A Moving Experience

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"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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty