Pride Also Learned in Ballet Classes

<i> Stevenson is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles</i>

Dancer Leslie Juarez elegantly stood on half point, her right arm arching over her head perfectly. The 12-year-old ace tap dancer moved her leg into an arabesque--incorrectly.

Like a father teaching his daughter to walk, Francisco Martinez bent over, moving her leg through the ballet step. She repeated it beautifully, smiling with pride at his approval.

Martinez, founder of the Francisco Martinez Dance Theatre, a resident company of Plaza de la Raza, has been teaching the more advanced ballet students there for two years.

Martinez’s classes are part of the Plaza’s new conservatory program that offers more advanced classes and scholarships for deserving students.


A quiet man of medium height, Martinez was received coolly at first by the parents at the Plaza, which had never had a male instructor in ballet. “They didn’t know how to take me,” Martinez said. “Ballet is to them a feminine art, and they feel that only a woman can teach that.”

“I told them, ‘You have to trust me that I won’t hurt your child. I want to teach your child what I’ve learned through many strong female and male instructors,’ ” recalled Martinez, who danced with the Ft. Worth Ballet from 1975-79, graduated from Texas Christian University with a bachelor of fine arts in dance in 1978 and studied with luminaries such as Alwin Nikolais, Jose Limon and Murray Louis.

To alleviate parental fears, Martinez encourages parents to watch from outside the studio through a window so they won’t disturb the children’s concentration. Through his professionalism, his sense of discipline and his ability to relate alma a alma (soul to soul) to his students, Martinez, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, has gained the parents’ support.

Rachel Perez, 12, a ballet instructor’s dream contender for future prima ballerina, finds the discipline wonderful. “Without it how would we learn anything properly?” she stated emphatically.

His demands? They must be on time. Tardy students must watch the class. All are required to wear proper ballet attire--leotards, tights, no jewelry and hair up for the girls. The boys wear shorts, ballet shoes and T-shirts.

At 38, Martinez is concerned with more than form. He conducts his classes trilingually in Spanish, English and the language of ballet--French. He adds historical notes to what he teaches, giving the background of “Giselle” and other ballets.

One day he hopes to add the solid technique and grace of these future ballerinas to his own growing company, which Martinez said he is patterning after Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, only “for Hispanics, primarily.”

Martinez is undaunted by a lack of funding for his 9-year-old company. His performances--supported by private donations, ticket sales and his own income from work in a law office and at the Plaza--have had until now a lean visibility.

But the situation appears starting to change for his 14-member dance company, thanks to a matching grant of $1,000 from the National/State/County Partnership Award, as well as recent appearances in the Dance Gallery Presentations of Works in Progress and in a Celebration of African-American History at the Wilshire Ebell.

Eventually, he hopes to draw from his students. “They’ll be used to me as a teacher and as a choreographer and make that logical step into my company,” he said. Martinez has four of his students working with his company during the company class “so they will get used to a professional atmosphere. I say don’t try to outdo. Just try to keep up as much as you can. They come and study with us every Sunday.

“Most important, I want them to have fun, be proud of who they are and to learn to follow their dreams--no matter what--as I am.”