Dolores Chacon counted rhythm for four ballerinas dressed in black tutus and tights Wednesday afternoon in the school cafeteria.
Chacon paused to correct some of the young dancer's positions, straightening their backs and telling them to elongate their necks like a giraffe.
"Your belly button needs to face that wall," Chacon said, pointing to the right of the stage. "Then, your head needs to go up to that clock," she said, pointing toward the ceiling.
The fifth-grade students at Aoy Elementary School in the El Paso Independent School District were learning a dance number to a typical Huapango musical piece filled with varying tempos of percussion and string instruments.
Chacon, 60, has run a free, after-school ballet program at the Segundo Barrio school for the past five years. It's the only traditional ballet program in local elementary schools.
Donating her time, Chacon has introduced elementary students to ballets set to the classical music of Chopin and Tchaikovsky, and jazzier sets to Broadway musicals.
"The ones that started in kindergarten with me, you can see the graces and the movement and the understanding," Chacon said. "At the end of every performance I'm in tears. The families are so proud of them and they're
proud of themselves. They're offering happiness to others."
Ballet has been as much a part of Chacon's life as spending long summer days outside in the Chihuahuita neighborhood where she grew up.
The South El Paso neighborhoods overlooking Juarez are filled with life and vibrancy, said Chacon, who has taught at Aoy for 31 years.
"I think it's a hidden diamond because we have such talent in this area we just have to reach out for it," Chacon said. "We have to find people to bring that talent out. It doesn't matter where you come from. You just have to want it."
She grew up and still lives in the 100-year-old house on Charles Road where her father's family lived for four generations.
Chacon's great-grandparents bought the property, which hugs the U.S.-Mexico border, in 1911 after fleeing Mexico during the country's revolution
At the age of 6, she joined the Texas Western Civic Ballet, which was run by German-born dance instructor Ingeborg Heuser, and danced as a student at the University of Texas at El Paso.
When Chacon was 14 in the early 1960s, the American Ballet Company in New York City offered her a scholarship to study with the school for a summer, but she had to decline the offer because her father had recently died of a cerebral hemorrhage and her mother was studying to become a teacher to support her children.
"My mother was not about to let me go to New York at 14," Chacon said. "I couldn't go to New York to experience that, but I feel thrilled that somebody noticed that I had some talent. There were very few Hispanics dancing ballet at the time. I never felt that somebody would have noticed somebody like me."
Chacon's passion for ballet has been impressed upon the handful of students who study with her one day a week after school, said Alma Holguin, whose 10-year-old daughter, Lizbeth, is in the program.
Because of the expense of ballet lessons from private instructors and studios, Aoy's program is the only option for some girls in the program, Alma Holguin said. Chacon provides outfits for the ballerinas.
"Not only that, it's schedules," she added. "Some parents get home really late so they can't take their kids to a dance school. She's here spending her time with these kids giving them what they might not get at home or at private classes, so they look up to her. She's showing not only the dances and moves, but the discipline."
Karen Gonzalez, 10, said she likes all aspects of ballet, from the movements to the makeup and wardrobe.
"The movements are very soft and exciting," Gonzalez said. "In some parts, it's slow in our arms and we have to be careful about every movement."
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