IN a darkened college theater here, 100 nine-year-olds dance in circles on a spotlit stage. Wearing spangled leotards and woolly leggings, young Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and whites clasp hands and await cues from a shadowed figure downstage. "Freedom is a free thing ... that's the way God made us," says henna-haired Beth Burns, standing in pink sweater and white Nikes.
With an evening performance hours away, Ms. Burns is not concerning her dancers with muscle movements, placement of toes, or arms. She talks about communicating wholeness and personal integrity, inner beauty.
"I don't care if you make a mistake," she says and has the kids repeat: "Beth doesn't care if we make a mistake."
By all accounts, Burns is the singular sensation behind the St. Joseph Ballet Company, a troupe she began in 1983 to offer free dance lessons to disadvantaged inner-city youth, aged 9-19.
By teaching dance as a tool to gaining greater self-awareness and creativity, Burns is achieving widening success as mentor, teacher, and counselor as well as choreographer.
"Beth has done an outstanding job of providing alternatives to those who have had low ceilings imposed by society," says Charles Champlin, arts editor emeritus of the Los Angeles Times.
"For her kids, she has provided new beginnings, hope amidst hopelessness. And for the rest of us she has managed to net several dancers of the highest promise."
Eight years ago, Burns had visions of making a dent in the poverty she saw in too many areas of southern California.
"I felt I couldn't take away poverty because it is too complex," she says. A dancer from the age of 10 through college, she decided to draw on her own background.
"I knew I could give children moments of possibility so luminous they would see themselves in their future so differently."
In 1983, with a small grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, Burns took 24 kids from the Santa Ana area through a summer program.
The fruitage from one small season was so promising that more funding flowed from the California Arts Council, the city, and several individuals.
After six seasons based in a small church, the group moved to a 4,000-sq.-ft. facility in 1988. Nearly 1000 youth have had full training on scholarship and over 12,000 more have participated in programs at local schools.
"I didn't think dance was an option for me," says Melissa Young, a 19-year-old who was just accepted by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
She describes her eight years with the ballet as a home away from home, a way to interact with and understand other races and cultures.
"Choreography is just one tool for Beth," adds Ms. Young. "She's not just into tutus, she's into whatever the kids need help out of - drugs, violence, family problems."
"The idea of artistic expression is to know oneself and to communicate so deeply that one sees and develops his or her own wholeness," Burns says. The truth of too many professional performing organizations, she feels, is that they are environments in which people do not treat each other well and performers are unhappy.
"If you don't have rightness and truth and love happening in what you do during the day, then how can that be expressed through what you do onstage?" Burns asks.
Balance in performance is related to centeredness within, she teaches. Freedom of movement is aided by unfettered thought.
This year, Burns took her ideas beyond the dance world. Seventeen hundred youths across southern California participated in competitions to supply a story idea, music, and scenic design for a new ballet. Top Los Angeles-area musicians, writers, and artists judged the competition. Winners spent time developing their entries with such names as trumpeter Herb Alpert, painter Frank Romero, and Burns herself.
"It was the opportunity of a lifetime," said Kaisara Esera, 17, who spent time recording his work at A&M Studios in Hollywood.
"I feel like I did something right with my life."
The music was presented as backdrop to the ballet "Find Yourself, Lose Yourself," a story by Vietnamese Sang Tran, 16, with a scenic design by Jesus Cabral, 14. Performed several times last month to glowing reviews, it was at once poignant and cathartic.
Besides two or three public performances the 274-member troupe makes each year, several members have performed children's roles with the Joffrey Ballet. Last year, 35 performed onstage with a 56-member orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"Beth has a way of making sure everyone is the star," says Flor de Liz Alzate, 15, who danced the lead in "Find Yourself," last month.
Over the years with the ballet, beginners start at two hours a week and come 5-6 times a week by the time they are advanced. Membership is 85 percent black, Hispanic, and Asian, and average family income is $12,000.
"Beth is that very rare teacher who expects excellence and gets it because she treats youth with so much respect," says Mary Ellen Glaser, mother of dancer Meg, 14.
"She helps shape their standards and expectations for life."