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Tchaikovsky and the Gang


The Latino kid with the knife tattoo kicks his Puma sneaker high in the gymnasium sky.

One (boom!) after another (bam!), the shirtless, sweaty teen-age dancers follow in the footsteps of their fellow homeboy (gang member). All 20 punch knees, slap hands, stretch hamstrings and slam heels on the foul line of a B-ball court that's thick with body odor and Salvadoran catcalls.

A boom box erupts with music so loud and linda that these guys pump oxygen from raw lungs as if their lives depended on each move.

But, no, this music isn't funk or rap or salsa or disco, but a Tchaikovsky cello adagio.

Cello adagio? Tchaikovsky? The graffiti-stained walls of this mid-Wilshire neighborhood don't imply the presence of lily-white kids who get off on classical music, let alone classical ballet.

But these youths don't care about the non-macho implications of dancing. They're psyched for their production of "The Sleeping Beauty," which is scheduled to take place at El Centro Wilshire Family Center, adjacent to the First Baptist Church, 760 S. Westmoreland Ave., beginning Friday. With the 20 guys from the street, a few principal dancers from the Long Beach Ballet and a dozen young girls from Beverly Hills, it promises to be one of the most unusual versions of that ballet ever.

But what are these tough-acting, street-wise kids, doing in a production of the Imperial Russian 19th-Century ballet "The Sleeping Beauty?"

It's a question that baffles everyone who comes into contact with the "Leeward Locos," the 100 or so youths who live in the neighborhood two blocks south of Wilshire and Vermont, considered by some to be gang members. They are refugees from El Salvador, knit together loosely in a city-wide group affiliation called Mara Savatrucha, which they translate as "Salvadorans with spirit." Some Los Angeles Police Dept. members translate it as "criminally inclined gang member."

Even church officials say they never expected dozens of teen-agers to come streaming through the center's door last January, shyly watching as Long Beach ballerina Helena Ross taught arabesques to local preteen girls. But they did. And now 20 to 40 Latino young men, mostly between the ages of 14 and 22, perform their warm-up karate exercises three to five times a week with all the seriousness associated with a professional dance company.

A Trip to the Joffrey

William Moran brags that he's going to be "un ballerino muy famoso."

"Trucha, simone? (Cool, huh?)," he asks, plieing as if he were a balletomane by birth.

Maybe he should have been. Moran's dance fire had a few embers thrown into it on May 22 when he and 20 friends went to the chandeliered Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center. There, they witnessed the Joffrey Ballet's Diaghilev evening, a crash course in 20th-Century European art that, with the company's athleticism, destroyed the youths' negative take on dance.

"Those guys were so macho," exclaims Edwin Saravia, 22. "Man, they could shake it. I wish I could be like them."

" 'Petrushka' was my favorite," says Victor Lara, 17. "That puppet danced from the heart and soul to get his girl."

"No, you're wrong," yells Oscar Sanabria, 19, "the other two pieces ("Rite of Spring" and "Afternoon of a Faun") were better. They were like gang banging (street talk for street fighting).

Hurt Feelings

But the banter hides hurt feelings. Although the ballet tickets were free, the young men ended up paying a painful psychic price for them.

According to center administrator Maria Ross (Helena's mother), the Joffrey was "more than happy" to offer 100 complimentary tickets to underprivileged youths aspiring to dance when she requested them.

But when Maria Ross mentioned that some of the dancers were a part of Mara Savatrucha, a dance company representative called the police.

The report wasn't glowing. Joffrey officials, worried about having what the police deemed "the most mindlessly violent gang in the city" at the Music Center, politely informed Ross that the tickets wouldn't be honored.

Helena Ross, during a lull in a recent rehearsal at the gym, claims that only bad publicity from local newspaper and TV coverage "forced the Joffrey to change its mind." The center later received 20 tickets, in contrast to the initial 100 promised.

"It was an ignorant decision that shows how little people understand gangs," explains Ross, who says "the boys' biggest concern was how to get a dress shirt and if the company's dance steps would look as exciting as the ones they were learning."

Suddenly an alley door bursts open and a dozen young men charge out onto the gym floor that's filled with the deafening echo of a hundred sneakers smacking the dance floor so hard it could crack.

"One, two, three, four," shouts Helena Ross at the top of her lungs. With each count, dancers Moran, Victor Lara, Oscar Sanabria and Edwin Saravia snap into near-perfect back flips.

Only once does a young man fall flat on his back, instead of landing on his feet as he was taught.

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