A Moving Experience

Dance project keeps barrio kids on their toes, off the street

"Places!" yells Susan Bendix to a room full of young dancers. "Become centered and connected."

A dozen of Bendix's Herrera Elementary and Middle School boys and girls drift and fidget their way to their spots. Among the youngsters are an equal number of dancers from Arizona State University.

The dancers fall into a tight formation in the cramped rehearsal room at the Phoenix school, 1350 South 11th Street, located in the heart of one of the oldest and toughest neighborhoods in the city. Backpacks, shoes, chairs and shelves ring the dance floor.

Herrera dance instructor Susan Bendix lets her students' natural improvisational talents blossom.
Casey McKee
Herrera dance instructor Susan Bendix lets her students' natural improvisational talents blossom.

The ASU students are attired in practice leotards. Unable to afford even practice dance wear, the Herrera students wear a wide array of clothing, from gangsta white tee shirts and pressed slacks for the boys to tight jeans and clinging blouses for the girls. The disparity in the dancers' garb and size makes for an odd lot.

The late-March rehearsal is a warm-up for a performance that evening at ASU. For six months, students from the two schools have collaborated on a dance project called "Intersections." In addition to the recital, some of the Herrera students are competing for scholarships to a summer dance camp in Oregon.

The final rehearsal runs smoothly, except for a key transition. Near the end of the routine, two groups of dancers charge each other and meet in a tight cluster. There's supposed to be a sudden, precise pause in the action and a quick 90-degree turn that prefaces an en masse sprint to one corner. But the kids are unsynchronized and disjointed in their turn, as if still being pulled in the direction they were running.

"Everybody, you need to breathe before you pivot so you all do it as one," Mary Fitzgerald, co-artistic director for ASU's Dance Arizona Repertory Theatre, tells the students.

The class repeats the routine, stumbling again at the pivot.

"Total, simple focus," Bendix reminds the dancers. "Hold your breath so there is absolute stillness before you go."

This time the two clusters charge and freeze, execute a precise pivot and dash to the corner.

"Yes!" Bendix yells to the pumped-up gaggle of red faces jammed into the corner.

The pivot.

It is not only the dance's climax, it is also the quintessential challenge Bendix's pupils face every day. Will they pivot onto a pathway that will allow their inherent talents to bloom? Will they become more deeply ensnared in the cacophony of death, poverty, violence and neglect that clutter their horizons?

These kids come from neighborhoods where the teenage trajectory is likely to lead not to universities, conservatories, peace and prosperity, but to prisons, drugs, violence and pregnancy. Parents in prison. Parents who don't care. Parents who are too busy eking out a living to spend time with their children, let alone see them perform.

Still, the kids practice after school. They support each other. And in the end, they perform for each other. And themselves.

"I feel free to express myself," explains 12-year-old Armando Plascencia. "I can move how I want to move. That's what I do. I just follow what feels right. I just move how I feel."

What many of these children feel every day would send most adults running for the Prozac. Nearly all of them know someone who has been shot.

"Dance keeps you relaxed and focused," says 14-year-old Selina Gonzales. "It helps you meditate, focus. It helps with all your stress."

Bendix was discouraged about her teaching prospects when she first arrived at Herrera four years ago. But she soon discovered the kids' chaotic lives provided a pleasant surprise.

The children are natural masters of improvisation.

"I basically watch them," says Bendix, an accomplished dancer who has performed internationally and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from ASU. "I direct things, but a lot of times I just watch them play and interact."

The freeform approach works well, especially for an Anglo woman working with primarily Latino adolescents.

"Being physical is their world. It's their domain," Bendix says. "It doesn't require language acuity. It doesn't require speaking English well. It doesn't require things that they hate. Some are horrible testers, they do horribly academically.

"But there is this raw, fabulous talent. Being a dancer, that's what I see. It happens to be that raw, wild movement is something that I love."


Suddenly a single mother, Susan Bendix was in dire need of a job. "I needed full-time work and benefits," the tall, wiry Bendix says. "I had always wanted to be an artist -- it was my desire -- but that had to be curbed quickly."

Curbed, yes, but the artist in Bendix still drives her as a teacher.

"This just happened to be the palette that was presented to me to work with," she says of her position at Herrera.

The complexity, depth and texture of that palette were not initially apparent.

"I expected it to be really a drag. I really did expect to just get the hell out of it fast. I thought it was just a stopgap," she says.

The school's facilities are a far cry from the professional stages she graced as a member of the Greek Dance Theatre Company, based in Athens. She teaches dance in a classroom where the only distinguishing feature is mirrors along two walls. There is no performance area, just the cafeteria.

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