In the cafeteria of an East Los Angeles elementary school, 13 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders sat on the floor with their eyes closed while Scott Joplin’s “Fig Leaf Rag” boomed from a tape player.
“Try to imagine yourselves dancing to this,” urged their teacher, USC senior Catlin “Cat” Goddard.
Judging from the students’ performance at this, their first ballet class, Goddard might as well have asked them to fly.
Wearing school clothes and borrowed ballet slippers, the children teetered awkwardly for about 50 minutes beside a makeshift barre – a row of metal folding chairs. On no single occasion did the entire class move in the same direction.
Inauspicious? Goddard doesn’t think so. In fact, the honor student and USC student-body vice president is so certain that this clumsy but earnest crew can pull together that she has arranged for them to perform in a USC dance concert in December.
“I’m very optimistic,” Goddard said.
THE THRILL OF such unlikely progress keeps this self-described “volunteer junkie” returning to Breed Street Elementary School, where since the fall of 1997 she has given free weekly classes as part of L.A. Ballet Project Acorn. She is the first and most active volunteer in the project, which will spread to other L.A.-area public schools this spring.
“It’s a really great opportunity to see children experience the joy in dance,” said the undergraduate who is pursuing a double major in English and philosophy. “A lot of the girls and boys don’t have self-confidence. To see them develop to the point where they can perform in front of others is so exciting.”
Katty Iriarte, the principal at Breed Street, is glad Goddard, a Boston native who started studying ballet at 7, feels that way.
“If the class didn’t exist, none of my students would be taking dance,” she said.
Part of the problem is a dearth of ballet studios. In the Encino-adjacent neighborhood where Iriarte lives, “there’s one on every corner,” she said. But residents of her school’s neighborhood have only one other option, a commercial studio at least a mile from the school.
“Our parents are pedestrians, so proximity is a real issue,” Iriarte said.
What’s more, the parents, mostly newly arrived im migrants, said they simply can’t afford private lessons.
“My husband doesn’t make a lot [of money] at his work, and there are six of us,” one mother, a housewife whose husband works in the garment district, confided in Spanish.
ANDREW DENEAU, founder of Project Acorn, hopes the program eventually will become a training ground for the Los Angeles Ballet, a new company he’s trying to launch.
“These are my little acorns,” he said. “They will be my mighty oaks one day.”
Deneau, who developed the course’s curriculum, maintains he could teach the class without Goddard, but it just wouldn’t be the same.
“They adore her,” Deneau said. “To them, Cat’s the beautiful ballet lady.”
Members of the Breed Street School’s Project Acorn will perform Friday, Dec. 10, in the Bing Theater at 7 p.m. as part of the USC School of Theatre’s “Anthology of Dance 1900-1999” dance recital.