Dancing Away From Trouble : Youth: Ballet camp offers discipline and an alternative for youngsters drifting toward gangs.


Todd Bonno was headed for trouble.

By the end of last year, his mother says, the 11-year-old Long Beach elementary school student had turned sullen and uncooperative enough to raise concerns that he was drifting toward gangs.

Then he discovered ballet. This summer, says his mother, Sue Martin, Todd is wearing slippers instead of sneakers and practicing pirouettes instead of getting into trouble.

"It's turned his life around," Martin said. "This is the most wonderful thing that could have happened to him."

Chalk one up for the Willie Gault/Long Beach Ballet Dance Camp, which attempts to keep inner-city children out of trouble in the summertime by introducing them to ballet, an art form few have seen, let alone participated in.

"This is probably the most positive thing that's ever happened to them," said Yolanda Rubio Soto, administrator of the day camp run by the Long Beach Ballet. "There are no wimpy dancers; by taking control of their bodies they can take control of their lives."

Selected by teachers and counselors in the Long Beach Unified School District, the 60 dance campers, ranging in age from 9 to 14, are considered a high risk to join gangs. Most come from economically deprived backgrounds and live in neighborhoods in which gangs run rampant.

Yet for the past five weeks, they have been working five hours a day preparing for a gala musical and dance performance scheduled for Sept. 21 at the city's Center Theater. Called "Say Yes to Dance," it will feature ballet, jazz and tap dance, as well as singing. While the performance will mark the end of this year's program, ballet officials say, they hope eventually to be able to offer the dance camp on a year-round basis.

"They've come out of nowhere to do this," said David Wilcox, the ballet company's artistic director, who is overseeing the production.

Wilcox was less enthusiastic last summer, when the dance camp began.

Discipline was so lax among that year's class of 25 inner-city kids, Wilcox said, that at first he was disconcerted. "They beat each other up, threatened each other, stole from each other. I and half the staff wanted to quit," he recalled.

Eventually, he said, the young participants got interested in the subject, and settled down.

To avoid similar problems this year, he said, the ballet hired Soto, a professional dancer who now teaches high school, and several teen-age counselors to help keep the youngsters in line.

Still, persuading tough youths to spend a good chunk of their summer vacations practicing ballet proved to be formidable. So the dance company called on Gault, a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Raiders, who appeared at a series of school assemblies in the spring to describe, among other things, how dancing had enhanced his athletic career.

"I think those of us who are fortunate have a duty to give something back to those who are less fortunate," said Gault, who has danced with the Chicago City Ballet and in a Broadway show.

"This will introduce the art of modern ballet to kids who wouldn't ordinarily have such an opportunity. It will get them off the streets and teach them discipline, which is essential to anything you do in life."

Wilcox said 14 of the 60 children enrolled in the camp this year are boys. And Gault, along with the Raiderettes, will be performing with them on Sept. 21.

In preparation for the show, the children arrive each morning by school bus dressed in regulation outfits consisting of black leotards and pink tights for the girls and black nylon pants and white T-shirts for the boys.

They dance in ballet slippers or tap shoes, depending on which number they are rehearsing.

Beginning with a half-hour warm-up, the youngsters practice plies, tendus and jettes (knee bends, foot stretches and jumps) to the accompaniment of a piano. Then, dividing into smaller groups, they rehearse numbers for the show or work on their costumes.

Like the instruction itself, the transportation, costumes, rehearsal clothing and lunch are free.

Ballet officials put the cost of running the five-week camp at about $35,000, raised through individual contributions, various fund-raising activities and a grant. Cookie Braude, the ballet's special events director, says she is now trying to raise an additional $35,000 to pay for the scheduled performance, which is being billed as a fund-raiser.

Those who teach the children say that studying ballet will give them more focus and discipline, characteristics likely to help them keep out of trouble.

Some of the young dancers themselves, however, see other advantages as well.

"It gets you stronger so that you can play football better and ride your bike faster," Todd Bonno said.

Despite the chiding of some male friends, Gary Goble, 11, said he has stuck with the ballet camp because "it helps me jump higher and slam the ball into the basketball hoop at school."

And 12-year-old Misty Thomas recently touched many of her instructors deeply and, they say, dramatized for them the nature of their undertaking when she insisted on coming to camp the day after her 24-year-old brother was shot and seriously wounded in front of a bar.

"It was better than staying home and worrying," she said. "Coming here helped me to cope."

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