Reaching New Heights

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just watch Russell Bartel when the music starts. His head lifts skyward, his body straightens, his limbs prepare for flight as he glides on crutches toward his favorite partner, Zina Bethune, a petite, blond ballerina whose radiant grace recalls drawings of angels in fairy tales.

Russ is 13; Bethune, 49. They have been pupil and teacher since he was 4, and she was beginning to build her outreach program for children with disabilities. When she started the nonprofit Bethune Theatredanse program in 1980, medical experts didn't believe that children in wheelchairs, on crutches or with brain damage could ever attempt a conga or rhumba--let alone dance to jazz, rock and ballet.

Bethune knew better.

She had been told hundreds of times when she was a dancer with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet that she would never dance again, that soon she might not be able to walk unassisted. With two prosthetic hips, scoliosis and a condition called lymphedema that causes serious swelling in her lower extremities ("without prosthetic leggings, I'd be a swollen blob"), Bethune has continued to dance through life by transcending the limitations the so-called experts had placed on her.

Now, she and six disciples teach ballet, jazz and rock 'n' roll dance to 1,000 disabled children in L.A. and Orange County public schools each year, proving her theory that "the essence of dance comes from your spirit--and these children's spirits are not disabled."

Watch as she teaches a class--little kids trudging along in walkers and maneuvering wheelchairs--and you will see that they can march, they can waltz, they can bounce, wiggle and twirl in the most musical and creative ways. Some can wave arms, shake heads, pretend to waft like chiffon or puff up like little clouds. They can dance.

Bethune's goal, she says, is not medical or therapeutic; there are no books and no rules. The aim is simply for children to enjoy and experience the art of the dance--to help them connect body movements with music. She expects artistic things of them, teaches serious dance vocabulary and demonstrates the classical moves--plies, jetes, arabesques--so they can achieve their own renditions.

"The challenge," Bethune says, "is to let the children's creativity and musicality take them beyond where they've ever been, to let it move them in whatever ways they can move--and that's when they soar. That's when the dance becomes their own, when they become greater than their disabilities. I have done dances with children where the only things that move are the eyes and fingers. And it is still a dance. It's their dance."

Bethune has 5,500 "graduates" of her dance outreach program, which consists, in part, of weekly classes at schools for special education students. She also holds classes at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood.

Judith Washington, principal of Daniel Freeman Elementary School in Inglewood, calls Bethune's program "fabulous." Many special ed students in her school are severely disabled, Washington says, some with multiple physical, language and learning disabilities.

"They learn movement and music basics, then combine them into a dance so when they've finished their practice, they produce something unique and wonderful. Even the very disabled ones feel they are dancing." Washington says some students are transformed from exhibiting behavior problems into happy campers when they find they do well in dance. "Their trips to the principal's office decline dramatically."

Every once in a while, Bethune finds a youngster so adept at dance that she performs with that student professionally. For a White House and Kennedy Center appearance in 1989, she danced a ballet with Sarah Anderson, then 14, who was in a wheelchair. The finale, with Bethune perched on Anderson's chair, arms outstretched, looking like the "Winged Victory," brought a standing ovation.

Russell Bartel is another such talent. The student at Dale Junior High School in Anaheim has spina bifida, hydrocephalus and related problems. He has little feeling or control in his lower legs and feet, and wears metal braces to protect his ankles from breaking. Shunts in his head relieve the buildup of fluid on his brain.

Discovering Dance Is Fun

As a tot, he says, he never thought of himself as the most graceful kid on the block. And when Bethune suggested to his mother that the little boy on crutches might benefit from dance, he still remembers shouting, "No, no, no."

"I was stubborn, I didn't know how much fun dancing could be," Russell said. He has since performed with Bethune at schools, at the Main Place mall in Santa Ana, at Cal State Northridge, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and in "The Nutcracker Suite" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

He refers to himself as a dancer, although he understands quite well that he is not the traditional kind. His pirouettes, for example, are what he calls "butt-spins"--executed while he is curled on his back on the floor. His leg lifts are done while he balances on his crutches. He reels off his disabilities and their physical consequences, but, bottom line, he says, they do not impede his joy.

"I love everything about dancing," he says, with a grin. "I am a dancer."

His mother, Robyn, says dance "gave him a sense of who he is, what his body can do, what he can express artistically and what he has to say to the world. His brother, 11, is a normal and outgoing kid who watches Russell dance and admires him as an individual, not as a brother with a disability. Even we, his parents, see him [Russell] in a different light, as an individual apart from his physical problems."

For all her successes, Bethune struggles daily to find the people, time and money to keep her project going and, with luck, expand it some day across the nation. Her budget for Bethune Theatredanse, the multimedia dance company of which the children's program is a branch, is $211,000, provided through grants, foundations and private donations. She needs funds to train and pay more teachers, provide more materials and spread the dance gospel, for which she is the best living example.

Born in New York, she says she "danced before I could walk" and started formal ballet training at age 6 at Balanchine's School of American Ballet." By 1966, at age 14, she was performing in his famed New York City Ballet troupe with legends Gelsey Kirkland and Edward Villella. "I was born to dance, in my heart, but not in my body."

As a teen, she began to develop problems, or more accurately, discovered the problems she'd been born with, that she and her parents never knew existed.

"I had displastic hips, the same as you find in German shepherds. The femur kept growing, but the socket didn't. I had scoliosis, which was diagnosed at 11 or 12.

"That's when everything started to hit me--and by then I was a dancer. I was passionate about it. By then I could never think of myself as disabled, I just thought that I had a lot of stuff to deal with.

"I used to hang upside-down for hours, or even sleep that way, to keep the lymphedema swelling" from hindering the next day's practice or performance.

She was also a Broadway performer (in "Most Happy Fella" at age 6), and much later in Tommy Tune's 1991-92 "Grand Hotel," in which she starred) and in between as an actress in TV's "The Guiding Light" and the prime time series "The Nurses." In films, she starred in Martin Scorsese's "Who's That Knocking at My Door," among others.

As a child, she recalls, "Balanchine liked me a lot, cast me as Clara in "Nutcracker" and predicted I'd be prima ballerina." But try as she might, she couldn't come through for him or for herself. The physical problems kept mounting.

At about 16, she felt compelled to find disabled children and teach them to dance. She didn't consider herself one of them, she says, but she knew there was "a connection." By 20, she knew she would never fulfill the dance guru's prophesy. Her right hip totally collapsed, and a "miracle surgeon" in Denmark fixed it so she could dance for a few more years.

Her hips gave out again in '84, and she received new prostheses from a surgeon in Virginia. From the outside, she says, she knows she looks "normal." People can't see her "metal hips" or her prosthetic rubberized leggings. They watch her dance, touch her legs to her forehead. Only the experts can identify her limitations.

Going Public With Disabilities

When she moved to California at 29, she started Bethune Theatredanse and decided to "come out of the closet" about her disabilities. Until then, she kept her problems quiet, she says, to avoid being ostracized in the dance and entertainment community.

She also started the outreach program at Washington Elementary School in Redondo Beach, where she met the young girl she would take to the White House for a dance performance a few years later. "Sarah has brittle bone syndrome, or osteogenesis, which means that her own weight might break her bones if she were to stand. So she is in a chair. But she is a great dancer, has all the grace and beauty of the best."

Each year since then, the program has grown as word of mouth spreads and more schools call to seek her services. "They don't exactly understand what I do before they see me do it, but they hear that it works."

Bethune is eager to explain what she does, to anyone who'll listen: "Think about the great dancers," she says. "Each one has a stronger leg and a weaker one. A stronger side and a weaker one. But as a dancer, if someone like Balanchine wants to turn to the left, and you are basically a right turner, well, you gotta make it work. You have to figure out how to make your body move the way you want it to.

"A child with a disability may have an arm or a leg that moves in a particular way. My goal is to have that child find a point of contact, to recognize and move that part in their own special way. The child can find a way around the problem or the limitation, find where movement comes from in his body, and make it happen in a beautiful, joyous way. Every dancer every day goes through a process that is similar."

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. Zina Bethune is 49, not 47.

--- END NOTE ---

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