Some 30 third- to fifth-grade girls, dressed mostly in black leotards and pale pink tights, are at wooden barres going through their ballet warm-up exercises at Transfiguration School off of Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. For the first position, they form a V with their feet pointed out before stretching one leg at a time along the floor to do the tendu exercise. Then, with hands on the barre and knees bent, the neophyte dancers form the classic plié. Finally, they rise on their toes like bantam angels for the releve. “OK, relax,” says their 23-year-old teacher, Felicia Kelley, before turning to a visitor.“Getting their leotards and tights and headbands, they have been so excited,” she reports. “They really have been receptive to it. Of course, some of them are like: ‘We want to do hip-hop.’ So we switch back and forth. But they really enjoy this. When they see me in a hallway, they yell out my name and ask, ‘Are we having ballet today?’“And it’s been that way since I got here a whole year ago,” she adds with a growing grin. “It hasn’t died down. If anything, it’s gotten more intense.”After class, out in the hallway, four fifth-graders share what they really enjoy about the stylized dance, which traces its roots back to the 15th century Italian and French Renaissance courts. “What I like about ballet is all the choreography and all the movement,” says Stephanie Glize, 11. And her classmates nod in unison. Leila Johnson, also 11, stops giggling to observe, “What I like about ballet is that when you’re doing it, you can kind of relax. And I don’t have to worry about what anybody thinks about me.”Again heads bob up and down. “Ballet’s a dance art; and I like to dance and I like art,” Keynon Thompkins, 10, explains. “So it makes a good combination for my personality. The art part is when they put different choreography, different dance movements together to make one big show.”And, in fact, the girls gush about the end-of-the-school-year recital they’re preparing for next week. The last to speak, Linda Orellana, 11, is barefoot and has turquoise braces on her teeth. “What I like is the movement, the experience of movement that you have,” she says. “Yeah, it’s like when you put art and dance together. It makes a whole new thing that’s just called ballet.”A bishop’s inspirationThe inspiration for bringing fine and performing arts to Transfiguration came from Our Lady of the Angels Region Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark. When Father Michael Tang, who had chaired the art and art history department at Loyola Marymount University from 1996 to 2006, came to the urban parish in July 2010, the bishop had the brainstorm of making the parochial school a Catholic magnet academy of the arts, which, hopefully, would attract more students. Enrollment at the K-8 school in the Exposition Park area south of downtown L.A. was down to 161 students. Of these students, more than 75 percent needed tuition assistance, mostly from the Catholic Education Foundation. Because of the low enrollment, there was a definite possibility Transfiguration might close, after serving the largely African American community of Leimert Park and nearby South L.A. locales for three-quarters of a century.With his connections to the Jesuit university, however, the new pastor — who had been a member of the Society of Jesus — was able to form a viable partnership with Loyola Marymount University. He enlisted an LMU friend, Judith Scalin — current associate dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts and former co-chair of the dance department — to get the dance program going at Transfiguration in March of 2012. Shane Martin, dean of the School of Education at LMU, helped to fund a dance teacher.The William H. Hannon Foundation and the John and Dorothy Shea Foundation came up with most of the funds for the dance studio, which was then built by J.F. Shea Construction, Inc. The studio features a professionally designed cushioned Marley floor, a wall of eight-foot-high mirrors and wood ballet barres along the sides and down the middle of the large room. With its totally professional look and ambiance, it is easy to imagine being in a practice room of the New York City Ballet. But not to be outdone, there’s also a piano classroom with a dozen or more individual keyboards with attached headphones, and in the back two concert pianos — I all made possible by a grant from Mr. and Mrs. James Murphy.In addition, the school’s new fine and performing arts program also incorporates a youth choir directed by former principal Oscar Pratt.“While other public and private schools are trimming the arts from their curriculum, we thought that we could bring the arts in here and revitalize the school,” says Father Tang. “We needed to reenergize Transfiguration while focusing on meeting the needs of our community. People must see the value of paying tuition for their children to go to a Catholic school not just for the rigorous academic education, but also for the enjoyment of attending school every day.“But,” he adds in a more cautious tone, “we’re just at the infancy stages — ‘baby steps’ — because the school is still struggling. But our school’s enrollment is up to 218 students.”Former junior high teacher and incoming principal Evelyn Rickenbacker is excited about helping the fine and performing arts program develop together with the pastor. She says this year’s summer school program is already integrating dance and music into its offerings. And the school is hoping and planning for the day when Transfiguration students can specialize in dance, piano or one of the other arts through additional specialized classes.Meanwhile, the veteran educator believes the arts are already having a positive influence. “For middle school students, especially, it gives them a different sense of accomplishment,” Rickenbacker reports. “Because in middle school you might be an athlete, and we have a really extensive athletic program here. But I’ve found that the sixth and seventh grade students love piano class. Because if they’re not athletic, they’ve found something else that they can excel in. “And piano is really good for math,” she points out. “I saw Mr. Nu√±o teaching a class on music theory, and it was a real good connection with learning fractions — half notes, quarter notes and so on. So it has improved math skills with some students who needed help and were engaged in the piano class. “The arts gives them a variety of difference types of activities to excel in. And you’ll see students who are at the infancy stage of learning theory and music. Then you’ll see other students who come quite frequently after school, who are learning to actually compose music. So studying piano — or any of the arts — is really, really wonderful.” Learning scalesOver in the piano room, some 20 seventh-graders are at keyboards while their music teacher, Chris Nu√±o, is writing on a whiteboard. In the back of the room a boy is pounding out melodic chords on a piano. “What does this mean, Jonathan?” asks Nu√±o, pointing to a long Italian word.A boy with an eager expression raises his hand. “Ritardando means play it softly,” he answers.Gently, the teacher explains, “No, not softly. Ritardando means — ” but he’s cut off by another boy calling out, “Slow up!”Nu√±o nods. “Yes, slow down.”In the middle of the room, two girls are sharing a keyboard. One is meticulously — and patiently — showing the other where exactly to place her fingers. “She has a little bit more problem doing the scales,” Khaliea White, 12, says. “But scales are pretty easy.”Winter Ramirez glances up from the keyboard. “She’s helping me with my lesson, because it’s really, really hard for me to do them with my right hand,” the 12-year-old explains. “So Khaliea helps me a lot on my left, and with both hands, too.”Then Khaliea points out how her older sister helped her learn to play at home, while this is her partner’s first experience playing anywhere. This makes Winter smile and say, “It’s fun having a partner and learning everything.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0719/transfiguration/{/gallery}