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the Best Journalism in Orange County

April 20, 1997

Photographer Gail Fisher, above, and reporter Rebecca Trounson below, spent nine months with a handful of dancers at the Saint Joseph Ballet to show how the dance group offers refuge for youth beset by poverty, broken families and drugs.

AWARDS

Orange County Press Club

1st place: General Excellence in Writing and Photography, Project or Special Series

2nd place: Portrait Photo

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Society of Newspaper Design

Award of Excellence: Photojournalism/Series or story

*

National Press Photographers Pictures of the Year

1st Place: Community Awareness

2nd Place: Portrait Photo

*

Shelter, Freedom in the Dance Studio

By REBECCA TROUNSON

TIMES STAFF WRITER

May 26, 1996

Marco Aguilera stands alone in a spotlight at the center of the dance studio. The harsh white light accentuates his slight build, making him look even younger than his 16 years. His taped voice plays over a speaker: hard truths in a soft, low tone.

"If I wasn't in ballet, I'm sure I would be right now in a gang," says Marco's recorded voice.

The studio goes dark for a moment and the spotlight reappears on Maurisio Alconedo, only 13. "Most of them don't live more than 21 years," he says quietly on the tape. "Only the ones that quit live more. Like my cousin was only 19, and they shot him."

For Marco, Maurisio and more than 300 other youngsters, the studio spotlight marks the intersection of two worlds: the impoverished, often violent Orange County neighborhoods in which they live and the safe harbor of the Saint Joseph Ballet, where they retreat for a few hours almost every day.

In the donated studio above Santa Ana's Fiesta Marketplace, they feel both safe and free. Here they lower the carefully constructed barriers that help them survive on the street and channel their feelings of fear and anger, love and hope into the music and movement of dance.

For 12 years, these children have been coming to the ballet, learning to dance and to cope--long before any should have to--with poverty, gangs, drugs, domestic violence, divorce and street crime.

"Look," the ballet's founder and artistic director, Beth Burns, tells them during an exhausting rehearsal, "every one of you probably knows seven people in trouble. Maybe five people who've been shot.

"You may not feel young sometimes, but you are. And there are so many reasons to be joyful. Get into the music!"

A dancer for more than five years, Marco was once too embarrassed to stay within the circle of light as he prepared for a role he will dance this week at Saint Joseph's annual spring performance, a role based on his experiences on the streets of Santa Ana.

But now he stands still, gazing out into the darkness around him, clearly more comfortable with his own vulnerability. Though his mother worries about the gang-style clothing he favors and whether he has turned to drugs, it is only lately that Marco can say, sounding certain, that he no longer feels tempted to join the "cholos" who hang out near his family's Santa Ana apartment.

"Some adults don't understand what it's like growing up around gangs," he says. "You feel, like, lonely sometimes. You think you're going to have more friends [if you join a gang]. Now I know it's not true. But when other people know, they can understand more. They need to know what it's like for us."

Every weekday afternoon, and for most of each Saturday, the ballet's 4,000-square-foot space above the busy central marketplace is bustling and chaotic, alive with the sounds of teenage voices, laughter and music--all kinds of music, from African to Brazilian, classical to contemporary.

The hum surrounds Alicia Luna on a December afternoon. The concert is months in the future; rehearsals won't begin for another week and the mood in the studio is relaxed, even festive. Christmas is two days away. Alicia walks slowly toward the counter in the ballet's front office. She asks program manager Perri Darweesh if she can look at the day's newspaper. The 14-year-old leans against the counter, then takes the paper to the girls' dressing room. Her face clouds as she reads a front-page story: Another friend has been killed.

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