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AROUND TOWN

Call Them Debutantes With a Difference

June 09, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their burgundy and gray plaid skirts, white shirts and plaid ties, they look for all the world like parochial schoolgirls on a chaperoned outing.

Then the music starts and, with Doris Pinto Hall out front like a cheerleader, the girls swing into their routine. The music: Whitney Houston's "I'm Everywoman."

Meet Doris' Debutantes With Pride, a dance team with a difference.

These debs--11 plus Doris--live at Florence Crittenton Center in Lincoln Heights, a residential treatment center for disadvantaged teens and their children.

Three of the debs are teen-age mothers. Most have come from foster homes. One or two are what Pinto Hall calls "the girls everyone had given up on."

But give them some music to dance to and they're Everygirl, having fun.

On a recent evening, the debs performed for a large and enthusiastic crowd at a dinner at the Pasadena Hilton. Watching approvingly from the sidelines, Crittenton's executive director, Bernard La Fianza, pointed out one teen-ager:

"She'd never passed anything in her life. She had two A's, two Bs, and two Cs on her last report card." Once found to be self-destructive, she is off medication. "Our miracle story," he says.

That's the kind of result Pinto Hall hoped for when, in February, she posted a sign-up sheet for girls hoping to be "debs." This is about building self-esteem and encouraging teamwork and stick-to-it-iveness.

Life hasn't been kind to Crittenton's girls, who typically come from abusive homes or have records of truancy, incorrigibility or misdemeanors.

Often, that adds up to "Attitude," says Char Jones, Crittenton's child-care worker supervisor: "I'm going to mistreat you because some other adult mistreated me."

But Pinto Hall, 28, isn't buying into that. "I've been there," she says. "I've done it. I made it. You can make it too."

At 16 and in foster care, she became pregnant and was sent to Crittenton, where her son was stillborn. Later, she would graduate from Crittenton's high school, marry and have two children.

"Without Crittenton," she says, "I could have died or gone to jail."

Three years ago, she returned to Crittenton as a child-care worker. "She has a rapport with the kids that is fabulous, and tremendous drive and energy and creativity," La Fianza says.

Adds Jones: "The girls here will say, 'You don't know how I feel, what I'm been through.' Well, they can't say that to Doris."

Having a mother and brother born deaf, Pinto Hall is proficient in sign language and has taught her group to sign the lyrics to the pop, rock, and rhythm and blues songs as they dance, integrating the hand movements into the choreography.

Being chosen as a deb isn't about being the best dancer. Indeed, the best dancer was dropped early on because she felt no need to attend twice weekly rehearsals.

Being a deb is about keeping one's grades up, having a good attitude and making a contribution to the home. Look, Pinto Hall says, "Everyone has talent in them. It's just a matter of pulling it out."

Because these girls are in county-ordered placement, their names can't be made public, so Pinto Hall has given them nicknames. There's Little Salsa, Chocolate, French Vanilla, Miss Straight to the Point. . . .

The girls talk about being one of Doris' debs:

Blue Eyes, 17: "A lot of girls don't have families. When we dance, you forget all your worries and just have fun. We're like sisters."

LetteLette, 16: "We get to go places and see nice, famous people." The best part? "Sticking together."

TiTi, 14: "It keeps you out of trouble and it gives you something to look forward to."

The debutantes have traveled to Monterey to dance, raising the money through carwashes and bake sales at Crittenton. Recently they performed at a Crittenton fund-raiser at the home of the Dino DeLaurentiises.

Although Crittenton sprang for those plaid skirts, the girls raised the money for their white tennies. "They have to learn to reach out," Pinto Hall says. "No one's going to give them anything."

And she expects them to be role models. At a recent rehearsal, she admonished several for "cussing, acting out."

"There was a little jealousy at first" among the other 30 girls at Crittenton, Jones says. But soon other girls were baby-sitting for the deb mothers when they performed.

Through rotation and attrition, Pinto Hall hopes all the residents will have a chance to dance.

Meanwhile, have plaid skirts, will travel. Says La Fianza: "They can do a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a garden club. . . ."

You Just Never Know Where Breakfast Will Go

So you just had the blind date from hell and you've sworn off forever? Don't, says Babs Suzanne Harrison.

Five years ago, while a journalist in Dallas, she accepted a breakfast date with Staefan Rada, an academic from Santa Fe. That led to a second date, for cocktails.

"He had a beer," she recalls, "and I had a martini." Maybe it was the martini, but when Rada described his fantasy of crossing the Sahara and writing a book about it, "I knew this was what I had been waiting for."

Four months later, they embarked on a two-month, 3,500-mile odyssey from Tunis to Togo in a 1963 Mercedes truck fitted with bunk beds.

"If you really want to know what someone is made of, take them to the Sahara on a second date," she says. "You can't really say, 'Take me home' and you can't call your mother."

Until then, she adds, "My idea of roughing it was staying at the wrong hotel in Paris."

The journey changed her life, she says, but, "If you have to ask if there are hot showers, you're not ready." The adventurers braved isolation, sandstorms, roads obscured by drifting dunes and, once, ate rats.

This was not about romance. Love bloomed only at journey's end and they wed and settled down--sort of--in Santa Fe. Oh, yes, they wrote that book, "The Lion in the Moon: Two Against the Sahara."

Harrison described her experience at a meeting of Bel-Air-based Travelin' Woman, Nancy Mills' "Know-before-you-go guide for women travelers."

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