Alicia Luna, 14, has endured a childhood marked by parental drug use,  domestic violence and visits to her father in prison.  She holds a photo of her father, Juan Carlos Manuel Luna, a heroin user and gang member who was killed in 1990, when she was 8. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Alicia’s father sent her letters from San Quentin prison until his death in 1990. She cherishes these elaborately illustrated cards which he drew low-rider cars and signed them, "With love, your daddy." ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Alicia credits the ballet for leaving the gang, making new friends and moving up from a beginning level class to intermediate. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Left, Alicia who joined a gang at the age of 11, but has left that life behind, spends an evening out with friends at a Mecha dance at Tustin High School where she is a freshman. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
 Left, Gilbert Alvarez, 15, Alicia boyfriend,  spends a Saturday evening with her at a Mecha Dance held at Tustin High School where Luna is a freshman. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Alicia credits the ballet for leaving the gang, making new friends, a foundation of family and a refuge from the streets and moving up from a beginning level class to intermediate. ©Gail Fisher/Los Angeles Times
 As the founder and guiding spirit of the Saint Joseph Ballet, Beth Burn's main job is to teach dance classes and run the organization which has served thousands of underprivileged children and teens. Burns' philosophy has never varied: The dance classes and performances help her students develop self-esteem, discipline and a sense of achievement, she says.  ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Marco Aguilera acknowledges that he is sliding lately, slipping down a slope that each time, gets harder to scale again. Since January he has missed more than 40 days of classes at Century High School and recentlysuspended for three days for fighting. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
 Marco uses the ballet as a place to escape from the streets, a place where he feels safe. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Like so many of the other dancers, Marco center, escapes his bleak environment by hanging around the ballet. Between practices on a typical Saturday at the ballet, he plays cards with other dancers.  ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Walking through the alley outside his apartment complex, Marco is often confronted by drug dealers and gang bangers. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Marco, 16, is confused andworries about the future, whether to stay in school or drop out and find a job. He fears sometimes that his life will end, as it began, in Santa Ana, a city that has come to symbolize danger and poverty.©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Left, Marco with friends from the ballet that has created friendships and a family, a place to hang out after school and into the evening. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 As a young child, Marco used to intervene in frequent, violent confrontations between his parents. Once, the back of his head struck a wall so hard that it caused permanent damage. A visible, occasionally painful, bump remains. Recently the bump has been bothering him when he bench presses so he had itx-rayed at a Santa Ana clinic. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Left, Ingrid Farias and Araceli Almaguer, 17,  dance during a dress rehearsal at Disneyland Hotel, one of their many performances during the year. "When it comes down to it, it's you up on that stage, in front of all those people," Araceli says. "You feel so happy. The lights are on and it's you out there. And it's you they're watching." ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Araceli, right, during practice listens intently to her instructor Beth Burns, founder of Saint Joseph Ballet in Santa Ana. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Araceli says without Saint Joseph's, she probably would have fallen into the traps that have snared many friends:pregnancy, drugs and gangs. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
 Araceli with her mother, Lupe Almaguer, worries her mother works too hard. Lupe supports the family of five on the $400 to $500 she earns each week cleaning houses in Irvine, Tustin and Newport Beach. Most weeks, she works all seven days. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
 Listening to '60s music on the stereo,  Araceli Almaguer,  17, prepares to go out with friendson a recent Saturday night.  ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Araceli, left, with friends and family dance the night away in Santa Ana at a cousin's first communion party. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Araceli with her mother, Lupe. "She's my best friend," Araceli says of her mother.  "She's incredible. A lot of my friends say they can't tell their moms anything, but she's so open, I can tell her anything. I tell her about guys, about my problems at the ballet, everything. I just love my mom."  ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Left, Jesse, Consuelo Almaguer, Jose Luis Campos and Araceli Almaguer party together one Saturday night, toasting the bride at a wedding reception. "You spend so much time, you get to know each other pretty well," said Araceli, "You want to be together, even when you're not at ballet."  ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Kidding around with his friend, Angelica, from St. Joseph's Ballet, Jose Luis Campos laughs easily now, displaying a growing confidence. When he first joined the ballet more than three years ago, he hardly spoke to his teachers or other kids at the ballet, and never smiled. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Jose Luis lives in a tiny apartment on Minnie Street he shares with his parents and four siblings; a neighborhood notorious for gangs, drug deals, poverty and overcrowded housing. At night the living room doubles as a bedroom for several of the children. Any day he doesn't go to ballet, he baby-sits for his youngest siblings. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 During a dress rehearsal before a performance, students react to their teacher, Beth Burn’s comments. “ There are a lot of people in the world who didn't spend today making the world a better place." She continues, "You guys did, and that's way cool, but when you perform today, you have to let these other people feel that. You have to show them in your dancing." ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
 Thelma Macias, 14, is a good student, studies hard, plays the cello, is on the swim team and tries to balance all her activities and not miss dance practice. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
 Thelma’s point shoes that she used to dance with at St. Joseph's Ballet until she quit three months ago. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
 Left, 14-year-old Thelma Macias makes a decision to leave a swim meet to play cello, missing two swimming events. Life these days is a series of difficult choices since she left the ballet 3 months ago. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Last year during eighth grade, Thelma decided to learn to play the cello. In exchange for cleaning her teacher's house, Ardelle Womack gives her cello lessons. She is now in the school district's honors orchestra. ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times
 Thelma, with her brother, left, have a close relationship with a troubled, complicated past.  As a young child, she and two other sibblings were caught in a protracted custody battle. Twice her father fled with them to Mexico, only to return them to her mother, who had legal custody. "I felt kind of like a doll, tugged and fought for," said Thelma, "I try not to think about it now." ©Gail Fisher Los Angeles Times 
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