"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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"Some of them taught me to take deep breaths during the movements," he says. "Feel inside to see what feels right, what movements feel right, and just follow your heart."
Armando says his parents, stretched between children and jobs, won't be able to attend the ASU performance.
"It really doesn't bother me that much," he says, downplaying his disappointment. "I kinda got used to it. So . . ."
The ASU performance means a lot to Armando, who has applied for one of two summer arts camp scholarships DART will award after the show.
"I'm kind of nervous. I've been working on this quite a while. We are not ready to perform because a lot of kids are messing around and we are trying to learn new movements and stuff," he says. "So I kind of think we are not ready, but we have to do our best."
The ASU dance department's auditorium is filled with more than 200 people attending DART's March 27 Community Showcase. The bill features a swing dance team, a comic skit by a Native American group called Which Way Productions, a dance and reading by DART that explores father/daughter relationships, an intriguing Japanese drum and dance performance, and a beautiful, moving dance called Crying Green featuring poetry by Mary McCann.But it is Herrera's dancers who get top billing.
The kids are slated to close the first half of the performance with "Circus," a dance featuring only the middle-schoolers. They will close the evening with their "Intersections" collaboration with DART.
It is double-duty time for the kids from the barrio.
No longer jammed into a tiny classroom, the students spread across a huge, elevated stage with a wooden floor.
A rising curtain welcomes the students to the audience before them. A crowd of mostly strangers awaits their every move, perhaps easing the sting of relatives who are unable or unwilling to attend.
Spotlights flood the stage, illuminating beaming faces of kids who -- for at least this moment -- are the complete center of attention.
Music fills the auditorium through a professional sound system, a stunning change from the boom box Bendix had used earlier in the day at Herrera's cafeteria.
"Circus" evokes laughter from the audience, which delights in the youths' creative costumes and powerful physical movements -- particularly a segment in which dancers don sweat shirts stretched high over their heads by jamming a basketball into the hood. The effect creates an amusing, elongated, faceless creature that, despite its alienlike appearance, still struggles with the woes of adolescence and the pain of secrets revealed.
Bendix's love of raw movement is apparent throughout "Circus" as her students display their athletic talents, bouncing balls, hoisting themselves on poles, tossing each other about.
Their ability to perform in a more controlled fashion is displayed in the evening's final performance, "Intersections."
On the ASU stage, the differences in ages and sizes of the dancers seem diminished. Ali Akbar Khan's melancholy sitar fills the auditorium, and the dance unfolds. The performance is at once ragged and refined, stark and full, and most of all, honest.
The audience offers thunderous applause as the Herrera dancers, arm in arm with ASU's DART students, take a bow.
The night is almost over, except for the special awards. The audience learns that Herrera students Armando Plascencia and Elia Juarez are the winners of scholarships that will cover their expenses at a two-week arts camp at Columbia Gorge School of Theatre in Oregon.
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Neither Elia's nor Armando's parents are present. But that doesn't diminish the kids' enthusiasm.
"I'm proud of myself," Elia says. "I feel special, of course. It's all good."
Armando says he's excited about the prospect of learning more dance moves and the fun that's bound to come at the camp.
"It makes me feel good," Armando says. "It makes me feel like I earned it and I can say I earned it because I put a lot of time into this.""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."