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LOCAL HERO / TRENA JOHNSON

A Teacher of Grace, Movement--and Life

August 09, 1993|ETHAN ALLEN THOMAS JR. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years ago, Trena Johnson decided to make a difference. She could no longer stand by and watch children's lives go down the drain.

So with little money but lots of hope, Johnson, a former member of James Brown's dancing Brownettes, founded the Pointe Art of Dance Studio.

Knowing the rigorous task that lay ahead, Johnson did not use the normal dance school format. Her hope was to emphasize grades rather than green, to focus on attitude more than ability.

"Trena teaches us more than dance," says Dominique Benoit, a 17-year-old dancer and choreographer. "She teaches attitude, morals and discipline.

"She's shown me that you can't be a good dancer unless you know yourself and unless you have a good attitude. There's no such thing as a good dancer with a bad attitude," Benoit says.

Johnson, 45, keeps about 40 girls busy after their school day ends with dances ranging from ballet to hip-hop to quebraditas.

Johnson's program has reached into the lives of many underprivileged youths, but scarce financing has been a constant obstacle. Last year's riots pushed her out of her Crenshaw district location to a La Cienega Boulevard studio. And this year, problems with her landlord left her without a studio.

This blow came just as she was ready to launch PATH--Providing Alternatives That Heal, a separate classroom component consisting of a mentor program, a reading and computer lab, tutoring and latchkey counseling.

She bounced back in May with the help of two African-American-owned record companies. Solar Records provided interim studio space in Hollywood and Jumpin' Jack Records helped by storing her studio furniture.

"The arrangement with Solar is only temporary," Johnson said. "I still need a permanent spot, a place large enough for my PATH program. PATH can't start without enough space."

Lavasia Butcher, Solar's spokeswoman, said: "Not only has Trena taken these kids off the streets and given them a way to positively channel their energy, she's taught these kids manners. She's not only teaching them how to dance, but how to be good human beings."

There are lessons for everyone.

Listen to charming 9-year-old dancer LeTecia Harrison: "The Pointe has taught me more about dance and what it really means. It has taught me how to have courage."

Benoit feels there's no escaping Johnson's message. "No one can come to the Pointe and say they didn't learn anything," she said. "Because if you didn't learn anything about dance, you learned something about life."

To get youngsters involved in changing themselves, Johnson has established guidelines. A child must have a C+ average or better before she may participate in any kind of show or benefit.

Johnson's 18-year-old daughter, Carence, says she's been inspired by the children: "When little kids come to me and say 'I want to be just like you when I grow up,' it makes me feel good. It pushes me to do more.

"Now little kids can look up to me, instead of a gangbanger or a baller (drug dealer)."

Johnson said one of her primary objectives is to establish self-esteem: "Parents and adults tell them they won't be anything. They don't know anything. They're stupid. Those kind of words are harsh to a young mind."

Johnson may be reached at (213) 360-6412.

This column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. The column is published every other Monday. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, View, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

Trena Johnson, right, says one of the primary objectives of her dance program is to establish self-esteem.

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