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GIVING: A weekly look at those who help.

Reaching New Heights

Zina Bethune shows disabled kids that away the connection of body and soul to music.

November 16, 1999|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just watch Russell Bartel when the music starts. His head lifts skyward, his body straightens, his limbs prepare for flight as he glides on crutches toward his favorite partner, Zina Bethune, a petite, blond ballerina whose radiant grace recalls drawings of angels in fairy tales.

Russ is 13; Bethune, 49. They have been pupil and teacher since he was 4, and she was beginning to build her outreach program for children with disabilities. When she started the nonprofit Bethune Theatredanse program in 1980, medical experts didn't believe that children in wheelchairs, on crutches or with brain damage could ever attempt a conga or rhumba--let alone dance to jazz, rock and ballet.

Bethune knew better.

She had been told hundreds of times when she was a dancer with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet that she would never dance again, that soon she might not be able to walk unassisted. With two prosthetic hips, scoliosis and a condition called lymphedema that causes serious swelling in her lower extremities ("without prosthetic leggings, I'd be a swollen blob"), Bethune has continued to dance through life by transcending the limitations the so-called experts had placed on her.

Now, she and six disciples teach ballet, jazz and rock 'n' roll dance to 1,000 disabled children in L.A. and Orange County public schools each year, proving her theory that "the essence of dance comes from your spirit--and these children's spirits are not disabled."

Watch as she teaches a class--little kids trudging along in walkers and maneuvering wheelchairs--and you will see that they can march, they can waltz, they can bounce, wiggle and twirl in the most musical and creative ways. Some can wave arms, shake heads, pretend to waft like chiffon or puff up like little clouds. They can dance.

Bethune's goal, she says, is not medical or therapeutic; there are no books and no rules. The aim is simply for children to enjoy and experience the art of the dance--to help them connect body movements with music. She expects artistic things of them, teaches serious dance vocabulary and demonstrates the classical moves--plies, jetes, arabesques--so they can achieve their own renditions.

"The challenge," Bethune says, "is to let the children's creativity and musicality take them beyond where they've ever been, to let it move them in whatever ways they can move--and that's when they soar. That's when the dance becomes their own, when they become greater than their disabilities. I have done dances with children where the only things that move are the eyes and fingers. And it is still a dance. It's their dance."

Bethune has 5,500 "graduates" of her dance outreach program, which consists, in part, of weekly classes at schools for special education students. She also holds classes at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood.

Judith Washington, principal of Daniel Freeman Elementary School in Inglewood, calls Bethune's program "fabulous." Many special ed students in her school are severely disabled, Washington says, some with multiple physical, language and learning disabilities.

"They learn movement and music basics, then combine them into a dance so when they've finished their practice, they produce something unique and wonderful. Even the very disabled ones feel they are dancing." Washington says some students are transformed from exhibiting behavior problems into happy campers when they find they do well in dance. "Their trips to the principal's office decline dramatically."

Every once in a while, Bethune finds a youngster so adept at dance that she performs with that student professionally. For a White House and Kennedy Center appearance in 1989, she danced a ballet with Sarah Anderson, then 14, who was in a wheelchair. The finale, with Bethune perched on Anderson's chair, arms outstretched, looking like the "Winged Victory," brought a standing ovation.

Russell Bartel is another such talent. The student at Dale Junior High School in Anaheim has spina bifida, hydrocephalus and related problems. He has little feeling or control in his lower legs and feet, and wears metal braces to protect his ankles from breaking. Shunts in his head relieve the buildup of fluid on his brain.

Discovering Dance Is Fun

As a tot, he says, he never thought of himself as the most graceful kid on the block. And when Bethune suggested to his mother that the little boy on crutches might benefit from dance, he still remembers shouting, "No, no, no."

"I was stubborn, I didn't know how much fun dancing could be," Russell said. He has since performed with Bethune at schools, at the Main Place mall in Santa Ana, at Cal State Northridge, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and in "The Nutcracker Suite" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

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