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Stepping out again

Three years after closing because of rain damage, Gabriella's Place dance studio in Pico-Union district is back on its feet in a new space.

November 17, 2008|Esmeralda Bermudez | Bermudez is a Times staff writer.

Maritza Cruz Salinas is not about to settle for a bad ballerina bun of a hairstyle.

"You're not doing it right, Mom," the 10-year-old snaps, reaching for her brown locks and wiggling impatiently in her black leotard and powder-pink tights. "It has to be perfect."

Perfect because class is about to begin -- and, for the first time, the fifth-grader will dance on her toes like a real ballerina. And she must look the part.

Across the shiny walnut floors and freshly painted walls of Gabriella's Place dance studio in the Pico-Union district, she and nearly 500 other children are celebrating the return this month of a popular dance program that closed three years ago after losing its home. The closure came after rain heavily damaged the makeshift studio inside a dilapidated church building, making it uninhabitable.

It was a major loss in the immigrant neighborhood, where the $5-per-month classes offered a rare relief to families, many of whom live in tiny apartments and travel by foot or bus. One student, Norbert de la Cruz, went on to receive a full dance scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.

"It was heartbreaking," said Liza Bercovici, executive director of the Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation, which runs the program. "This was a very important part of many of these kids' lives."

But Bercovici was not about to let it vanish entirely.

The families had grown very attached to the classes, Bercovici said. She quickly shuffled about 400 children to another dance studio the nonprofit operates near Lafayette Park. But with little space, many children were left out. And although the new site was just a mile away, it was too far for many parents.

Bercovici was determined to raise enough money to find a spacious new home. She partnered with Philip Lance, the founder of Pueblo Nuevo Development, a nonprofit that runs a charter school in Pico-Union. They began asking charitable foundations for donations.

It took the two groups three years to raise $1.5 million, enough to buy a warehouse at 661 S. Burlington Ave. and turn it into a dance studio.

In the meantime, the program was so sought-after in the community that its waiting list grew to 2,300 names. Today it's at about 1,700.

Maritza Cruz Salinas, who was 7 at the time, signed up and waited, hopeful that the program would find a new building and reopen. In September, her invitation finally came.

"I was so ready," she said. "I want to learn how to dance everything. I love it all."

"Now all we need is more time," said her mother, Maria Salinas.

As class begins, Maritza and a dozen other dancers transform into little ballerinas, pink shoes and all. They perform a series of chasses and plies, their petite frames bent and their legs crisscrossed delicately. They strike precise poses with graceful arms. Sometimes, they catch glimpses of themselves in the mirror and giggle. Their mothers, a mix of Central Americans, Mexicans and Koreans from surrounding neighborhoods, stand by, smiling proudly.

The new 5,000-square-foot dance studio is named after Bercovici's late daughter Gabriella, a 13-year-old who loved to dance. About a dozen teachers offer a range of classes including jazz, tap, modern dance and hip-hop.

It sits just a block from where the program was begun in 2001. Back then, students used to dance inside two rented storefront spaces. One was home to an Episcopal church. The teachers -- many professionally trained at some of the best dance institutes, including the Royal Ballet School in London -- would wheel away the altar and the pulpit and stack the chairs along the walls to make room for the dancers. The bathrooms broke down daily. Along the entrance, transients would sleep in blankets and on abandoned couches.

Still, children would flock to the studio. Across two-thirds of the church's concrete floor, they installed marley floors, along with mirrors so the students could study their moves.

"We were jammed from the very start," Bercovici said.

Like other parents, Joyce Lee was overjoyed to see the program return a few weeks ago. Her 10-year-old daughter, Joanne, had been on the waiting list since 2004. She said she had searched nearby neighborhoods for other programs, but they were too expensive.

"This is very good to keep her busy," she said, pointing happily to her nimble daughter, who was improvising ballet moves across the dance floor.

A dedication celebration is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday.

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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