New Program Puts Juvenile Offenders Behind Barres : Courts: Those who run afoul of the law in L.A. County may be sentenced to dancing or acting classes instead of confinement as part of unique project.


In the Wild West, punishment might have been a six-shooter fired into the barroom floor and the order: "Dance, you varmint!"

These days, punishment might be a court order fired off by a judge that sentences culprits to the barre room--for ballet dancing.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles juvenile court officials began sending youngsters convicted of such things as graffiti vandalism and car theft to dancing and acting classes as a condition of probationary sentences.

Teen-agers who take their pirouettes and plies seriously will avoid confinement in juvenile camps. They will also shave up to 100 hours off community service sentences normally handed out in Los Angeles County's 27 juvenile courts.

Court administrators said the project, which is starting with 15 young offenders, is the first of its kind in the nation.

The performance classes will be staged by a nonprofit group called City Hearts. Organizers hope to include 250 teen-agers and open similar programs in San Diego and Seattle.

Youngsters were toeing the line as the program got under way Wednesday south of downtown Los Angeles with dance instruction by prima ballerina Beatriz Rodriguez of the Joffrey Ballet.

Rodriguez is performing in "Billboards," which had its Los Angeles premiere later in the day at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. She demonstrated ballet movements atop a converted loading dock inside a 1920s-era dairy warehouse once used by the Challenge Creamery Co.

Watching intently was a 17-year-old from Los Angeles named Joshua who is on probation for burglary and assault with a deadly weapon--a knife.

"I'll be a little nervous getting up there. But I'll do it," vowed the youth, forbidden by the court to give his last name.

Jose, a 17-year-old South Los Angeles resident whose sentence for throwing rocks at police included a stint in a juvenile camp, was also game. Up to a pointe.

"I've danced at parties but that's it," he said. "I'll dance here, but I won't wear tights. And I won't wear toe shoes. No way."

That's OK, said Sherry Jason, a former ballerina turned criminal defense attorney from Topanga Canyon. Nine years ago, she founded City Hearts to teach inner-city youngsters about the performing arts after hearing a teen-age murderer learning to play a Mozart piano concerto in juvenile hall.

"We won't deal with tights. They'd get dirty, and I certainly don't intend to wash them. Kids would lose them," Jason said. Teen-agers can dance barefooted if they don't want to use dance slippers that are provided, she said.

Each youngster in the program--dubbed "Sentenced to the Stage"--will receive three hours of performing arts instruction a week for 10 weeks. The $2,500 cost of each 10-week segment is underwritten by donations; about $25,000 has been pledged so far, organizers said.

Superior Court Judge Jaime R. Corral, who sentenced several youngsters to the inaugural dance class, said the program will not be used for dangerous, drive-by-shooter-type offenders.

And "we're not rewarding kids for doing wrong by sending them here," Corral said. "The beauty of Juvenile Court is we have the flexibility to be as creative as we want, as long as it's in the interest of the child and of society as a whole."

Television actress Hattie Winston, one of the stars of "Homefront," helped teach the first-day acting class, and she didn't dance around the issue either.

"If it were not for theater and stage, I could have been one of these kids," Winston said.

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