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TIMES HOLIDAY FUND

Dance classes transform youngsters

January 01, 2007|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

Liza Bercovici can relate to the fears of trying something new.

The Studio City woman was so devastated by the death of her only daughter, Gabriella, who was hit by a van while riding her bike in July 1999, that she wondered if she could continue living.

But Bercovici wanted to do something meaningful in memory of her 13-year-old daughter to "replace the love I couldn't give her anymore."

What has emerged from that grief is the everybody dance! program, which has touched the lives of hundreds of Los Angeles youngsters ages 4 to 18.

In 2001, after establishing the Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation, Bercovici opened a 1,700-square-foot studio in what had been the banquet hall of an old hotel on Wilshire Boulevard that had been converted to low-cost housing.

In the five-plus years since, Bercovici has been serving underprivileged youths through her dance studios, and she has watched resignation in the eyes of her young students, some of whom were unable to lift their gaze from the floor, turn to steely determination and confidence.

She began with 12 classes for about three dozen children, charging them $5 every two months. Word spread, and by the end of that year, the program had grown to two studios and 700 children.

The demand continues to grow. The program expanded to other facilities, including a studio that was built in a storefront church in MacArthur Park and another next door that served several hundred students.

Rain damage closed the MacArthur Park church for a time, but Bercovici began programs at the nearby Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. When repairs are made to the church, there will be five dance studios.

Children can learn a variety of dances: ballet, modern, tap, creative and hip-hop. Though each child tends to pick up the routines at a different pace, classical ballet teacher Vera Ninkovic said that, over time, the personal transformation is tremendous.

"Within a year, they are more confident and disciplined, groomed to be very respectful, graceful," Ninkovic said. "There is so much detail to dance that they also have to be brave enough to put self-expression into the structure of the work."

She said one of her students, Robert De La Cruz, came in for a hip-hop class but after some convincing began studying ballet. He is now attending the Juilliard School on a dance scholarship.

Locally, students have performed at USC and the L.A. County Museum of Art. Bercovici said that stories like that are a fitting legacy for Gabriella.

For information on everybody dance! programs, the website is www.everybodydance.org.

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The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $500,000 in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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