Hearts pounding, the 12-year-old twin girls clutched each other's hands. Dark, almond-shaped eyes danced with excitement. In their black leotards and white tights they looked like a double-exposed negative. A knot of tension gripped their stomachs. They had been waiting for this moment for two hours--and so had 110 other hopeful children.
A young woman approached the cluster of children and adults in the gymnasium. She started calling numbers from a list. The twins held their breath. As both their numbers were called they squealed with delight and hugged each other. Then they turned and hugged their instructor and mentor, Sister Beth Burns.
The twins, along with two other members of the St. Joseph Ballet Company in Santa Ana had been chosen to dance with the Joffrey Ballet in their Los Angeles performance of the Nutcracker Suite.
"I wanted to cry I was so excited," said one effervescent twin, Xochilt Garcia. "But I'm a big girl now, so I held back."
Zuly, the more meditative of the two, stated simply, "It was the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me."
The St. Joseph Ballet Company is made up of dancers ages 9 to 19, two-thirds of whom are Latino, and 90% of whom are from low-income families. The group searches for and trains young people who could not otherwise afford to dance. Such is the case of Zuly and Xochilt Garcia.
The twins immigrated with their mother and older sister to the United States from Guatemala seven years ago. Magdalena, a single parent, supports the family as a hairdresser. Her income covers the bare necessities of the family, but there is no extra money for such extravagances as dance lessons.
For $10 a month, which is waived if a family cannot afford it, members of the St. Joseph group receive dance costumes and instruction by Sister Beth in classical ballet and jazz.
Tryouts for the troupe are held twice a year. "To be accepted, all you have to do is show a little coordination and a lot of desire," Sister Beth said.
"One of the problems of these inner-city children is they see no future for themselves. They see a vicious circle where there is no escape for them.
"Our dance program allows these children the opportunity to grow in self-esteem, self-discipline, and to strive for achievement through the intensive training and performance schedule."
"When I tried out," Zuly confided shyly, "I was really scared. . . . My sister and I are only 4-foot-5 tall and we are teased all the time about being so tiny. I'd learned many defenses to keep my feelings from being hurt. But as I began to dance," Zuly said, "a feeling of freedom came over me. I felt big not only in size, but in my heart. My defenses soon melted away.
"Girls in the company started to talk with me. I learned that making friends can be easy. You don't have to brag and try to impress people, you just open up your heart!"
The St. Joseph Ballet Company not only affects the hearts of its dancers, but also its audiences. In her choreography, Sister Beth uses themes that address problems facing young people, especially inner-city children, on a daily basis.
The dance "Street Games" examines the dynamics of gang hostility and its tragic consequences. It tells of a gang worker who tries to break up a fight caused by one gang member writing graffiti in a rival group's territory. The gang worker is killed trying to unite the warring gangs. Members of both gangs are so shocked by his death that they develop an emotional unity. The audience is left to reflect on one person's ultimate sacrifice.
Sister Beth, 31, has been the guiding light of the ballet company since its inception in 1983.
The vivacious nun came from a family of four girls and has had a lifelong involvement in dance. She said she had no desire to become a nun until she entered Loyola-Marymount University. While there, friends talked her into attending services each night before dinner. That led to prayer and Bible Study. Finally, one day she became inspired:
"I felt the presence of God. God became the center of my life rather than a mystery on the edge. I took my vows after graduating. I worked as a teacher/counselor at a few inner-city schools, but I felt a calling to do more.
"Since dance was my medium, I decided to start a dance program and received a grant from the Ahmanson Foundation for a five-week trial. The results were so marked we've continued until today."
George de la Pena, former American Ballet Theater soloist and star of the movie "Nijinsky," was asked by the California Arts Council to judge a performance by the troupe when the company applied for a grant.
"The performance blew me away," De la Pena said. "I was overwhelmed by its honesty and the dancers' abilities. In fact, the only thing wrong with the performance was I couldn't stop crying long enough to watch the rest of the performance!"
Last August, the company was awarded a grant and the highest rating possible by the California Arts Council and was the highest-ranking dance company in Orange County.
Zuly and Xochilt have been with the program for two years. They wish they could stay with it forever.
"They love to dance so much," their mother said. "They come home from school and two hours of dance practice and practice for hours more in our living room. I say 'Children, aren't you tired?' They say, 'Oh no. We love to dance, and we must be perfect if we want to be professional ballerinas.'
"When I took them to their first class, I told them that the exercise of dance would help them grow. In the last two years they have grown in more ways than one, and the best is they are now full of joy!"