Everybody dance LA! thrives on teaching less privileged children

“You can’t be scared when you dance.”

We could all benefit from good news these days, and that’s what Natasha Kaneda offered when she said this to her Jazz I class of 8 and 9 on a recent afternoon at a studio near Burlington and Wilshire.

She reminded them to stay focused even if something went wrong during a routine – to get back to dancing without fear. She said it quickly, almost after the fact, but it should be on a T-shirt, like Everybody Dance LA! T-shirts that these kids wore.

Training for their next spring recital, these boys and girls could be part of any dance program. Well, maybe not any – their execution of the steps shows grace, precision and energy, and their teachers, although of infallible patience, are not about to pass up a badly pointed toe or a lethargic movement of the arm.

Regardless of skill level, classes at Burlington Studios, part of the building that also houses the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, are so instantly familiar, they could be anywhere.

Except that, all things being equal, or more exactly unequal, they shouldn’t be here at all.

Ballet dancers wait outside a studio in Burlington and Wilshire.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

A ballet student stretches

A ballet student stretches before a rehearsal.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

For families in certain income brackets, dance class is a rite of passage. Love it or hate it, at some point most kids will squirm in ballet tights or tap shoes and be sent to a room with music and the mirror to burn off energy, make friends and learn to take directions. Some may find a talent for dancing, but even if they don’t, their parents will have a few minutes to gasp and cry at the sight of their child in a tutu.

But for children living below a certain income bracket, dance lessons are too often impossible. Clothes and lessons cost money; access to these mirrored rooms, even those of the local Y, is often out of reach.

Burlington studio dancers and parents fall into the latter category. Which is why, all things being unequal, these kids shouldn’t be preparing for a spring recital with their heads full of the thunderous applause they received at the March benefit gala at SoFi Stadium. Usually, they wouldn’t be proud of last summer’s performance with the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Dance Project, or prepare to send all of their senior graduates to college.

Yet there they are, all part of Everybody Dance LA!, a program almost too good to be true founded more than 20 years ago by a grieving mother who believed that things shouldn’t stay uneven – and that you can have no fear when you dance.

In 1999, 13-year-old Gabriella Axelrad was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in Grand Tetons National Park. After Gabriella’s death, her mother, Liza Bercovici, found herself unable to simply resume her life as a family law specialist. Instead, she decided to commemorate her daughter, who loved to dance, by creating a program for low-income children. It would employ the best dance teachers at professional salaries and would emphasize excellence and life skills as well as creativity and collaboration.

Bercovici’s biggest fear when she opened the doors to those first classes a year later, in the ballroom of the renovated Sheraton Town House near Lafayette Park, was that no one would come.

“I looked out the window and saw this huge crowd,” she says now. “I thought it was people who wanted to rent apartments in the [low-cost] building. But these were people who had come for the dance lessons.

What started with 35 children in 12 after-school classes has grown to more than 5,000 children served by classes in school, after school and summer camps; in 2014, Everybody Dance won a 2014 National Arts and Humanities Program Award.

A woman, right, dances while standing in front of students watching from the floor

Tina Banchero, right, artistic director of Everybody Dance LA!, teaches students a hip-hop class.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

A boy, center, dances with two girls dancing in the background

Matthew Lee, hip-hop student, 12, center, rehearses.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Many students enter the program at age 4 or 5 and stay until they graduate from high school. a few, like Zuleny Ordonez and Kimberly Gomez, returned to work for EDLA!

“When you’re a low-income family, there’s a stigma to asking for help,” says Gomez, now the program’s teaching artist, who joined the staff as the dance site coordinator after graduating. from UC Irvine. “The teachers here have given us someone to talk to, someone to listen to us. I’ll be here right after school until 9 o’clock. Change car, do your homework here, it was my second home.

Ordonez works here as a teacher’s assistant while taking classes at Santa Monica College. “I was very hyperactive as a kid and my mom found that out,” she says. “I grew up with the other students here.”

In a world filled with bad news, EDLA! is one of those fairy tale stories in which heart and hard work pay off. In more ways than one.

As she went through her dance program at various charter schools, Bercovici realized she could do even more good if she “had the kids for eight hours instead of two.” So she founded the Gabriella Charter Schools; in 2015, she stepped down as director of Everybody Dance, making way for Tina Banchero, former dancer and artistic director of the youth program at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. Banchero has run it ever since.

When asked why Everybody Dance has flourished to such an incredible extent, Bercovici simply replied, “There was a need.”

And there are more, now more than ever.

Like all other educational arts programs, EDLA! has been hit hard by the pandemic. As funding dried up, the program was forced to close two of its after-school programs, one in Echo Park, the other in South Los Angeles. Four of its participating schools dropped dance classes to focus on academics. And while Banchero didn’t have to fire anyone, it was unable to replace five staff members who moved on.

EDLA! lost about 1,100 students at the height of the pandemic. For those who stayed, the dance class, like everything else, has gone virtual. “We went online in less than two weeks,” says Banchero. “I was so proud of everyone.”

A group of girls dancing ballet

An instructor adjusts the placement of a dancer’s head.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

girls reflected dancing in the mirrors of a dance studio

The dancers are rehearsing for an upcoming show.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Children across the country have been trapped at home for more than a year, struggling with online learning and isolation. But the Banchero students, the Banchero families, had it harder than most. For low-income urban families, COVID-19 has been particularly devastating. Many parents lost their jobs and many who did not continue to work in person. Cramped housing, which often spanned several generations, left little space for children to study, let alone dance.

“We had kids dancing between two bunk beds,” Banchero said. “But it was so important for them to turn on their cameras, to see our teachers and other students, and to dance. We had a number of children who suffered from depression. So many of our families have lost loved ones.

“The trauma they were going through,” she says, “was real.”

And not just for children. “I realized how much I loved my job during that time,” Kaneda says. “Because when I finish my Zoom course, I will feel happy for the first time that day.”

Kaneda, like many instructors, is a dancer (the program welcomes staff when they get professional gigs). Which means she too was punished for over a year.

“We have always emphasized life skills, skills to help our students become more successful people,” says Banchero. “But the pandemic has made mindfulness a part of every classroom. Taking stock of how you’re feeling, giving kids skills to regulate anxiety – that’s been a big shift in programming for us.

This year’s fundraising gala, held in person for the first time in two years, took place at SoFi on March 27, the same night as the Oscars. Banchero was delighted with the venue, the performances and the attendance, but she admits the funds raised were a bit less than she had hoped.

“It’s difficult,” she said. “We’re a medium-sized program, and with so many smaller programs on the verge of extinction, a lot of funding has been redirected to them. It’s going to take us a few years to get back on track.”

But where there’s life, there’s hope, and there’s plenty of life at Burlington’s dance studios. Although they still only have two after-school locations open – in Burlington and the original Townhouse space – EDLA! now partners with 26 schools and more than 5,000 students, serving more Los Angeles families than ever before.

The theme of the spring recital is “Mulan”; as Banchero reminds the students of Jazz 1 and Hip Hop II, their role is “to be warriors. You are all warriors.

And warriors are never afraid when they dance.

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