The house lights dimmed in the expansive neo-Art Deco concert hall as three female dancers from the renowned Paris Opera Ballet glided in, en pointe. The capacity audience gasped in wonder and giggled in delight.
A whisper was heard from the crowd: "How do they stand on their tippy-toes like that?"
On this day, 1,400 students from schools in Cerritos and Norwalk watched a demonstration by the Paris company at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
Thursday's event was one of about 30 annual free appearances by world-class performing arts groups for students and educators sponsored by the Friends of the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
Walter Morlock, executive director of the group, said the program was established when the center opened in 1993, with hopes of picking up the slack caused by cuts to school arts programs.
"I couldn't imagine a whole generation of students growing up with that element missing in their lives," he said.
The organization works with artists that perform at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, holding free demonstrations for local schools, teachers or parents and their children. Upcoming Friends-sponsored events include sessions with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Moscow Festival Ballet.
"It was neat that they show you how they practice," said sixth-grader Christine Wang of Norwalk's Whitman Elementary School.
"Yeah, it shows you how hard it is," said classmate Branden Chhuor.
The hour ended with an audience-participation segment, as the Paris Opera Ballet's artistic director led student volunteers from Whitman Elementary through a ballet tutorial.
Fifth-grader Christopher Bolen and fourth-grader Alyssa Weseman practiced basic positions and plies with the guidance of two of the company's dancers.
Branden, who had never seen ballet before, confessed that he had subscribed to the sissies-in-tights stereotype. But after seeing three powerful male dancers perform the reenactment of a grueling practice session with flashy modern dance-influenced moves, he was in awe.
"People don't dance like that today," Branden said. "They only do rap dance and stuff."