YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsBlacks

SISTER BETH Answers the Call at St Joseph Ballet Company

February 01, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

The ballet teacher, wearing the black leotard, skirt and sweater with the sleeves characteristically rolled up, walked over to the record player in the corner of the rehearsal studio in the basement of a downtown Santa Ana church.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony filled the room.

"First position, and . . . " instructed the teacher, Sister Beth Burns, a Catholic nun who has the unlikely distinction of being a trained ballerina.

Alternately snapping her fingers and clapping her hands in time with the music, Sister Beth offered gentle criticism and enthusiastic encouragement to her students as they executed a series of graceful port de corps (forward and backward bends at the hip) and plies (knee bends):

"Nice and steady, ladies.

"Lovely! Yes! Oh, I'm so proud of you!

"Oh, Shani, that's so good!"

Warmed up, the girls next began a series of difficult steps: rapidly brushing and pointing their feet one inch off the floor.

"When will our bodies ever catch up to our minds?" joked Sister Beth, breaking into song: "To dream the impossible dream . . . "

The girls laughed.

"No," said Sister Beth with a smile, "it's possible."

For Sister Beth, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, the "impossible dream" is indeed possible.

Two years ago, motivated by her belief that "the richness of our artistic expression should not be restricted to the privileged," Sister Beth's dream was to provide ballet classes to Orange County youths who otherwise could not afford them.

Last January, after a successful six-week pilot program in the summer of 1983, her dream came true.

It's called the St. Joseph Ballet Company.

The nonprofit troupe, supported by grants and donations, offers young people, ages 9 to 18, classes in beginning and advanced ballet four afternoons a week at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.

If the dancers' families can afford it, they pay $10 a month. Scholarships are available for those who can't afford the nominal monthly fee, and practice clothes, shoes and costumes are provided for everyone.

In its first year of operation, the St. Joseph Ballet Company has attracted more than 100 girls and boys: a diverse ethnic mix that includes Latinos, blacks, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Japanese or, as Sister Beth puts it, "just about everybody."

"Many of my dancers have a lot of talent but they don't have the resources to develop it because dance training is an extremely costly venture," she said. "I think the thing that drives me on is that talent is so precious, and it's a crime to waste it."

Currently, 29 students are enrolled in the beginning class, and 13 are in the advanced class. The only criteria for being accepted into the St. Joseph Ballet Company, according to Sister Beth, are "desire and a little bit of coordination."

"Basically, whether they become good dancers depends on whether they have the dedication to stick with it," said Sister Beth. "It's exciting for me to offer this opportunity. My dancers can really grow in a short period of time because they come so often."

And in the process of growing as dancers, Sister Beth observed, the dance students develop discipline, self-esteem and a sense of achievement.

"I really do think that if young persons realize their talent, they look at their future in a brand-new way and don't put so many limitations on themselves," she said. "By investing in themselves, they gain hope."

Friend to Students

As members of the St. Joseph Ballet Company, they also gain a friend.

"Sister Beth has played an important part in my life," said Tracee Turnbaugh, 13, a member of the advanced class. "I don't think anyone in the class just thinks of her as a dance teacher. She also helps us with our inner feelings and our confidence. We've had days where everyone comes in really grumpy, and we sit and talk about what's going on so we can get it out and have a better class. Sister Beth makes it really special."

"She's not like any other teacher; she's like a friend," said Dominique Rumps, 13, who also has two sisters in the class. "She helps you out when you have some problems--she's just a real nice person to be with, and she hypes you up."

The dance students, however, aren't the only ones who have been taken with Sister Beth.

'Tremendous Dedication'

"I'm one of those people who are infected by her enthusiasm and commitment," said Santa Ana City Councilman Dan Young, who serves on the ballet company's advisory board. "She has such tremendous dedication to the program and the kids that you find, as a helper or advisory board member, you get all caught up in the excitement she has."

"I enjoy Sister Beth immensely," said advisory board president John Johnson, owner of a Laguna Beach inn and a longtime ballet aficionado. "It's such an incredible program, and it's so incredible to watch when she's working with the children. The rapport, I find, is just amazing."

Los Angeles Times Articles