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May 26, 1996|REBECCA TROUNSON | Times Staff Writer

SANTA ANA — Beth Burns is not a social worker, but sometimes it's hard to tell.

As the founder and guiding spirit of the Saint Joseph Ballet, Burns' main job is to teach dance classes and run the organization, which has served thousands of underprivileged teens.

But she also has organized a tutoring program for kids doing poorly in school, counsels troubled students and their parents, oversees a sponsorship program that provides scholarships for virtually all her dancers and helps with the organization's nonstop fund-raising efforts.

As the ballet's artistic director, Burns, 40, a former Catholic nun, has created innovative ballets that reflect and attempt to explain the complex, often difficult lives of her students, most of whom come from the Latino communities of central and north Orange County.

She exhorts. She praises. Sometimes she berates her young charges, pushing them to work harder, do better and reach higher in all areas of their lives.

"There are a lot of people in the world who didn't spend today making the world a better place," she told a group of her students as they rehearsed for a February performance at the Bowers Museum's Kidseum in Santa Ana.

"You guys did, and that's way cool," she said. "But when you perform today, you have to let these other people feel that. You have to show them in your dancing."

The multifaceted nature of Burns' role is clearly draining at times.

One evening in February, she sat in her office at the back of the dance studio, her face weary as she struggled to understand why Thelma Macias, a highly talented but mercurial teenager, had suddenly decided to give up ballet after more than five years.

"I hate to lose her," Burns said. "It's hard not to take it personally. We invest a lot in these students and it's very hard when they decide to leave. But we can't beg them to stay."

The ballet uses scholarships provided by sponsors to underwrite the lessons, costumes, performances and field trips of the vast majority of teens. But Burns and several of her staff also invest themselves emotionally, becoming an integral part of the students' lives inside and outside the studio.

That approach was established in Burns' own close-knit family. Early on, Burns said, her parents instilled in their children a desire to help less-privileged people in the community. They set examples themselves, helping out in numerous service projects.

"I just think that almost without even realizing it, I grew up with a consciousness that focusing on the community [is a requirement], not . . . an option," she said. "Instead of just caring about yourself, the community is part of your responsibility as a human being."

Burns was born Feb. 12, 1956, in Burns, Ore., a small town in the eastern part of the state whose name has no connection to her family. She spent her childhood in Portland.

Her father, James M. Burns, is a federal district judge in Portland. Helen Burns, her mother, was a nurse, hosted a noontime television talk show during her daughter's youth and later worked in medical insurance. Beth Burns has three sisters, two older and one younger; a fourth died in childhood.

Burns' parents and sisters make regular trips to Southern California to visit and help prepare for ballet performances. Her mother spent several days here this spring, sewing and fitting costumes.

At 22, Burns became a nun, joining the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. She taught history and psychology at Rosary High School in Fullerton, but was frustrated by the feeling that she wasn't doing enough to help her students or the broader community.

"I felt like I wasn't making enough of a difference. I wasn't really helping any of the kids, not the way I wanted to," she said.

Burns had taken ballet lessons beginning at the age of 10 and hadn't realized how much she missed it, she said. At the urging of another nun, she resumed taking ballet classes, then began to set up ballet workshops at several elementary schools in Orange County.

"This wonderful sister just said, 'Dear, you need something,' " Burns said. "She was a very cool woman. She sensed that I needed to express myself artistically."

But the workshops weren't enough. With the support of her order, Burns began to explore an idea she had for a longer, though still temporary, dance program.

She bought a book on California foundations and wrote a 25-page grant request, based on a sample application in the back of the book. It was accepted by the Ahmanson Foundation, which gave Burns $4,000 for a five-week program for 25 Santa Ana children in the summer of 1983.

"We had a little performance at the end, and just from the expressions on [the children's] faces, it was really obvious what it meant to them," Burns said. The foundation encouraged her to expand the venture into a year-round program.

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