everybody dance!: Celebrating Children and a Mother’s Love

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karenpacker110BY KAREN PACKER

The banquet hall of the old Sheraton Townhouse hotel is an unlikely place for a children’s dance studio. The former hotel-turned-affordable housing project is located in the Rampart district of Los Angeles where incomes are low and unemployment is high. No one would suspect that this building once slated for demolition could be a portal into a creative world.

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Liza Bercovici established the Gabriella Axelrad Foundation as the umbrella under which everybody dance! - and later the Gabriella Charter School (GCS) - would operate.

Downstairs a basement room serves as a second dance studio, while nearby in the designated office area a line of parents is waiting to register their young dancers for more classes.

The hundreds of children from the surrounding areas who receive weekly dance instruction in this modest and unlikely place may have no idea of the confluence of fateful events that conspired to create their opportunity. But Studio City resident Liza Bercovici remembers the day in 1999 when it all started – the day a most implausible biking accident during a family vacation claimed the life of her 13 year-old daughter Gabriella, who was a student at Harvard-Westlake.

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Liza Bercovici and her daughter, Gabriella, who lost her life at age 13 in a biking accident while on a family vacation.

It is her daughter’s death that prompted the former family law attorney to quit her 18 year-career and take up the cause of preserving her daughter’s memory through everybody dance!, a program that shares Gabriella’s love of dance with undeserved children in Los Angeles.

“Gabri liked to dance in the family room. She used to go in there and just shut the door and dance away,” Bercovici recalls. “[A child's death] makes you rethink what you’re doing…what your life is all about…your priorities. I wanted to do something to memorialize her life since I could no longer take care of her and raise her.” The memory still brings a smile to her face and a tear to her eye.

That same year, with the help of family and friends, Bercovici established the Gabriella Axelrad Foundation as the umbrella under which everybody dance! – and later the Gabriella Charter School (GCS) - would operate. It was May 2000, just ten months after Gabriella’s death, when everybody dance! first opened its doors, offering 12 weekly after school classes to 35 children.

With the help of artistic director Carol Zee, a staff of talented teachers, parents, donors, and dedicated students, there are now over 900 children enrolled in 155 weekly ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, and modern dance classes. There are studios in the original Rampart location and in the heart of the Pico-Union community with more scheduled to open later this year in Echo Park. Almost three thousand children are on the waiting list.

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Over 900 children are enrolled in 155 weekly ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, and modern dance classes. Photo:Jaybinklyphotography.com

These children who participate in the program come mainly from neighborhoods where exposure to the arts and after school programs is limited and often financially out of reach. In the area surrounding the Rampart studios where the Foundation’s headquarters are located, the median family income is $22,000 per year, unemployment exceeds 10%, and half the adult population lacks a high school degree, according to Foundation statistics.

Bercovici has been able to keep operations running through funding from various city and state agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts. Donations from The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation and the Weingart Foundation among others also help to make the $5 monthly fee per class possible, and keep the program accessible to all children regardless of their income level or their living environment.

Norbert De la Cruz III is one student who has taken this rare opportunity and turned it into a career. The 21 year-old Filipino immigrant had no formal dance training when he came to everybody dance!, yet two years later he was accepted to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. In 2006 he won first

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Children who participate in the program come mainly from neighborhoods where exposure to the arts and after school programs is limited and often financially out of reach. Photo: Jaybinklyphotography.com

place at the 18th Annual Music Center Spotlight Awards. De la Cruz studied with the American Ballet Theater and at the San Francisco Ballet School before receiving a scholarship to the Julliard School in New York. He says that dance saved his life. “If I hadn’t gone to everybody dance! I don’t know what I’d be doing today,” says De la Cruz. “It gave me the foundation for dance. They cultivated me and allowed me to push forward.”

Other alumni have received scholarships to the Hamburg Ballet School in Germany and the Miami City Ballet, while another dancer was accepted to the Kirov Academy’s summer program in Washington D.C.

The personal impact dance has on the children is evident. They express more self-confidence, their focus is improved, and they are better behaved. These changes have consistently translated into improvement in academic achievement which Bercovici credits to the discipline demanded in the dance program. “[Dance] is something that speaks to everyone and [the students] are very responsive to our demands for high standards and excellence,” she says. It was the academic progress of the students that inspired Bercovici to open the charter school, GCS, in 2005 on the same grounds as the Foundation’s headquarters.

The K-5, dance-themed elementary school integrates one hour of dance instruction per day into the standards-based curriculum. In its first two years of operation the school exceeded its 800 API target score and repeated the success again this year with a score of 853. GCS was a finalist for the Music Center Bravo Award in 2009 and won a second Siart Award for charter school excellence.

 

"[Dance] is something that speaks to everyone and [the students] are very responsive to our demands for high standards and excellence," says Bercovici..

The personal impact dance has on the children is evident. They express more self-confidence, their focus is improved, and they are better behaved. Photo: Jaybinklyphotography.com

LAUSD recognized the success of everybody dance! and GSC, and invited the charter school to expand to Logan Street Elementary School, one of their current sites in Echo Park. There the Foundation will establish its academic and after school dance programs to prepare middle school students to enter the district’s new high school for the arts.

 

For now Bercovici has no plans to revisit her law career. She says being continuously surrounded by children and dancers who are happy and productive is much better than being around lawyers, and it brings her comfort. She also sees a love of dance developing in the children as she had hoped.

“I’m much happier doing this. It’s sort of a wonderful gift that my daughter left me with. She loved to dance and she wanted to be a school teacher. In a way I’ve sort of blundered into doing the things she would have done if she’d lived.”

For further information: www.gabri.org, www.everybodydance.org. www.gabriellacharterschool.org

Karen Packer is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, but now calls the San Fernando Valley home. She has spent the last 15 years working as a freelance writer, teacher, and publicist.

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About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

  • BigCharterFan

    Schools and programs like this inspire me every day – it is why I am such a strong supporter of charter schools. It allows unconventional people like Liza to participate in improving/reforming our educational system for all kids.

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