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Thousands of L.A. School Kids Dance Downtown in Blue Ribbon Festival

Olga Khazan |
April 6, 2011 | 5:51 p.m. PDT

Senior Editor
Diavolo Dance Theater, from Flickr user Mathieu Struck.
Diavolo Dance Theater, from Flickr user Mathieu Struck.
Modern dance, with its esoteric story lines and soulful movements, isn't typically a big attraction among the under-12 crowd. But Wednesday morning at downtown's Music Center, 3,000 fifth-graders couldn't be more excited to see a performance by the Diavolo Dance Theater, an acrobatic dance troupe. The event was part of the annual Blue Ribbon Children's Festival, which takes place on April 5, 6 and 7 this year. 
Packed school buses lined up along Hope Street this morning, and the students eagerly filed into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, hurried along by volunteers and teachers. In an organized procession, they found their seats quickly and shushed each other as the program began.
Everything runs smoothly now that the festival is in its 41st year, organizers say.
"We've worked out some of the kinks," said Mark Slavkin, the vice president for education at the Music Center. 
The festival began in 1971 as a community-service effort to engage school kids in the arts, and throughout the years it has featured artists like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Joffrey Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. This is the second year Diavolo has been featured. During the three days, the company will perform twice daily for a rapt audience of fifth graders from every school in Los Angeles County. 
Slavkin said the program focuses on dance because it's an aspect that sometimes gets overlooked in school music programs. 
"It's also a good way to send a message to schools that the arts are important," Slavkin said. "Plus, the kids feel special. It's not just a run-of-the-mill school day."
That it certainly wasn’t. As the lights dimmed in the auditorium, the audience cheered and watched attentively as the dancers took the stage by popping out of the steps of a giant wooden staircase. Diavolo, an L.A.-based dance company founded by French director Jacques Heim, is known for its use of props and thrilling acrobatics. Dancers clung to giant metal wheels and spun inside spheres dangling from the ceiling. During the finale, they danced on an enormous wooden wedge that rocked with their movements, catching each other as they leapt off. 
"That was awesome," said Condit Elementary's Cameron Kading when it was all over. "It was cool how all that stuff was rocking, but they stayed balanced."
Aside from wowing the students for an hour, the program aimed to reinforce important ideas about teamwork and self-discipline. For many of the kids, it was their first time at a performing arts venue.
"I think it's a great experience to learn about the arts, and also about how to behave appropriately," said parent volunteer Lizette Cotango. "My son was very excited as he was getting ready this morning."
Many of the teachers said programs like this have been especially crucial in recent years as LAUSD has scaled back art and music classes in the face of a budget crisis. Most elementary schools will be left with one music or art class on one day per week if the state deficit isn’t breached, according to an LAUSD “Budget Realities” Web site.
"This festival exposes students to something they wouldn't see every day," said a teacher from 32nd Street Elementary who gave her name as Miss Kim. "For many of these students, it's all they would get otherwise."
After the Diavolo performance, it was time for the kids to show off their own creativity. The students packed into a courtyard outside, where they gathered in circles and performed a simple dance they had all learned a few days prior in their classrooms. 
"This is incredible," said Jim Stapleton, a principal at Stoner Avenue Elementary in Culver City, as he looked out into a sea of synchronized hopping. "Kids can be very self-conscious, but if you look at them right now, they're not at all."
Though most of the students executed their moves with zeal, the dancing portion wasn't as popular with some of the participants. Daniel McKinley from Castle Heights Elementary hung back, reluctant to engage in the arm-waving and two-stepping.
"I think this part is boring and annoying," McKinley admitted. He didn't feel that way about the Diavolo performance, however.
"Oh, the performance was very creative, and the actors were very vivid," he said. He added that the Diavolo dancers must have spent a long time preparing their dangerous-looking tricks.
"All I know is it's a ton of work. You have to practice every day, because if you make a mistake, someone could die," he explained.
The idea of cooperation as a path to success was driven home when the students shouted "teamwork!" in unison at the end of their performance. Afterward, it was clear that many had found lasting connections between the dance world and the kid world.
Asked what he thought it took to become a professional dancer, Victor Lopez from Edison Elementary didn’t hesitate.
"You have to be really flexible,” he said. “And you have to be super strong...like the Hulk!"



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