IN the summer of 1986, the Wilshire district's First Baptist Church here was at a crossroads. ``We painted the side of the church every Saturday,'' says 25-year member Jim Williams. ``Then after the church service Sunday, they'd be back, painting letters this high.'' Faced with increasing and violent vandalism by local gangs - broken windows, bullet holes, spray-painted epithets - the church board finally narrowed its options to two: build a giant fence around the edifice, or open the doors and expand its already existing community outreach. Specifically, embrace local gang members from an El Salvadoran refugee group Mara Savatrucha, labeled by local police as ``the most mindlessly violent gang in the city.''
Three nights last weekend, and one this, the fruits of their effort have been realized. About 25 of these street-smart teens will dance the Imperial Russian 19th-century ballet ``The Sleeping Beauty.'' On Sunday, the group will dance in opening ceremonies of the Beverly Hills Diamond Jubilee, in outdoor Roxbury Park. The ballet is one sequel of the church's vision to open the El Centro Wilshire Family Center.
``Not that they were ready for tiptoes and pirouettes,'' says volunteer Helena Ross, lead dancer from the nearby Long Beach Ballet, who choreographed the ballet for the new family center's ballet program. ``To some of the classical movements, we've incorporated macho moves from their own street culture, and given them classes in taekwondo [a Korean form of martial arts].''
Here in the two-story gymnasium with stage that adjoins the church, 20 gang members are practicing the well known dance of Carabosse, the evil faerie. A small phonograph to the side provides majestic strains of Tchaikovsky that none of them have heard until six weeks ago. Instructor Ross is counting aloud, ``One, two, three four, five, six, seven, eight.''
Running to and fro in black-and-white martial-arts garb, they mix flips, kicks, and slapping of hands with traditional ballet mime movements taught in earlier rehearsals by Ms. Ross. There is even one section in which they incorporate ``popping,'' the robotic movements used by breakdancers and street jivers.
Younger gang members are dancing in a separate movement, and others are helping with lighting and staging. The new program has given many of the El Salvadorans a new sense of self-worth, opened new channels of creativity, drawn them off the street, and introduced them to foreign culture.
A large group even began attending church services regularly. William Moran even brags that he will be ``un ballerino muy famoso.'' Robert Lobo, already in a wheelchair from a police bullet, says if it weren't for the center, he'd be dead.
``Now we have a place to get together and do happy things,'' says Lobo, 20, ``rather than just hanging around street corners, thinking of things to do out of boredom - cosas malas [bad things] unfortunately.''
And a welcome byproduct of the new collaboration is a significant decrease in graffiti and acts of violence against the church. ``For years we were terrorized by this gang,'' says Williams. ``Now, in the past six months, we've had less graffiti than ever.'' A sister of one gang member has joined El Centro because of her brother's involvement with the ballet.
``I was afraid to leave the house because of gangs before,'' she says.
In October 1986 the board decided to open the new family center, applying for and receiving a two-year government grant (about $44,000) that would help pay for part-time staff. And though the Rev. Ruth Morales, a board member, hastens to designate the effort ``a neighborhood program, not a gang program,'' board leaders sought out a Hispanic director, one who was both a Christian and a former gang member with broad connections in the gang community.
The idea to try gang members in the ballet came from Maria and Helena Ross, two volunteers from the local neighborhood. Maria is director of Ballet Association of Southern California. Though the El Centro program included basketball, skating, and other activities, the initial ballet program was primarily for younger girls.
``The older boys would come around to play basketball, and [former director] Carmelo [Alvarez] would give them understanding,'' says Maria Ross. ``Which is what they needed more than anything - not one in 10 of these kids has a decent family life.''
Ms. Ross says that unlike the girls, the boys had to be baited, to have to feel some specific reason to be involved. Using the dance as an outlet to energy as well as an appeal to group association, members began to come around. In a sense, they tried it, and they liked it.
``After one three-hour rehearsal, everyone was exhausted, and I kept saying, `Don't you wanna go home?''' says Ross. ``They wanted to stay and practice.''
Last month, not long after rehearsals for ``Sleeping Beauty'' began, the Joffrey Ballet at nearby Music Center of Los Angeles invited the group to performances of ``Petrouchka,'' ``Afternoon of a Fawn,'' and ``The Rite of Spring.'' Though there was some bad publicity when the Joffrey became fearful of gang violence, the gang members got their first look at classical ballet. The interest has led to other outings.
``They used to hang out at street corners, because they had this very powerful feeling of us vs. them that they didn't know how to handle,'' says El Centro events coordinator Faith Palermo. ``Since then we have taken them to Fordham [Theatre], the Coliseum [sports arena], and Shriner's Auditorium, and they have learned acceptable behavior, so that people don't want to stare them down with hate.''
Los Angeles Police Capt. Bayan Lewis of the local Rampart precinct where the church is located also lauds the program. But with caution.
``We applaud every effort the church is making to embrace and acculturize these immigrants, and what they've done is outstanding,'' he says. ``But MS [Mava Stavatrucha] has the greatest record of violent activity of any gang in the city. They are dopers, gang bangers, and murderers with very little regard for their victims. So we in the police cannot afford to be naive.''
Indeed, at least three early participants in the ballet will not make it to performance, according to Helena Ross. Two have been frightened away by frequent police sweeps of the center, and at least one is still being held in detention for deportation back to El Salvador. In recent weeks, encouraged by fewer acts of violence against the church, police scrutiny has let up.
``I definitely think this group is heading in the right direction,'' says Helena. ``They just need some understanding and backing from the community. Even if they did do something in their past, they deserve a chance to put it behind them.''
``We want them to look beyond the specific activity, to their lives,'' says the Reverend Ms. Morales, a board member and associate minister. ``This is the only church in town with such a program, and it was a very hard decision.'' She hastens to add that the church is not claiming miracles, and that the effort is still at the grass-roots level.
``We just want to show them more love, respect; give them better choices. Ballet just happens to be one avenue.''