A family’s grief over a daughter’s loss has been transformed into an unusual organization that is giving the gift of dance to thousands of young people across Los Angeles. The Gabriella Foundation is named for Gabriella Axelrad, who was “a natural dancer who got so much joy from dance,” recalls her mother, Liza Bercovici. In 1999, during a family bike trip, the 13-year-old was hit and killed by a distracted driver. To try to assuage her grief, Bercovici soon closed her law practice and started the foundation, dedicated to bringing the benefits of dance to young people who “didn’t have access to the same opportunities as Gabri.”
In addition to opening a charter school, the foundation runs an after-school program called everybody dance! Program participants comprise youth from preschool through high school who live in Los Angeles’s inner-city, low-income immigrant communities, where arts opportunities are few and negative influences abound. At its four sites, the program offers nearly 100 classes a week in ballet, tap, jazz, and modern dance. For $7 a month, participants have access to sessions that feature the rigor and quality typically available only to affluent families. The teachers—whom The Los Angeles Times called “some of the best children’s dance instructors in the world”—require students to arrive on time, dress properly, and master requisite skills, before advancing to higher levels.
Participants “like that we’re holding them accountable and setting the bar high for them,” Bercovici asserts. That’s evidenced by the program’s low turnover and high demand: In 2013, 800 applicants vied for only 220 remaining spots, filled by a lottery. Along with the benefits of dance—which include discipline, focus, achievement, and joy—the program also provides a safe haven and a place to build positive friendships in communities ravaged by gang activity.
everybody dance! also helps students raise the bar for their own lives: A remarkable 94 percent of its graduates have gone on to college. And, while the program’s goal isn’t to produce professional dancers, several former students are beginning to make names for themselves in the field. “What started as an antidote to grief and therapy for me, actually became something quite meaningful to the students and families we’re serving,” Bercovici says, modestly.
everybody dance! is not only training capable young dancers, but also giving these children the tools they will need to succeed later on in life, regardless of whether they opt to pursue a career in the arts: self-discipline, self-confidence, physical strength and coordination, a respect for teamwork, and a sense of what can be achieved with hard work and dedication.Janis Minton Senior Advisor, The Carl & Roberta Deutsch Foundation