A Moving Experience

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

Time to improvise.

Most of the kids decide to walk home, but a couple of the girls ask for rides from Bendix and me.

"Are you married?" the teen asks me as we walk to the parking lot.

Sports and dance morph in Herrera's "Circus," featuring Elia Juarez
Sports and dance morph in Herrera's "Circus," featuring Elia Juarez
Jumping for joy is what dance is all about at Herrera
Casey McKee
Jumping for joy is what dance is all about at Herrera

"What kind of car do you drive? How much money do you make?"

I dodge the startling questions and fire questions back at her. Small talk ensues on the short drive to her house.

"How long have you lived in Phoenix? What's your favorite class? Will your parents be at the ASU performance?"

The chat deepens when the subject turns to family. Her parents are split up -- neither will attend the ASU dance performance, she says, as tears well in her makeup-laden eyes.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" I ask, hoping to shift the topic to something more pleasant.

"Do you mean a boyfriend, boyfriend?"


"No," she says, explaining she's not ready to have children.

"I'm going to wait until I'm older," she says. "Like 16."

"Why so young?"

"Because that way I won't be old when she is a teenager and we can be friends," she explains.

The Herrera cafeteria is packed with several hundred schoolchildren for the March 27 dress rehearsal of "Intersections."ASU students from Dance Arizona Repertory Theater (DART) join Bendix's class in the center of the room. Bendix flips on a boom box and moves a microphone close to amplify the beautiful score, which begins with a haunting sitar solo from "Two Lovers" by Ali Akbar Khan.

Dancers from the two troupes cluster opposite each other before slowly merging and embarking on a series of "flocking" moves in which they gracefully drift together in pulsating thrusts. The interaction intensifies as the ASU students begin hoisting the young dancers one at a time into the air.

The music shifts to a jazzy-techno beat of "Give Away My Fear" by Tyler Stone. The dancers leap in a swirl of spins, jumps and body rolls as the cohesive group splits into two camps -- but now is mixed with dancers from both schools.

The two pods charge each other from opposite corners, cluster in the middle of the room, freeze, pivot and run reunited to a neutral corner. The dress rehearsal uncovers a few glitches, but for the most part, the performance runs smoothly, leaving the grade-school audience energized and smiling.

The dancers retreat to their practice room, giddy with excitement, and await the bus that will take them to a real stage at ASU.

For many of the students, it will be their first exposure to a university campus, which is a primary goal of DART.

Founded in 1984, DART's programs are designed to stimulate positive attitude and problem-solving skills in the community. DART works with more than 20 organizations, ranging from schools to retirement communities, to bring performing arts to the public. DART dancers work closely and regularly with their public partners to co-design performances that reflect the uniqueness of each group.

In Herrera's case, the college students serve as role models and mentors.

"They are cool, because, like, they are not old. They are like our age," says 14-year-old Elia Juarez. It is an opinion shared by many Herrera students.

The DART dancers, she says, also have helped her learn to concentrate and to keep practicing even when she is tired.

"They don't let us sit down," she says.

DART dancer Angela Hill didn't know what to expect when she learned last fall that DART would be working with Herrera students. The 24-year-old ASU student had just moved to the Valley from Knoxville, Tennessee.

She was unfamiliar with the Latino culture and really didn't know what to expect from an inner-city school.

"They just seemed like normal kids to me," Hill says of her first impression of the Herrera students.

But when she got to know the kids better, she says, she realized that many of them had limited visions of their future.

"For a while, it seemed some didn't comprehend what it was like to be in college, what ASU was all about," she says. "Some thought ASU was a single building.

"I wondered if they understood the concept of how possible and accessible it is to go to college. I wondered whether us being around them planted a seed -- "Yes, I can go to college. Yes, I can go to college and dance, too.'"

There is no doubt in Hill's mind that many of the kids could excel.

"They learned so fast; they really surprised us," she says. "They liked the challenge and wanted to impress us."

The Herrera students not only impressed the DART dancers, they also choreographed significant sections of the performance -- including a wild tumbling section in which three kids roll like logs side-by-side, while a fourth dancer dives onto them and is propelled forward by the rolling catapult.

"They had sections they taught us," Hill says. "We had sections we taught them."

Herrera student Armando Plascencia says working with DART has changed his view of what he can do and solidified his goal of becoming a professional dancer. The experience has also provided some vital technical information that will help him get there.

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