It was easy to find Eliot Feld's New School of Ballet in its loft among the chunky warehouses of a workaday section of lower New York, even though there was no sign outside. I just followed the three fourth-grade boys who were hopping up and down and yelling lustily, ''Back to ballet!'' We took an elevator and got off in a blaze of sunlight which a plaque on the wall playfully proclaimed as a ''lofty idea.'' They barreled over the smartly refinished wood floors, down the snappy blue and white corridors. The midwinter break was over and it was, indeed , back to ballet.
Poor, noisy, and Puerto Rican, they might be the last children you'd expect to see in ballet class, even though they are talented and have the bodies - and energy - for ballet. Their parents can't afford ballet lessons and don't think of their sons and daughters as the Baryshnikovs and Makarovas of the '90s. They didn't, that is, until Eliot Feld came to the childrens' schools, asked to see their feet, and invited them to dance.
These three boys, and 200 other children with nice feet and other balletic attributes, come from schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods of New York - Harlem, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and the Bronx - to ballet lessons at the Feld Ballet, one of New York's major ballet companies. As long as there's a possibility they'll become professional dancers, they can keep coming - for free.
Children here for their first class, looking surprised to find themselves in the new leotards or trunks, socks, and ballet shoes given to them by the school, show up in Roseanne Caruso's studio.
Roseanne, a motherly woman who holds her head as high as she did when she danced in the Pennsylvania Ballet, gets them to sit in a circle and stop giggling, fast.
''You were chosen for your talent and because you have nice bodies for ballet ,'' she tells them. ''The rest is up to you. This studio is not like any other place you've ever been. Now you are dancers. When you come in this door, you should feel something. You should get proud, calm, and serious, and you should concentrate. Once you enter the classroom, leave the silliness behind.'' She concludes, in portentous tones, ''Put on a cloak of importance.'' She makes a queenly, cloaking gesture right out of some great story ballet. The children are rapt. They learn their first exercises in silence.
If they can keep that cloak of importance on and they're not sorted out of this group, they'll go from one class a week to six by the time they're in junior high school. And someday they may cause an audience to sit in a similar awed silence. That will be little short of a miracle, but it's already a miracle that they're here.
It all started in the subway. Eliot Feld was traveling downtown to the loft when children on a public school field trip got on the train, and the idea hit him. His assistant director, Cora Cahan, a small, sleek woman who talks as fast as the downtown express, says, ''He saw a bunch of beautiful young children, all colors, all creeds, and said, maybe. They wouldn't know and their parents wouldn't know and when they do find out it's too late. You know, when they're 17 and they find out there's such a thing as an art form called dance, and people can do that for a career or a profession, it's too late to train them.''
Not wanting it to get any later, Feld and Cahan asked representatives of the New York City Board of Education if they could audition children in schools for training as professional dancers. When the board realized they weren't out to make money, they were surprisingly cooperative.
''They suggested that we do the program with them,'' says Cahan, ''that the children come here not after school and on Saturdays, but during school time, on the board of education buses. So here we thought, 'The New York City Board of Education, we're going to encounter the ultimate bureaucracy,' and instead we found an open door, an embrace of the notion, and quite helpful people.''
The board of education willingly suggested ''arts deprived'' public schools - schools that could offer little or no arts education. The board sanctioned in-school auditions. The New School of Ballet was designated by the now-defunct Office of the Gifted and Talented at the Department of Education as a model program and given a $60,000-a-year grant (also now defunct - leaving a gaping hole in funding.)
All of a sudden, Eliot Feld, a dancer whose small size and dashing manner may have something to do with the fact that his name sometimes gets abbreviated to ''Elf,'' began showing up with his staff at public schools, telling the children about ballet, inviting them to audition, and examining their feet to see if they would point. It was a little like the Prince and his cohorts searching out Cinderella, except that they were looking for feet that would fit in a toe shoe. Toe shoes have all the glamour of glass slippers, but are much harder to wear. (After all, this is real life, not a fairy tale.)
This is not even a social program, Feld says, even though it allows gifted poor children to try out their potential for free. ''Clearly,'' he concedes ''if the school makes dancers, my company's going to look very different six, seven years from now, because we have no black dancers. I think we'll have more black dancers then. I think it'll be more reflective of where we live and how we live.''
Even though it costs a quarter of a million dollars a year, which must be raised separately from the Feld Ballet's operating budget, with only about 6 percent coming from state and federal governments, Eliot Feld insists he is not being magnanimous, but is in this for himself. ''I really dislike being at the mercy of who shows up at an audition. Although you occasionally find very good dancers, you're not really in control of it, you're trusting to luck. So the impulse to start a school was to find the most talented children, and it has to be children, because that's when people begin dancing, if you're going to really achieve the kind of proficiency that my work requires.'' The most talented children who knew about ballet were already going to George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, so the thing to do was go for the ones who didn't know.
''Basically,'' said Feld, ''I'm looking for talented youngsters. If they happen to be black or Puerto Rican or Indian or Chinese, that's fine, that's great. I don't care, I just want talent. . . . I'm operating out of self-interest. And I think it's healthy for them, too, by the way, because it's not patronizing. The standards remain the same, but you should have a chance if you have talent, just the same as anyone else.''
''When I grow up, I want to be a ballet,'' says Keitra Victor, a beginner whose corn-row braids are so tight they seem to pull her eyes wider, as she and a group of friends wait for their buses back to school. She gets excited about the possibilities. ''You can learn things at school. Then you can grow up and do shows for people, and step on your toes like this,'' she takes a few prances, holding her arms out and smiling engagingly. ''It would be wonderful if I could do them by myself.'' She does a turn. At age nine, she already is a ballet.
The studios, glazed with sunlight from the tall loft windows, are airy and open. You can feel the concern of the staff for the children. They always talk in low voices, whether handing out leotards or cajoling cooperation out of the bus drivers. A tearful little girl comes in late, holding hands with Georgia Delano, the administrator of the school, who is smiling, and you know some tragedy has been resolved. The quiet, busy warmth of the place is like that of a greenhouse. The staff tends whatever shoots ''the children,'' - as they refer to them - send up.
One very talented girl didn't know how to read until she came here. Now it's hoped she can join her age group in junior high school. Another gets vocabulary help from Mrs. Delano. They recently talked about Joseph Brodsky's poem on Baryshnikov - not your usual remedial reading. Almost all the kids improve in their schoolwork. One little boy's mother says he was ''very aggressive'' when he came here at age seven, but now has mellowed to a responsible 12-year-old who washes his own ballet clothes and does well in school.
There are interns from universities to help with homework. Volunteers drop in. A man from the Legal Aid Society got in the habit of helping a child with French when Legal Aid was on strike, and he keeps coming back in the mornings when he hasn't got a court appearance because he likes it so much. The kids go to free ballet performances, and parents come along as chaperones. A teacher took them backstage at the American Ballet Theater. A newsletter carries book reports older children write and lists free arts activities, encouragement, and tips. In one article, Brunilda Ruiz, another teacher, tells what she eats for breakfast, to teach the children good nutrition.
In a staff conference, they discuss a child whose mother is ''having a hard time with life'' and doesn't make him breakfast. Another boy watched his mother succumb to a drug overdose. Another parent punishes her child by not letting her come to class. ''If a child is having a problem with the mother that makes her difficult to deal with at school, you've got to start dealing with the child and the mother. You can't say 'Look, leave your problems at home,' '' says Elizabeth Cashour, development director. There's a fine line between helping and intruding, says Georgia Delano, ''We can't do it unless we're going to be with the child a long time. If it's only a short time, you spotlight the problem and it doesn't help.'' They may have started out to ''make dancers,'' as Eliot Feld puts it, but they have a lot to do just making way in these complicated lives for dance talent to blossom.
Katherine Moore, associate administrator of the school, stopped in a crossroads to explain something and a young man came up to ask a question. Waiting for the answer, he leaned his forearms on her shoulders for a minute. You got a feeling that what he had really come for was to lean on someone.
Moore is a good choice. She knows all the children's names and problems, accompanies them home on the subway, and toured with them when nine little girls were in the Feld ballet ''Papillon'' making sure they saw the sights of the cities they danced in. She accompanied Marcus Felix, a 12-year-old boy from Chinatown she describes quite seriously as ''a friend,'' when he appeared on Sesame Street. ''There's no such thing as 'extra time' here. It's called getting the job done,'' she says. She worries about how their impoverished upbringing will make the children feel when they find themselves in posher surroundings as dancers. Dancers' salaries are decried as a pittance, but ''$12,000 to $17,000 to a year sounds good'' to these kids, she says. She seems infinitely leanable-on. She looked seriously at the boy through her wire-rimmed glasses, answered him, and finished what she was saying to a visitor. It wasn't an interruption; it was all part of the same job.
Feld, sprinting up and down the corridors of his domain while preparing to go on tour, stopped amid a gaggle of fourth- and fifth-grade ballerinas, waiting for class with workbooks spread out, and threw a few mock punches at Nancy Rodriguez, who performed in ''Papillon.'' He beamed down (not very far) at Xavier Soto, who was returning, triumphantly, after a semester out catching up with schoolwork. He looks in on classes every day.
Feld has choreographed two ballets with children in them. To him, ''They've become little dancers. They're not just gifted children that we bus in. Eventually, they just become little dancers that have a certain look, certain abilities, certain lack of abilities, and you begin to use them.'' He already has his eyes open for future company members. ''I think that some of them are just wonderfully gifted. Maybe three of them, four of them. But that's not bad. If I could get one or two or three dancers a year from the school once it's reached its sixth or seventh year, you keep turning over new students, that would be, what a wonderful thing!'' Others will go into other ballet or modern dance companies.The chance to become a ballet dancer is a precious gift, but it isn't free, as you see when you watch the advanced class, some of whom have been with the school since Eliot Feld's first sortie into the New York City elementary schools four years ago.
They're an odd assortment, not quite teen-agers, but not children any more. They're strong, but still as loosely assembled as puppies. Some are already tall, like Darren and Derek, in the back row, who have the legs of race horses. Marcus, in the front row, is still as diminutive and sweet-faced as a child, but matches Darren and Derek's pace as they bound across the room under the direction of teacher Paul Sutherland. Nancy Rodriguez, compact and dynamic, stretches, turns and stretches next to Zoe Meyer, a long blonde who stretches even farther. Even if they weren't all different colors, they are at an age where people barely look like they all belong to the same species.
Except for one thing. They look at themselves with one ageless, concentrated gaze in the studio's huge mirror. This is not the anxious, self-absorbed checkover most junior high school students throw themselves. These kids are looking for more. When they are studying an outstretched leg, there is in their mind's eye a leg swooping behind a springing leap, and they're trying to connect the dream leg to the real leg.
''Now dancers . . .'' Paul Sutherland begins all his instructions, telling them not only to observe a technical point but also to be dancers. They have been hard to teach, he says. ''Because they spend most of their time in a school environment where, a lot of times, they're being yelled at, and it's just constant noise, they don't even know that they're talking when I'm talking,'' he says. Ballet is going to take every ounce of concentration they can muster. ''It has to come from within, because in the bigger world, nobody's going to keep telling them. They're going to get rid of them. . . . There are too many people who want to dance.'' Sutherland tells Jose that he has to stop being upset by his mistakes. Jose scowls through the class, but Sutherland is insistent, in a fatherly voice that will undoubtedly come back to him sometime.
He finds this a cool generation, who at age 12 haven't started to push themselves. Feld has been known to wring out his drenched T-shirt in front of a class, but Sutherland doesn't want to see them turn into fanatics, either. ''I want these kids to realize they can make a good living. They can do something they like that they're good at and they can make a contribution. They can be, in a sense, true to themselves. That's the most important thing.''
For all Eliot Feld's protestations of enlightened self-interest, there are a lot of Cinderella stories here. Hopes the children never even had before Feld and company showed up in their schools are being fulfilled. Feld sums up his dream this way: He wants the children to dance in his company or another, or at least to know there's more to life than what they see around them. ''Children don't even get out of their neighborhoods. They think that New York is the six blocks that they live in. Just that they go across the city to get here, or they come here and there's a grand piano and somebody's playing it and there's a big open space with mirrors so that they can see themselves. So that maybe, I think it opens their eyes to some of the potential. Not only dancing. I love it here.''