On a cold Sunday afternoon in the heart of South Tucson, the streets are mostly empty. But inside the dance studio in a plain-white building on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 33rd Street, there is a flurry of energy and activity.
Groups of children giggle and smile before heading into the studio for a rehearsal of The Nutcracker. A gaggle of girls in tights and leotards gather in a corner of the studio to stretch and warm up.
At Dancing in the Streets Arizona, there is a sense of vitality and community.
Dancing in the Streets Arizona is a nonprofit organization founded in August by Joseph Rodgers and his wife, Soleste Lupu, with the goal of providing children with the opportunity to study ballet, no matter their income.
The students are preparing for their first performance, called Baile en el Cascanueces, or The Nutcracker Ballet, which will be performed this Sunday.
"This is the first time for many of the students that they've ever been on a stage," said Marian Lupu, president of the board and Soleste's mother. "I think they're excited."
While the organization provides classes for all students, they focus on at-risk youth with the hopes that by introducing children to a creative, positive hobby, they will steer clear of drugs and violence.
Rodgers knows firsthand how ballet can transform lives for the better. A native of the South Park Neighborhood in Tucson, he first began studying ballet at the age of 7 at the Tucson Academy of Dance. After attending an outreach program at his school, St. Ambrose, he was given a full scholarship to start studying the art.
Later, he flirted with drugs and violence and was making poor choices. But he always came back to ballet.
"If I didn't have ballet, I'd be probably up in Florence (in prison) or dead, one of the two. Those are the two options for a black man here, especially from South Park," Rodgers said. "Ballet was like the foundation of me, of keeping me on the straight and narrow."
Ballet taught Rodgers accountability, self-esteem and responsibility, as well as how to face rejection after an audition. Now, Rodgers hopes to teach these same lessons to the students that come to study at Dancing in the Streets Arizona.
The idea for the organization came to Rodgers when he returned to his neighborhood for a memorial barbecue.
"All the old gangbangers were there who I used to run with back in the day. Those gangbangers now have kids of their own," Rodgers said.
He asked one of the children if he wanted to learn a ballet step. Soon, a group of children had emerged from the house, where they were playing video games, to learn the step. There wasn't enough room in the front yard, so Rodgers moved into the street to teach the kids.
"Right there in my mind, I was thinking, 'These kids are hungry for this,'" Rodgers said.
When Rodgers and Soleste Lupu got married in March, they asked guests to donate to a charitable organization or contribute funds to get Dancing in the Streets Arizona started. Additional funding comes from sponsorships, said Marian Lupu. There are already approximately 50 students studying ballet, with more coming each week.
"We have maybe one or two kids per week who walk in," Rodgers said. "The word is getting around in the neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods that we're here."
As the rehearsal begins, Rodgers directs and encourages the students as Soleste helps a young girl with technique, straightening her leg and pointing her foot into a turnout. Rodgers' infectious laugh and energy permeate the studio.
After this first performance of The Nutcracker, preparation will begin for their next performance, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
There are not many other options for neighborhood children interested in studying ballet. There are few ballet studios nearby, and studios can be unaffordable for low-income families.
"The effort is to teach not necessarily professional dancers, but to learn discipline, to have other interests and to make an opportunity for people who can't afford some of the more high-priced studios," Marian Lupu said. "We're convinced that dance is one of those things that can provide opportunities for people."
Dancing in the Streets Arizona will be performing Baile en el Cascanueces, or The Nutcracker Ballet, at 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 28, at the Berger Performing Arts Center at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $5 for children 12 and younger. For more information, call 298-7738, or visit the Dancing Web site.