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HUNTINGTON BEACH : Children Learn Roots by Dancing

As an audience of their peers and parents clapped to the beat of the music, girls in colorful skirts and boys in white shirts and dark denims on Thursday proudly danced traditional dances of Mexico, known as Ballet Folklorico.

Their performance was part of the closing celebration of a monthlong summer camp for 60 youngsters, aged 5 to 13, who participated in the third annual Project LEARN--Local Efforts to Address and Reduce Neglect.

The program, a year-round effort of the Orange County division of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, provides a variety of services to the predominantly Latino students at Oak View Elementary School and their parents.

The camp, held in August at the school’s BienestarFamily Center, focuses on giving children from the low-income area enriching cultural and recreational activities, said Dorothy Nieto Manzer, manager of the Project LEARN prevention program.

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Offered free, the summer camp is made possible through private donations.

For the past month, the young dancers have practiced daily during the summer camp. Maria Elena Arreola, who has formally studied the art of Ballet Folklorico, volunteered to instruct the children, hoping to help the children retain their heritage and culture.

Being a part of the dance team has helped the youngsters develop self-esteem, Manzer said. The dances give Latino children a positive expression of their culture and help Anglo youngsters learn about Mexican dance.

Arreola taught the youngsters dances native to the northern regions of Mexico and the southern state of Jalisco. If the performances by the young dancers were not technically perfect, she said, they were from the heart.

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Dancers agreed that Folklorico is one way of learning more about their roots.

“I wanted to learn my culture because my ancestors danced,” said 11-year-old Eduardo Gonzalez, one of the 19 male dancers.

Graciela Gonzalez, Eduardo’s mother, agreed that Ballet Folklorico is a good way for her American-born son to relive her family’s way of life in Mexico.

Wearing the costume made her feel proud of herself and her friends, said Elizabeth Lopez, 11, one of 13 female dancers who wore an off-the-shoulder white blouse and a short, red print ruffled skirt. She said she chose to join in the dancing “because it’s part of me.”

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