'Young Saints' Dance Their Way Through Life's Lessons

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Young Saints go marching in, suited in their red-and-white uniforms. They form a semicircle in the middle of a room furnished only with two ancient pianos and a smattering of chairs.

But the Saints don't notice the decor. They're too busy breaking into groups to rehearse their show tunes.

The youngest performers (Weenie Saints, ages 5 to 8) sing, shimmy and snap their fingers to an old Irving Berlin standard:

There's no business like show business

There's no business I know . . . .

The Little Saints (ages 9 to 13) perform a series of high kicks in a cavalcade of dance routines that includes the Suzy Q and the jitterbug. They sing along to a tune by composer/choreographer Norma Miller:

Everything in life's got a beat.

When you walk down the street.

Your feet taps to a beat .

The Junior Saints (ages 13 and 14) form lines while they do the Charleston and a dance they call the "crazy legs."

Along with a group of kids who range in age from 14 to 20, they make up the Young Saints Academy of Performing Arts and Skills, a children's group that showcases the music and dance routines of American jazz and gospel composers.

For 34 years, the Saints have been led by Evelyn and Tommy Roberts, both 70 and both original members of the "Wings Over Jordan" choir, which was featured on CBS radio from 1939 to 1950. Every weekday afternoon, in back of the Second Baptist Church in South-Central Los Angeles, the Robertses give 40 to 50 youngsters a small dose of the musical magic of the '30s, '40s and '50s. They are a throwback to the era when the big bands were king.

The Young Saints are a throwback in more ways than one.

Singing and dancing are electives at the academy. The basics are social graces. Values. Morals. Orderliness. Obedience.

"We make a difference," says Tommy Roberts whose authoritative voice can command a room full of 50 frenetic performers. "We teach them how to hold an audience so they can step out of the 'Watts' of life."

"One, two, three," he bellows.

The children immediately crouch on the floor.

"What is rule No. 1?" he asks.

"Think and remember," the children scream.

"Rule No. 2?"

"Walk on in style and don't forget to smile."

"And rule No. 3?"

"Don't give me no lip; make it!"

The Saints get a chance to yell and scream. Tommy Roberts gets a chance to teach his own form of discipline, which he hopes will foster a greater sense of self-esteem.

During the summer, some of the older Saints are paid the minimum wage to do chores for the academy. In addition, each Summer Saint is required to bring a notebook, pen, pencil and a dictionary, because part of every day is devoted to researching various subjects--abortion, flag burning, the Bill of Rights--and how those subjects affect them. The Robertses videotape their performances and academic achievements.

Summer Saints must dress conservatively; every Wednesday is "executive day," when they try to emulate "a Wall Street look."

"Some kids come to us and they can barely read. By the end of the (summer) program, you can see them blossom," says Evelyn Roberts.

The Robertses never ask anyone to leave the program. Evelyn Roberts says they don't have to.

Money, of course, is almost nonexistent. There is no charge for the after-school classes. The Robertses rely on donations from the church and community organizations; local televisions stations sometimes donate equipment when the Saints want to tape themselves.

Although membership is open, the program draws primarily from the surrounding neighborhoods. Most of the members are black or Latino. Often, there are several generationsof Saints on stage at the same time for a public performance.

Latasha Hamilton, whose mother was a Young Saint, signed up two years ago. Hamilton, 17, says Tommy Roberts helped her overcome a lifelong case of shyness.

"When speakers would come and we would have to get up say our name, age and what school we were from, I would tell them to go to the next person," Hamilton says.

"You know how first you get paranoid thinking everybody is laughing at you, then I got nervous and scared. Tommy and I would practice everyday. He told me it wasn't as hard as it seemed and I should ignore them. By the end of the summer, I wasn't shy any more. I was talking up a storm. The only time I'm shy now is around boys. Now I can get up in front of class and ask questions."

Occasionally, the hard work and discipline pay off with high-profile performances. The Young Saints have taken Broadway tunes and gospel numbers to the White House and have performed on a handful of network television specials. And each semester, the Saints put on a local concert, featuring a musical production like "Porgy and Bess," "Guys and Dolls" or "Westside Story." Their next concert will be Dec. 8.

The Robertses say they will run the program as long as children come through the door.

"These kids need help; somebody has to help them," says Evelyn Roberts. "And if we can help a few, we're happy. Many times we are able to pass on our commitment to help the community to others."

Tommy Roberts says graduating Saints have formed their own performing arts schools in Texas and Sacramento. He lists other graduates who are doctors, lawyers, business executives and entertainers.

"We plant seeds, and we get to see them grow," he says. "We're on the front line of their lives."

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