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GRACE UNDER PRESSURE : Ballet Opens Up a World of Dreams and Opportunity to Students in an Inner-City Neighborhood


Tania Estudillo, 9, used to hang out after class at the school playground, waiting for her parents to return from their jobs sewing jackets.

Now Tania, so shy that her voice can scarcely be heard, spends those precious hours practicing plie, jete and pirouette. After studying ballet for two years, Tania has a goal: to become a ballerina.

Tania, along with 69 other children, studies classical ballet in an improbable spot: a Salvation Army building in Pico-Union, an inner-city neighborhood where the average annual household income was $21,674 according to the 1990 census.

Tania's mother, Margarita Hinojosa, no longer worries about her two oldest daughters, both enrolled in after-school ballet classes. Ballet poses a way out of an impoverished neighborhood, she believes.

"Life does not offer that many opportunities," said Hinojosa, who earns $4.25 an hour as a seamstress. "This is a great opportunity and my daughters will benefit."

For the past three years, teacher Mario Nugara with the City of Angels Ballet has taught free classes, mostly to students from 10th Street Elementary School.

In a stuffy 20-by-30-foot room of the Salvation Army's Red Shield Community Center, classes of girls and boys train their supple limbs to yield to the demands of one of the most rigorous forms of dance. The students wear black leotards, pink tights and slippers provided by the fledgling program, which operates under an austere annual budget of $35,000, mostly from grants.

When Nugara can scrape together the money, he takes his hard-working pupils to see a ballet performance.

"I believe in these children," Nugara said. "I found all this raw talent that wasn't being tapped. I have children here with incredible facility, and the saddest part is that they would never get this opportunity if not for this program."

Like his students, Nugara has ambitious dreams. He hopes that the City of Angels Ballet will develop into an academy for children that will, in turn, create a resident ballet company drawing from poor as well as wealthy neighborhoods all over the city.

Nugara, president of the City of Angels Ballet, studied at the School of American Ballet in New York before beginning his dance career with the New York City Ballet and the Boston Ballet. At 41, he has become an indefatigable teacher, concerned about every aspect of his students' lives.

He instructs them on diet: Cut out the sodas, drink juice, read package labels and avoid fat. He discusses discipline and focus, carriage and dignity. And romance: "You are not allowed to date until you are 30. If you want to be a ballerina, this has to come first."

And Nugara gets results, school officials say. The shy girls who scarcely spoke English, favoring their native Spanish, blossomed into poised young dancers who draw strength from the fact that they have something special: A vision of a different future.

"I see great development in their self confidence and self-esteem," said Allyn Shapiro, principal of 10th Street School.

Make no mistake, Nugara will put up with little nonsense. His advanced pupils take four or five classes a week. And on Saturday they will begin an intensive one-week workshop of instruction by Lourdes Lopez, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

While the majority of children come from Pico Union, several students hail from other neighborhoods, drawn here because of Nugara's reputation. A handful who can afford it pay $10 per class.

Recently, Nugara visited a school in Chinatown, showing tutus, ballet slippers and a taped portion of a ballet. After the students followed him through a series of exercises, Nugara chose 15 students to take classes at the center.

Despite the school's success, he is stymied by practical matters. He has no way to transport the children to classes in Pico-Union. Nugara's dreams are tethered to his meager funds, but one day he hopes to have enough money to hire a second teacher and install a ballet floor in a larger room in the community center. Until then, he will focus on his students, girls like Xochitl Duran, 11.

As a baby, Xochitl moved her feet in time to Tchaikovsky, said her mother, Carmen Duran. Today, dance has become the most important part of her life.

"I feel wonderful when I'm dancing, like I'm on top of the world," said Xochitl. "Like I can do anything."


Today's centerpiece focuses on City of Angels Ballet, which offers free classical dance lessons to children from Pico-Union and throughout the city. For more information, call (213) 661-1520

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