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Beth Burns Steps Into Lives of Children

Mugging for a picture with two of her prize dancers, St. Joseph Ballet founder Beth Burns, a former nun, gets the giggles.

The teen-agers have executed graceful arabesques in the garden of Le Meridien Hotel, and, holding their poses, they stare worshipfully at their choreographer. “No, no!” Burns howls, scooping them up in a hug, “that’s too adoring!”

Another hug. Click. “Much better,” she says, smiling for the camera.

Burns came last week to Le Meridien to receive the prestigious Amelia Earhart Award from the Women’s Opportunity Center of UC Irvine.

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The award is bestowed annually upon a woman who has provided growth opportunity for others. In 1983, Burns founded the St. Joseph Ballet Company of Santa Ana. Since then, 20,000 children from low-income families have learned the discipline of the dance in a loving environment.

Does she always have this much fun? “I use a lot of humor in my work,” Burns says, taking a breather before she flies into a ballroom packed with 650 people. (The paparazzi have been keeping her busy for about an hour now.)

“We love her because she has childlike qualities,” teases dancer Flor de Liz Alzate, 18. “But we also know the look ,” Alzate says, grinning at Burns. “It’s her smile that says, ‘It’s not funny anymore; time to get to work.’ ”

“Picture a child,” Burns says softly to the men and women who have dined on chicken Nicoise salad in the hotel ballroom. “One that’s dear to you. Now, imagine that child alone . . . Mom and Dad at work.

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“The child has given thought to joining a gang. He or she doesn’t want to be alone. The child is afraid.”

Enter the St. Joseph Ballet, “where that fear is turned into the free use of one’s gifts,” Burns says. “When Flor de Liz joined the ballet eight years ago, I was worried about her. She wore clothes that were reminiscent of Madonna’s first incarnation, and I’m not talking about the Holy Virgin. She wore too much makeup.

“After about a year, she began to dress in little cotton shorts, with no makeup. I asked her if she knew why. She told me, ‘I got happy.’ ”

Applause fills the room. It is a golden moment for Burns. A crowd that lives far from the inner city has understood her mission.

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After the festivities, Burns talks about her work and why she left the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange: “When I was a sister of St. Joseph, I knew I wanted to use my gifts to help the poor,” she says. Burns has danced the ballet since childhood.

“I had the sense that artistic expression and a loving environment could foster the three building blocks of success--self-esteem, self-discipline and a sense of accomplishment.”

But she was teaching high school in a suburban area, she says. She wanted a greater challenge. “I had the feeling I wanted to make a bigger difference in the world. I needed a little bit more room in my own life personally to grow spiritually.”

In 1983 Burns wrote a grant proposal, hoping she might be able to teach dance to impoverished children. The Ahmanson Foundation responded, agreeing to fund a five-week summer pilot program.

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“Do you want your children to be able to dance, have fun, feel proud of themselves?” were the words Sister Beth printed on the posters she distributed that summer in Santa Ana.

She wasn’t afraid to walk the hot, dusty streets where gangs and drug dealers held court. “For what I want to do and be in life, it doesn’t make any sense to put much energy toward something bad that might happen,” she says. “Gosh, you could be in Corona del Mar and get hit by a truck.”

About 20 children responded. The first lessons were held in the basement of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.

By 1989, the company was well established and Burns, who left the order the same year, was able to move to its present location, a 4,000-square-foot studio in Fiesta Marketplace. “It’s well lit and maintained and respected by the community,” she says.

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And she is grateful. “I believe passionately in these children. Their hearts have touched me deeply.”


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