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Dancing on the Side of Law and Order : Prom: The young lawbreakers experience an alternative lifestyle.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Authorities threw a different kind of book--Emily Post--at some young lawbreakers when 39 car thieves, drug dealers and gang members got a chance to attend the prom they missed in high school.

After weeks of learning to cut meat with a knife and being told that it’s not proper to talk about gangs at dinner, inmates from county probation camps put on donated gowns and military-style uniforms Wednesday and danced until their feet hurt at the Desert Inn in Lancaster.

Then the girls kicked off their heels--some had never worn them before--and danced some more.

“This is all part of the goal of showing the kids an alternative lifestyle,” said Barry Nidorf, chief probation officer for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, which sponsored the event to demonstrate to the delinquents the rewards of a law-abiding life.

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Nidorf stood happily among the 20 couples--a boy barred at the last minute for disciplinary reasons was replaced by a staff member--and said that although his staff is encouraged to come up with unusual rehabilitation approaches, “when I heard about this one, I couldn’t believe they could pull it off.”

But pull it off they did. The only apparent differences from any other prom on any other warm night were the tattoos that peeked out from some of the gowns. And when it was all over, the girls and boys boarded separate institutional vans for the ride back to the camps where they are incarcerated.

The dance was the inspiration of Michelle Guyman, a deputy probation officer at the Challenger Memorial Youth Center Camp in Lancaster, a complex of six camps that house 550 boys and girls from 12 to 18 years old.

When Guyman learned that many of her charges had never been to a high school dance, she decided to throw one. The dance eventually developed into a formal ball.

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“We turned a molehill into a mountain,” Guyman said with a laugh.

It was decided that participation in the ball would be based upon merit and good behavior. The field was narrowed from 80 girls to 20.

One of the finalists was 17-year-old car thief Stella Reyes, a willowy, dark-haired dorm captain. She had become a runaway and then ran with gangs. Her nickname, “Shy Girl,” is tattooed on her upper back.

The boys came from Camp Munz in Lake Hughes, a military-style camp that uses tough discipline to teach inmates a new code of behavior.

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Originally, the boys were going to pick girl partners, but they were so shy that the girls took charge. Stella picked Robert Estrada, a slender 17-year-old with a crooked, ingenuous smile.

“He’s real gentle,” Stella said of her choice. “He talks positive stuff.”

Like Stella, Robert was in for grand theft auto. He had been in jail before, for burglary and carrying a concealed weapon.

After the couples were paired, the serious preparations began. There were instructions on how to eat, how to talk and how to walk, since many had almost no training in manners. The girls were told how to stand and the boys were shown how to pull out their partner’s chair.

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They were also warned to keep their hands off the girls.

Community volunteers such as 91-year-old Harold Workman and his daughter, Donna Johnson, taught the inmates how to waltz.

“They didn’t like it,” Johnson, a regal-looking woman with dangling earrings, said with a laugh. “But we taught them anyway.”

While this variation on “Pygmalion” was under way, Guyman helped round up donors for everything from clothes to flowers to cakes. Gowns were donated by civic groups or purchased at a reduced rate; Glitz Limousine Service offered a reduced price; the room at the Desert Inn was handed over free, and the Cal State Long Beach ROTC sent green Army uniforms to wear with tux-style bow ties.

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Altogether, more than $4,000 in donated services had come in by the day of the ball, the theme of which was “Wishing on a Star.”

On Wednesday, the girls were taken to a vacant building at Challenger, where they dressed and helped each other with makeup and hair. Stella, clad in a long black gown with off-the-shoulder sleeves, was in demand because her mother is a hairdresser.

Though she seemed to have shed her Shy Girl reputation as she dashed here and there to help others, she admitted: “You get nervous. You don’t know how you look.”

She had been practicing not to use her fingers when cutting her meat. Having never been to a prom, she said she found the donated rhinestone jewelry and tight-fitting clothes a little uncomfortable. “But it feels good,” she hastened to add.

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The only letdown came when Stella called her mom to tell her about the ball and about the press interest it had generated. “I told her, ‘I’m coming out in the newspaper,’ ” Stella recalled.

“She said, ‘What did you do now?’ ”

At the same time, Deputy Probation Officer Stacy Thompson conducted a class on the correct way to walk, leading a line of girls from one side of the room to the other, her hips swaying slightly.

“Put your head up more,” she commanded. “Don’t chew your gum. One foot in front of the other--natural, natural.”

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Like awkward goslings, the girls tried to follow, though several swayed more like tightrope walkers than femmes fatales.

“The boys are in the gym,” Probation Officer Kimberly Thompson announced, setting off squeaks of excitement and anxiety. “Do not be nervous,” she said. “We have worked on this a long time.”

As the boys marched up, in close cropped haircuts that are the mark of their military-style dorm, Jan Aven, a special assistant in the Probation Department, shook her head in wonder. “Several months ago, these kids were on the street gangbanging.”

The girls took the arms of their escorts and crowded into limousines for the ride to the ball.

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In the Rogue Room, a Santa Monica band named E. Z. provided music.

Nidorf took the microphone. “When you have a challenge you think is not possible to achieve, remember tonight,” Nidorf told the inmates. “Make tonight a symbol of being able to achieve what you want to achieve.”

Then it was Stella’s turn. “Tonight we feel more cared for, more loved and more human,” she said simply, receiving a standing ovation.

At the top of Robert’s list of what he wanted to achieve was to see Stella again.

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It wouldn’t be easy. They couldn’t make a date for the weekend. So he sat by himself near the dance floor trying to figure out whether she would agree to see him after they finished their sentences.

Near the dance floor, discarded high heels were piling up as a dance contest wound down. “I don’t want it to be over,” Stella said.

But just as Cinderella’s coach turned into a pumpkin, white institutional vans rolled up to replace the limousines, and it was over.

Probation officials who had prayed that nothing would go wrong were pleased. All the inmates were accounted for.

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“Let’s go, girls,” a staff member called out, and the girls grabbed souvenir balloons and trooped to their vans.

Left behind, Robert was not at all unhappy: “We made an arrangement to see each other later,” he said with a crooked smile.


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