Sunday, April 26, 2009

Above: Cindy Bradley coaches Ivan Mechor, who wants to learn ballet and goes after school now for classes. At the top, Alberto Encinas works hard so he can pass his physical education test at school.

School Officials Say They Are Saddened Her Lessons Are Coming to a Close – a Loss for the Primarily Blue-Collar Families Who Rarely Have the Chance to Pursue the Cultural Arts;
>Diana L. Chapman

At the San Pedro Ballet School on Pacific Avenue, the typical fare of soft-colored pink tights, violet leotards and graceful leaps and turns seemed to clash with some seriously different attire – shorts, rugged jerseys, football shaped bodies and ankle socks.

Alongside graceful girls, many with neatly braided hair or pinned up buns, came a handful of boys, who in French terms plied, leaped, releved (to rise on half toe) and, well it wasn’t exactly dainty, it was close enough for the cluster of boys and one girl to continue their efforts after school.

The surprise: the seriousness the 15th Street Elementary students displayed.

Alberto Encinas, a 5th grader wearing glasses, a white T-shirt and black tights, worked hard, but grew disgusted when he occasionally lost his balance, rolling his eyes up in the air with displeasure. He struggled, but continued.

He never knew he liked ballet until the instructor showed up at his school and began teaching on Wednesday mornings.

“I just really started to like it,” said the thin boy, who worked intensely throughout the class, saying he was a good student except for physical education. “I didn’t think I could take it anymore because it’s so expensive. It makes me tired and it makes me relax after working at school all day. And it makes me more flexible. This is really helping me for my upcoming physical test.”

Along with Alberto, came his younger brother, Christopher, 9, a first grader with a broad build, his hair cropped short, with reddened cheeks. He wore a red and grey jersey, shorts and ankle socks.

With more of a football player body than a ballet dancer, he turned, plied, balanced at the barre and tried to keep up with the class, pointing his toes and stretching, his determination impressive for his young age.

“Well, I just started it at school and all the boys said: “Wow, boys can do ballet!” And we saw people in there (the studio) and they were doing jumps and leaps. Ballet is more about jumps than it is ballet,” he confided proudly, although his parents don’t want him in the class “because it’s a waste of time.”

Once the lesson began, Cindy firmly told the class “No talking in ballet class,” between demi-plies, tendus and brush “changemont,” meaning brush with foot and change.

About 165 students poured through her classes at 15th Street this year. Many had never seen or tried ballet before, said Sandy Steinhaus, a 2nd grade teacher who pulled the program together and found the funding source that dried up. The primarily blue-collar family school, rarely sees this form of dance, and the impact has charged both students and teachers with an electrical excitement.

Having enjoyed the students, the ballerina decided to finish up the year – without pay.

“It’s been such a golden opportunity,” Sandy explained as she watched several of the students at the studio. “It’s been a perfect fit for our community and all our money for the program is frozen. This has opened up ways for our kids they’ve never had before. It’s been such a natural fit for our school. The kids loved it, the teachers loved it.”

“Right foot, left foot. Brush. Brush,” Cindy instructed the students.

Ivan Melchor, 10, a 5th grade boy who participated on the drill team last year, surprised all the instructors with his sweat, grit and determination in the ballet class.

Despite his size, that of a mini-linebacker, he gracefully extended his arms into a port de bras, stretched his leg into an arabesque at the bar and twirled across the floor, using chaine – a chain of turns.

“Side, side up, plie,” Cindy continued. “Side up, plie. Point. Point.”

After class, a happy Ivan, his face glistening with a dewy sweat, explained his enjoyment of the dance.

“I like the leaping and stuff. I pretty much like everything to do with ballet,” he responded, explaining his parents are proud and now his older sister wants to start.

The studio owner began public school ballet classes first at 186th Street Elementary and later was asked to join 15th Street. She was paid initially through the Los Angeles Unified School District’s art program, but that sizzled away with the poor economy.

When boys are interested in this dance form, she encourages them, as the opportunities for men are far greater. It’s not part of “our American culture,” and therefore, the numbers of men flocking to the art are small – and are needed, making college scholarship and professional potential far greater for boys.

But whether boys or girls, what Cindy spots in nearly all the students is their confidence building.

“I see a transformation in students the first time I teach them. They don't see the possibility that they may be able to become dancers,” she emailed. “They walk in and float out. They learn to fly through the air and that is a boost to their self-esteem that often can lead to... well, to anything really.”

At the end of the class, the girls curtsied and the boys bowed with Steinhaus praying that the drapes won’t come down on the dance classes next year.

“It’s just such a great partnership for us,” she lamented. The school donated 100 tickets to the school for its upcoming show, The Nutcracker.