Juarez Barrio Ballet: Grace Under Fire

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During the summer we usually see a lot of charities and churches doing work in Mexico. Violence has scared many U.S. volunteers away from the Mexican city Juarez. But a unique program that teaches ballet to children in this bloody border city is still going strong.

We visited Juarez where dancers from the U.S. were busy teaching eager students an intensive weeklong course at Casa Emmanuel, a children's home.

Many of the girls come from broken homes or families that cannot afford to care for them. (The ballet class is filled with girls. Boys do take some of the other dance classes during the school year)

"We have children who have been sexually abused. We have children who've been left in a home by themselves for months and they had to support themselves on their own. We have many situations. Children who've been burned because they have to cook for themselves, "explained Betel Lopez, director of the children's home Casa Emmanuel.

Betel has seen the students transformed by dance." I think it brings them a sense of self-esteem and beauty. We can see how the girls have grown, feeling more secure about themselves. It teaches them discipline to feel coordinated with their body and feel comfortable in their own skin."

It's a sanctuary in the middle of a sea of uncertainly. "We have problems but when we dance we forget," 14 year old Tanya Flores told me. She and her 9 year old sister Perla had just finished rehearsing a Samba routine.

During the intensive course the girls must master several dance styles which they perform at the end of the week. Some of the young dancers have been studying for years. Others are beginners. "The ones that have been doing it awhile are helping the ones who have just started," said Elisa Schroth, a volunteer who was helping the girls perfect a ballet routine using tambourines. Schroth usually teaches at a Christian ballet Studio in Connecticut.

Kirsten Avelar volunteered with Emmanuel Ministries 8 years ago. At the time she was dancing professionally with the Milwaukee Ballet Company. The experience in Juarez inspired her to move to the border to manage what became the Emmanuel Ballet Academy full time. That was 2001. "My first class was age 7 and 8, now to see them 14-15 years old. They're having their Quincenieras and they're entering high school. I feel like a mom, proud mom watching them," Avelar told me.

For the volunteers this is clearly about much more than ballet. " If we cease our work here whose going to continue it? We need to do our part. People on this side of the border are our brothers and sisters. We're not going to leave them alone. We're in this together." Avelar says she's asked all time why she takes the risk.

During the weeklong intensive course, She and the other dancers stay at the children's home. It's in a rough neighborhood.

The graceful dancers inside the studio were in sharp contrast to the scene encountered outside as photographer Hugo Perez and I were leaving. Soldiers serving and federal police converged on a nearby street assault weapons in hand as they unfurled yellow crime tape. This is not a place where you'd expect to find classical ballet. But that's the point.

15 year old dancer Lucia Lopez explained, "It's an escape."