DENVER — Early on a Saturday morning, a dozen children stand along a cinder-block wall in the Swansea Elementary School gymnasium, one hand outstretched to an imaginary barre. Girls in pink leotards and tights, boys in black shorts and T-shirts, they move in unison to recorded piano music, heads held high, legs snapping like scissors, each face set with determined focus.
Their two-hour practice session is not a substitute for gym class, nor is it mere child's play. Here, in an impoverished Hispanic neighborhood that straddles a rail yard and an interstate highway, these young pupils are learning the refined art of classical ballet. Three times a week, they push themselves to breathlessness, striving to perfect their pliés and arabesques under the tutelage of Esther Smith, a former professional dancer.
Ms. Smith introduced the ballet program two years ago to bring cultural arts to the school and offer students something they might otherwise only dream of: a shot at pursuing a professional ballet career. And the program is as much about the art of achieving goals.
"I think they're learning how to succeed; they're learning how hard it is," Smith says. "It's not that every kid wants to be a professional dancer. But to work to excel at something, and to learn discipline and determination that's what makes the program worthwhile."
At Swansea in North Denver, 92 percent of the students are Hispanic, and 96 percent qualify for the federal free-lunch program. When Smith began teaching the current group of students last year, they spoke little English and had never taken ballet. Now, they respond quickly to her instructions in English and French. "It's incredible the progress they've made," she says.
While ballet is offered in low-income communities elsewhere in the nation, Smith says Swansea's emphasis on classical ballet training is unprecedented.
Without this strong foundation at a young age, a dancer's ability to advance is limited, Smith says.
If this were merely a recreational program, Smith would not have been interested, she says. "From the start, I told everyone I wanted a serious ballet program, and I don't want to fool around." Her students accepted that condition with enthusiasm.
An unapologetic stickler for technique, Smith demands precision in the dancers' movements, making slight corrections to the curve of their fingers and angle of their feet. "Eyes up! Show me how proud you are!" she calls out.
"Concentrate! When I tell you something, it's for you, not me."
"This is a no-excuses class, and they know that," she explains. "There's no false praise."
Instruction is based on the Cecchetti method, and Smith's students are preparing to take international first-level ballet exams in October. Such goal-setting is key to the program's success, says Smith, who has a master's degree in education and also teaches computer classes at Swansea.
Recently, the class performed an adaptation of Swan Lake, culminating an intensive summer program that required 12 hours of practice weekly. Instilling her own passion for dance, Smith taught students about the story of the ballet and its choreographer, composer, and music. When the Moscow Ballet invited the class to its Denver performance of Swan Lake, the children were able to see firsthand what they're aspiring to. "The more they learned about the ballet, the more they enjoyed [performing] it," Smith says.
Second-grader Ana Silva, who played Princess Odette in Swan Lake, demonstrates a bit of the intricate choreography involved, gracefully lifting her arms in "ports de bras" and finishing with a swift pirouette. Several of the children including Anna already hope to become professional ballerinas.
Because dance training can cost as much as $1,000 a month for a serious student, opportunities to pursue ballet are rarely available to low-income children. But Smith is adamant that financial barriers should not preclude talented children from having a chance to study dance.
When she first volunteered to teach ballet here, students gathered at a recreation center and held onto chairs. Now, they use a borrowed dance studio and the school gym. They make do.
"It's a wonderful example of a school pulling together to help children get this exposure to the arts," says Kiki Schomp, elementary-programs manager for Denver Public Schools.
The district supplied funding for Swansea's summer ballet classes and recently requested an $88,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for arts programs at several elementary schools, including Swansea.
Denver has a staggering dropout rate for Hispanic students (less than 55 percent graduate from high school), and the district hopes the grant will improve retention and increase minority students' opportunities in the arts, Ms. Schomp says.
Smith plans to continue teaching whether or not funding is secured: The reward of seeing her students progress is more valuable than money, she says. But she envisions the program expanding to other schools. "Ballet is challenging," she says. "These are bright kids, and it's important for them to have that challenge."
For parents, the benefits are as apparent as their children's enthusiasm. Linda Perez says her daughter Mariah Casillas, in second grade, has flourished because of ballet: "It's just the boost she needs. It gives her a lot of discipline, and she listens better. She knows that ballet is not easy, and that you have to work hard."
At the end of class, the students' serious expressions dissolve into broad grins as they each get a high-five from Smith. "They're so proud of themselves," she says, smiling. "I really love that."