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Troupe true to its name

As of 2008, elite dancers must go to Jefferson
by: JIM CLARK, Members of the Jefferson Dancers, recently returned from a European tour, practice a piece that uses flashlights. In coming years the troupe, which now includes dancers from high schools all over the metro area, will be open only to students attending school on the Jefferson Campus.

Two levels below the main floor, in what's called the 'dungeon dance studio' at the Jefferson Campus, the lights are off and it feels like a sauna.

Five days a week, year-round, the limber, spandex-clad bodies known as the Jefferson Dancers leap and twist and twirl here, no matter what happens upstairs on campus that day.

Most of the dancers are oblivious to the politics and controversies at Jefferson - including the fact that students were informed Tuesday that their principal, Leon Dudley, is on leave for the rest of the school year.

District officials have not explained the circumstances, or whether it is a paid leave. Cynthia Harris, the former area director for the school, is assuming Dudley's duties on campus.

But all of that is a haze to the majority of the dancers, because most, in fact, are not Jefferson students.

Only three of the troupe's 23 dancers currently are full-time students at the North Portland school; the others travel across town to the elite dance program from other neighborhoods, where many had dance training from a young age.

This year's dancers come from Lincoln, Wilson, Cleveland and Grant high schools, Sunset High School in Beaverton, Lake Oswego High School and even some private schools in the area. Those who come in from outside the Portland school district must pay tuition of $5,900 to participate.

The number of actual Jefferson students among them has been shrinking over the years, but 'this year there's the smallest number of Jefferson students ever,' said Dede Priest, the dancers' company manager for the past nine years and a tap dance teacher at the school. 'Things (at Jefferson) have just been in such turmoil, that's part of it.'

Another way the dance team doesn't reflect the Jefferson student body is in demographics: All but nine of the 23 Jefferson Dancers are white. Five members are black, three of whom are the team's Jefferson students. The majority of students on the Jefferson Campus are black.

The makeup of the team will look dramatically different in coming years, however. Beginning in fall 2008, a new policy will dictate that all Jefferson Dancers must be enrolled in Jefferson full-time.

According to district spokesman Matt Shelby, that decision was made by Jefferson parents, teachers and district officials as part of the 2005 Jefferson redesign process.

Priest has mixed feelings about the mandate, saying it makes sense to boost the school's enrollment and support its mission. 'Everybody says that's the intention - to make it a performing-arts school again,' she said.

But she's unsure just how it will affect the dance team's recruitment, since she knows that many students opt not to attend Jefferson because of its string of administrative reforms and reputation as a struggling school.

'I think we'd lose a lot of dancers and it would take a while to build,' Priest said, noting that current dancers - seven boys, 16 girls - will be grandfathered in.

Lori Dones, whose son, Lex, has been a Jefferson Dancer for four years, thinks the impending requirement is a good idea.

'Maybe people would change their opinion of the school by seeing what the school has to offer,' she said, instead of feeding into the image that Jefferson is more violent than other campuses.

When Lex set his sights on being a Jefferson Dancer, she looked at buying a house in North Portland. 'He didn't have any problem with the school,' she said, noting that her son, who is of Filipino ancestry, liked the diversity at Jefferson. 'I had a lot of people say, 'Wow, you're going to let him go over there.' I was like, 'Yeah, why not?' '

They ended up not moving for financial reasons, Dones said, so now Lex commutes from Southwest Portland's Wilson High, his neighborhood school, five days a week. He's deciding among several New York dance schools and companies to join next year.

Dancers keep busy schedule

At stake during this period of transition is the Jefferson Dancers' proud history, perhaps the biggest and steadiest success for the school over the past three decades.

Since its start in 1974, and especially since the arrival of Artistic Director Steve Gonzales in 1999, the Jefferson Dancers have been lauded worldwide for their talents in ballet, tap, jazz, African, hip-hop and modern dance.

Fresh off a whirlwind European tour, they got right back to practicing this week; their spring concert is set for May 9 at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts.

Their time commitment for training is so great, Priest says, that the dancers don't have room for other extracurricular activities or sports, and that deters some Jefferson students from trying out.

They also must be able to balance their workload of missed assignments with their devotion to dance. But Priest says her dancers thrive under pressure, and are typically accepted into prestigious dance programs after graduation. For the third year in a row, a graduating senior will attend the esteemed Juilliard School in the fall, she boasts.

Few Jeff students try out

Now looms the question of how to draw more Jefferson students in to the dance program. Priest and Gonzales say they've taken on a number of outreach efforts. They've visited schools in North and Northeast Portland to show the younger kids what the dance program is all about, invited them to the dress rehearsal of their spring concert for free, and brought them to campus for 'placement auditions,' in which they figure out which classes they might take at Jefferson if they were to attend.

Many enroll in the regular dance classes at Jefferson, but not more than a handful - of the total 80 to 100 hopefuls - turn out for the dance team auditions each spring, Priest says.

'The talent is there, but there's a little bit of the intimidation factor,' said Gonzales, a professional dancer who also teaches dance classes at Jefferson.

Gonzales and Priest are hoping that they'll soon see the results of another effort to draw students in earlier. Ockley Green, Chief Joseph and Beech schools (all moving toward K-8 programs) are in the third year of a three-year grant to establish magnet programs in the arts, technology and science, which includes electives such as dance that all students are exposed to.

Until this initiative, the only dance training available to students in Portland Public Schools was through Buckman Elementary and da Vinci Arts Middle School.

'When kids start at kindergarten, they're building skills in all those areas,' said Anne Gallagher, the technology coordinator for the magnet grant at Ockley Green. 'By the time they leave as eighth-graders, the idea is they continue on to Jefferson, enter Jefferson with some significant skills that are above and beyond what others would receive in a K-8 program.'

Many follow friends

Quincy Hickson, one of the dancers who is a Jefferson student, said his training in the arts at Buckman and da Vinci prepared him for the program at Jefferson, but he almost ended up at Grant, because that's where his friends went.

He doesn't blame kids for going where their friends are, especially if being a Jefferson student isn't a requirement for the dance team, he said. As for going to school at Jefferson, he said, it's not the picture of despair outsiders might imagine. He never had a problem with the closed-campus policy, the teachers are dedicated, and he's seen only one fight in his two years here.

'It's not hectic here because the principal is somewhat nonexistent,' he said. 'I think people here are just tired of being treated so poorly. They're trying to change everything so much.'

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