Kids strut their stuff on the River Walk

Web Posted: 11/18/2007 11:16 PM CST

Lomi Kriel

They shimmied and tangoed, did the cha-cha, the flamenco and the Charleston, and danced to a little hip-hop and a dose of “Walking on Sunshine.” They swung their hips, clicked their castanets and twirled brightly colored skirts.

This was no professional dance troupe — they had their fair share of mismatched steps and technological glitches — but for these children, their performance at the Arneson River Theater on the River Walk on Sunday was akin to an opening night on Broadway.

For eight weeks, community college students worked with children from impoverished families and taught them, well, how to shake their booty.

Many of them had never danced before, and certainly never performed in front of a real audience, until they enrolled in this after-school collaboration between the Juvenile Outreach and Vocational/Educational Network, or JOVEN, a local nonprofit group, and San Antonio College.

“I have a big smile when I dance,” Alyssa Esteves, 7, said after the show, still high on adrenalin in an orange tie-dye shirt and a liberal dose of golden glitter.

Her mother, Jane, a clerk at the Bexar County Courthouse, had enrolled Alyssa in the program.

JOVEN started as a program through Our Lady of the Lake University in 1992, a response to the city’s alarming rise in juvenile crime. It now works with 10 school districts, mostly on the South Side, and tries to engage at-risk children in extracurricular activities. It also serves children with a criminal background or with incarcerated parents and provides counseling for victims of crime.

“Whether it’s through dance or art or music, the idea is to give them outside activities so that they learn more about themselves and the world and about how to make good decisions,” said James Parsons, the chief executive officer. “Our job is to get them on the right path.”

In this program, JOVEN partnered with SAC students in the college’s service-learning program, which is designed to pair skilled students with community needs. Students with dance experience showed up at JOVEN at least once a week, choreographing a wide array of dances for about 30 children ranging in age from 5 to 14.

Halfway through the program, the students said they witnessed a dramatic change. Once listless and unenthusiastic at the start of class, the children were now dragging their instructors and saying, “Miss, I want to dance already!”

“We just fell in love with them,” 20-year-old Marina Mendoza said. “And to see them perform, and do so well, it was awesome.”