Saint Joseph Ballet's Program for Inner-City Children

by Marty Trujillo

One of the more demoralizing aspects of growing up in a poor community is the impoverished view of the world it presents. Miracles occasionally occur, however, when individuals are able to reach into those communities, inspire the children who live there, and offer them the time and encouragement to expand their knowledge and appreciation of the world and their place in it. The Saint Joseph Ballet has been inspiring the children of Orange County, California, for 12 years, and it has been able to be a source of inspiration because of its partnership with local school districts, businesses, and the communities themselves.

An example of this partnership is the Ballet's long-standing relationship with the University of California in Irvine. Dance Professor and internationally known choreographer Donald McKayle serves on the Ballet's Board of Directors and is currently producing a work involving both the Ballet's dancers and his own college students. UCI alumna Gina Lo Preste is an assistant instructor for the Ballet. In many cases, these teachers are the first college graduates the children have known outside the classroom.

The Ballet is the largest organization in Southern California offering quality arts programming to children from low-income families as an after-school and summer activity. The Ballet, which makes its home in a Latino enclave in downtown Santa Ana, emerged from a highly successful pilot program originally funded by the Ahmanson Foundation back in 1983. Its goals have been simple and direct from the start: to provide dance training to inner city youths free of charge as a means of preventing delinquency, building self-esteem, teaching new skills, and ultimately, changing their lives. The children participating in the Ballet perform to music that reflects a multitude of heritages, including, in many cases, their own. The beauty and grace that result from discipline, teamwork, and hard work are displayed through the troupe's performances, which have become fixtures on the Orange County arts scene.

Under its Artistic Director, Beth Burns, the Ballet offers a variety of programs. Besides its year-round dancing program, it brings week-long dance workshops to elementary and intermediate schools in the poorest neighborhoods of Santa Ana. This partnership not only strengthens the troupe's ties to the community by drawing more low-income children into its year-round program, it also helps to assure the arts will remain a component of the public school curriculum.

Early last year the Ballet's Board of Directors also established an Advanced Training Scholarship Fund. The scholarship pro- gram enables low income "graduates" of the Ballet to attend college and continue their dance training. They awarded the first two scholarships last year, and two students­the first in their families to receive a college education­are attending the North Carolina School of the Arts with the aid of this fund.

The Ballet derives its mission from its simple goals, but its impact transcends this. The DanceFree Weeks program is evaluated annually to ensure its effectiveness. Comments offered following the most recent outreach concluded that the "wonderful" program had "excellent" instructors who gave "children who have difficulty academically a chance to excel in something else." The comments also noted that the program increased the students' "awareness of movement ad professional dance," as well as increasing self-esteem and helping to create a positive school atmosphere.

In its eleven years of service to the community, the Ballet's activities have reached more than 23,000 Orange County inner city youths. The statistics are telling: Ninety-six percent of the Ballet dancers are from low income families. A typical dancer comes from a family of five whose average monthly income is $1,000. At least 92 percent of the participants represent the Latino, African American, and Asian communities of Santa Ana and neighboring cities. Since 1985, the DanceFree Week workshops have been presented to more than 19,000 students, with seventeen hundred participating in October of 1994 alone.

The true success of the program lies in the kids themselves. One child, 14-year-old Liz Lira, who has been with the Ballet for three and a half years, credits her dancing with helping her remain focused upon her studies. "When dancing," she says, "I'm focused more on what I'm doing, so in school, I'm more focused on what I'm doing. When performing, you may be nervous at first because you may think you might mess up or fall, but once you have performed and you see that people like who you are and not what you did or do, you feel very confident in what you do because no matter what, your friends in the company are there for you." The hours of preparation, the desire to achieve, the willingness to participate­these all conspire to assist children become more assured, more creative, more human.

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