinner. That led to prayer and Bible study. Finally, one day:

“I felt the presence of God. God became the center of my life, rather than a mystery on the edge. I took my vows after graduation. I worked as a teacher/counselor at a few inner-city schools, but I felt a calling to do more.

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“My family has always been very service-oriented. My mom went to Cambodia and Ethiopia to distribute food and medicine.”

Burns believes that the arts ennoble the heart. “Since dance was my medium,” she says, “I decided to start this program and . . . received a grant from the Ahmanson Foundation for a five-week trial program, and results were so marked we’ve continued until today.”

During the workouts, Burns wears black tights, black leg warmers and a black leotard with a small wooden cross pinned above her heart.

Many of the students have reached a high level of achievement. Their dedication shows in their faces as they hold a particularly difficult position, calves trembling. With a wave of her hand, the nun signals a break. She walks to a 9-year-old Asian girl and cups her hand under the girl’s chin.

“You must keep your head and eyes up when you dance,” she counsels softly. “You must look up at the audience, or the audience will look down at your feet with you.” The little girl lifts her chin and eyes, where they stay as she returns to the dance.

Many touring ballet companies donate performance tickets to St. Joseph dancers. Master classes by soloists of the Joffrey Ballet Company and American Ballet Theatre, among others, have helped the youngsters establish goals of excellence.

George de la Pena, former American Ballet Theatre soloist and star of the movie “Nijinsky,” was asked by the California Arts Council to judge a performance by St. Joseph for a possible grant.

“The performance blew me away,” de la Pena says. “I was overwhelmed by its honesty and the dancers’ abilities. In fact, the only thing wrong with the performance was I couldn’t stop crying long enough to watch the rest of the performance!”

In August, the company was awarded the highest rating possible by the California Arts Council and was the highest-ranking dance company in the county.

Arts Council awards are determined by complicated formulas based on the budgets of the applying groups and evaluations of both their artistic and organizational strengths and their efforts to reach minority communities. The ballet company will receive $11,696--about 10% of its annual budget--from the council.

Santa Ana has also granted $60,000 to help the troupe move into a new studio space at the Fiesta Marketplace in downtown Santa Ana. Alan Fainbarg and Irving Chase, partners in the Fiesta Marketplace, have donated the second floor of the building for five years, free of rent. Installing special flooring and interior decorating to bring the space up to studio standards will cost about $90,000.

“We are hoping,” Burns says, “that our Fall Friends Campaign, which kicked off with our Oct. 4 performance at Chapman College, will generate the remainder of the funds needed. We won’t move until all the money is available.”

Then she points to the 45 students valiantly trying to practice on a handkerchief-size dance floor. “As you can see, we really need the extra space.”

The new studio will have a 2,000-square-foot dance floor, plus room for offices and dressing rooms.

“I’m so proud of our dancers. They are the real testimony that dedication with focus, support and praise can lift the spirit and change lives,” Burns says.

She puts her arms around a good example, Flor de Liz Alzate, 12. “Flor came to us a very sophisticated 9-year-old,” she says. “She wore a lot of makeup and dressed pretty outrageously. She looked like a caricature of her favorite rock star. Not anymore.”

“When I was 9 years old, I was not happy,” says the Colombian-born youngster, who moved to the United States when she was 3. “Before I started dancing, I would come home from school, do my homework and watch television. I was not allowed to leave the house because my parents both worked, and they were worried about where I would go. But now I have dance. I look forward to it all day. I think I was born to dance. Now I am happy!”

Flor de Liz plays the lead role Innocence in a dance routine called “Desires.” She visits the Big City and is systematically seduced by Have It All, symbolized by a glittering necklace and a purse; Do It My Own Way, represented by a hat symbolizing power, and Feels So Good, represented by a red robe. After succumbing to all these, she has a Nightmare of Desires. She wakes and realizes these trappings have no real substance.

“I tried in my acting and dancing to show how you would feel if you bought a beautiful necklace,” Flor de Liz says. “All your friends loved it and are envious of you. You are the center of attention for a while. You are caught up in the excitement and feel very special.

“But after a while, no one notices it anymore. It means nothing. You feel let down and depressed. You feel shallow. I realized that there is more to life than these materialistic things.”

In the final scene of the dance, Innocence gains wisdom. So, Burns hopes, do many who watch the dance.

Zuley Garcia, a small a girl with black hair pulled back in a short ponytail, goes through the dance routine Burns has just demonstrated.

“When I dance, all my problems go away,” says the almond-eyed girl. “I’m 12 years old, and I’m only 4 feet 5 inches tall. People are always telling me how small I am. It hurts me.

“But when I dance, I am not so small.”

As if to make her point, she springs into the air. Later she confides, in her slight Spanish accent, “My mother tells me that the exercise of dance will help me grow. Do you think so?”

Judging from the positive influence the St. Joseph Ballet Company has had on the young people involved in the program, Zuley’s mother is right in more ways than one. Innocence gains Wisdom.


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