DOWNTOWN : Children Treated to 4-Day Arts Festival

Fifth-grader Jennifer Williams learned recently that feet and music aren't the only important elements in dance.

Pinkies count too.

The 10-year-old had to lock her little finger on each hand with her classmates' pinkies and stay together in a circle to keep up with a 16th-Century Elizabethan dance called a branle (pronounced "brawl"), performed last week outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

As music blared from a tape player, Jennifer and friends swayed from side to side and bounced back and forth--all the while trying not to let go of each other.

After the dance ended, most of them couldn't help but wriggle their hands free.

"It must have been interesting and hard" for the Elizabethans, said Jennifer, who attends First Lutheran Elementary School in the Mid-City area. "I can't imagine anybody not breaking pinkies."

"I think the hard part was they didn't want to hold the pinkies of a boy," the girl's teacher, Margaret Mateuchev, joked.

Jennifer was one of more than 3,000 fifth-graders who showed up Tuesday for the 24th Blue Ribbon Children's Festival.

Over four days, 28,000 students from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura county schools learned about the arts through Music Center programs, officials said.

Funding comes from a $100,000 annual grant from the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation.

"We think it's very important to introduce the Music Center to children," particularly at the fifth-grade level, said Joan Boyett, executive director of the center's education division.

"They're enthusiastic. They're going to be in the school for one more year," Boyett said. "They're old enough so you can do more sophisticated things."

The dance program, which is different during each festival, offers students an opportunity to not only learn about history and culture but respond to what they learn about performance, officials said.

In addition to the Elizabethan dance, fifth-graders last week also watched a program inside the Pavilion titled "The Art of the Actor." A cast from Performing for Los Angeles Youth dazzled students with behind-the-scenes instruction about the stage, lighting and acting.

Actors culminated their presentation with an excerpted performance of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," a classic tragedy about two youths from feuding families who fall in love.

"Everybody thought it was important to do Shakespeare," Boyett said. "(But) we were wondering whether Shakespeare was appropriate."

Although some, like Danielle Lim of Dorris Place School in Elysian Valley, thought the kissing scenes were "gross," most students said they could relate to the story's themes about love and hate.

"It teaches us how to get along," said Richard Garay, an 11-year-old student at Dorris Place. "It teaches us a lesson because it took a death to stop them from fighting."

His teacher, Sarah Williams, said the event offered a rare opportunity for her students--most of whom come from latchkey families--to visit the Pavilion.

"It teaches them socially appropriate behavior," Williams said. "They learn how to respond to a theater production appropriately rather than whistling and howling."

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