A Moving Experience

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

"It's concrete. Linoleum. Fluorescent lighting -- like a Greyhound bus station," Bendix says.

Poor facilities are an extension of the Las Cuatro Milpas neighborhood that surrounds Herrera.

The dilapidated barrio has become a haven for illegal immigrants who are resented by many Latino families who have made the Milpas their home for generations. The barrio's rough and frequently violent street gang, LCM, spans generations. For many youths, the gang has been the most accessible institution, one that often leads to early deaths, addictions and prison.

Selina Gonzales leads a group of ASU and Herrera dancers in a procession
Casey McKee
Selina Gonzales leads a group of ASU and Herrera dancers in a procession
Armando Plascencia balances on two wooden bars during a performance at ASU
Casey McKee
Armando Plascencia balances on two wooden bars during a performance at ASU

"I send letters to kids' parents who are in prison," Bendix says.

Communication is one-way.

"I receive zero feedback," Bendix says.

But Bendix doesn't need to talk with parents to know that her students face challenges beyond a mastery of academics and art. Last year, her brother, Paul, had a remarkable visit to the school. Paul had been shot several years earlier and left partially paralyzed.

"Somebody asked him why he was in a chair, and he said he had been shot. He said, "Does anybody know anybody who has been shot?' And I thought a goodly number would raise their hands. But it was almost all. "My uncle,' "My neighbor,' "My mother,' my this, my that," Bendix says. "This is the kind of stuff they live with. The kind of intense emotional stuff they have to come to terms with somewhere in their world is mind-blowing.

"And they wanted to talk. It really surprised me because the kids that really want to move around way more -- especially the little ones -- they wanted to talk. They all wanted to tell their stories."

Understanding the forces that shape her students' emotions gave her new insight.

"I was really surprised at what kind of richness there was," she says. "There are all these unexpected diamonds in the rough. In terms of movement, these guys, they own movement. They own it more than I do, you and I do, because of their age. Their bodies are totally responsive, supple things for them in so many ways."

Bendix wanted to get boys into her class from the moment she arrived at Herrera. That's a challenge in any culture, and even more so in the Chicano neighborhood where toughness, force and pride rule.

"They would say dance is for fags," Bendix says. "But I would see these boys moving and they were fabulous movers. I would see them on the basketball court, see them jumping and doing these fabulous turns. I saw this physical capability, and so I thought, "I won't call it dance. I'll call it something else. I'll call it athletic movement.' So I started doing everything based on sports stuff. I saw kids that had incredible kinetic sensitivity."

Changing the name of the class brought in the boys; now her performance class of 15 students is about evenly split between genders.

"It's just semantics," she says. "Obviously, they don't wear dance clothes. It's not like dance that you would see in a conventional sense. It's just sort of altering the perception."

Not only did the students display raw talent, they also showed surprising improvisational skills. Bendix says she was puzzled at first by how quickly students with no formal dance training could pick up new moves and create on the run. Her brother's meeting with the students and their desire to describe similar situations in their lives helped solve the mystery.

"Having to improvise in daily life is sort of a regular thing with which they contend," Bendix says. "I do think that spills over to dance."

And it spills over to Bendix's instruction method.

"I just kind of watch what they do and then I try to shape it," she says. "If I was under the impression that I was going to be the absolute controller, I think it would be like trying to herd cats. It would be impossible."

But improvisation can become meaningless without discipline and motivation. Tapping her connections with ASU, Bendix arranged for her students to perform at least once a year in a professional setting. Simply knowing they were going to be on stage helped focus her students.

"If you put something in an ideal environment, it's going to do better, it's going to look better, it's going to feel better, it's going to feel real," Bendix says.

The ASU dance department was happy to open its stage to Herrera's students.

"We went over and performed. They had a dance stage with wing space so they could run and get some speed up. A proper floor with bounce to it -- all the conditions that augment, that accent dance as it should be."

Not only do her students get to feel and see what it's like to perform on a professional stage, they develop an understanding of what it takes to succeed.

"It is a culminating activity," she says. "Otherwise, it just would be sort of a theoretical involvement with it going nowhere. Instead, we end with a performance. They are really well-received, and I think it feels great to them."


Rehearsal ends. It's 4:30 p.m. The bus that is supposed to take some of the kids home fails to arrive."This is so typical," Bendix laments.

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