I’m back in San Francisco, and in the Chronicle today with a story about one of my favorite programs for kids in the Bay Area:

“It’s a stampede. Sixteen children marching like toy soldiers on speed, spinning and stomping so hard the floor shakes. And the only thing louder than their footfalls is the voice of the Russian man shaking his feathery gray mane like an impatient lion as he prowls the studio.

“Faster, faster, faster!” Vassilii Mountian thunders as the kids run in place. A gold cross nestled in his ample chest hair shines beneath fluorescent lights. “Why you not smile, eh?” he says to the little girls in the front row, but as they clap their hands above their heads, a grin sneaks onto his lips. “Polka, polka!”

He fixes his eyes on one of the older girls and points to his nose held high. “Emotion! I need more from you.” She raises her chin an inch, gaze fiery and determined. Two boys race to the front and drop to hands and knees, kicking wildly as they crabwalk. Mountian shrugs as if to begrudgingly give credit. “This is good!”

It looks like a pint-size Bolshevik boot camp, but the longer you watch, the more you notice: Most of the kids are smiling. And all of them are throwing their bodies around the room as though possessed by the music. They don’t have to be here. They love it.

Forget the New York boroughs of “Mad Hot Ballroom.” If you want to see children transformed by the discipline of dance, you need venture no farther than 1158 Gorgas St., where the edge of the Presidio National Park touches Crissy Field and the Palace of Fine Arts.

There, in a former Army base convenience store, more than 100 kids learn the folk dances of 32 countries as students of the Presidio Dance Theatre Academy. An additional 100 take dance in the Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods as part of the academy’s outreach program, along with 40 kids in Bayview. The most promising and dedicated become members of Presidio Dance Theatre’s performing company, taking class three times a week and rehearsing two hours every Friday, dancing everything from the Pennsylvania Polka to the Serbian Tzigane in resplendent, sumptuously authentic costumes each spring. One-third are on some kind of scholarship. Many pay no fees at all.”

For the full article, click here.

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