Duluth, Minn. — Armando Maldonado has danced in Los Angeles, and he's danced in Europe, and now he dances in Duluth. He's the founder and artistic director of the American National Ballet Company. When he's not dancing and choreographing, he's teaching.
It's a Saturday afternoon, and the guys from Woodland Hills treatment program are here. Thirteen boys come bouncing into the dance studio in stocking feet. Most of them are wearing t-shirts and shorts. These guys are in their late teens. Most of them have drug problems. Some of them have robbed people. Some of them have stolen cars. They come to Armando Maldonado's studio once a week for a couple hours of workout. And to dance.
"Ready for the hurt? And ready to get some hurt?," Maldonado says to the group.
The boys line up at the ballet bar. One of them keeps saying, "We're strong male dancers."
Armando Maldonado puts a disc in the CD player. He's tall -- about 6 ft. 2 inches. He's wearing blue jeans and ballet shoes. He tells the boys to grab the ballet bar with one hand, put their feet in the second position, and do a plie. Each boy points his toes out and drops into a crouch and stays there. On Maldonado's cue, they tilt their heads from one side to the other.
After a couple minutes, their legs are trembling. A few of them tip over and scramble back onto their feet.
Then they change positions. They hold onto the bar and lift one of their legs behind them, high into the air. Again and again and again. Then they switch legs.
Then they do jumps. Then they do push-ups and sit-ups. A couple of the boys goof around -- a little. But most of them strain to do the exercises correctly.
"I never would have thought I'd be up in Duluth doing ballet," says Tristan, from Minneapolis, who just turned 18.
Tristan is here because he got busted for selling drugs. He likes coming to the dance studio. He says the exercises are tough, but they're not as tough as solo dancing. After the exercises, the boys stand up one at a time and improvise a dance for a couple of minutes.
"I ain't never in my life gotten up in front of people and danced before. I was like, what? I just kind of went with it," says Tristan. "I know I can't dance that well, but I just do it anyways, just to, you know, express yourself."
Maldonado switches music for the solo dancing. Tristan goes to the middle of the studio. The other boys sit against one wall and watch. The first time Tristan tried to do this, he froze up. He didn't know what to do. Now he's got some moves.
Armando Maldonado tells the boys they don't have to be fancy. Simple can be beautiful. He says, you can be simple; just don't be ordinary.
We do sadness dances or anger dances ... you just do something that you feel like. Like if your friend got shot or something, you do like a bullet coming at you and you getting hit. You just open up. You can relieve a lot of stress.
The boys holler and clap for each other. Some of them look unsure of themselves and sit down after a minute. But one boy looks like he could be in a hip-hop video on MTV. Another boy turns back flips and front flips all over the studio without touching his hands to the floor.
One boy calls for salsa music. He wraps a towel around his head and another one around his waist, like a skirt, and he ties his shirt into a halter top. He launches into a sort of Latin belly dance.
"Everybody likes it. We're here because we have fun and we like it," says Nieman, 16, who's also from Minneapolis.
Nieman has been in the Woodland Hills treatment program for 11 months, and he has few more to go. He says some days they dance freestyle, like this. But some days they have a dance theme.
"We do sadness dances or anger dances, and you just open up," says Nieman. "When it's sadness day you just do something that you feel like. Like if your friend got shot or something, you do like a bullet coming at you and you getting hit. You just open up. You can relieve a lot of stress. That's how I feel." After everyone's taken a solo, the boys get on their feet and pair off.
They get a few minutes to choreograph a dance with a partner. Some of the boys take it very seriously. They string togther combinations of ballet, urban funk, and ballroom dancing.
Maldonado says the boys didn't want to dance at the first class back in August. He says they cracked jokes about dancing being for sissies. And he had to give them a little speech about dancing in pairs.
"When two guys are dancing together, it's not about two guys that are involved, or living an alternative lifestyle. It's about dancing. It's about moving through space. You just happen to be moving through space with another guy," says Maldonado. "I compare that with, if you're walking down the street with somebody else, that's the pedestrian form of movement. That's still dance. You're moving through space. So what's the difference between walking down the street with dome guy and dancing with him? There is no difference."
Each pair of dancers takes to the floor for a couple minutes. Then the whole group gets up and stands in a circle. One at a time, a boy dances to the middle of the circle. When he's done he points to another boy and they trade places.
After two hours in the dance studio, the boys pull on sweatpants and winter jackets and head out to their van.
Maldonado says he loves working with these boys. He also teaches a class for girls from Woodland Hills treatment program.
He says when he was a kid, dancing saved him.
"My mom said, 'Armando, you're going to either end up dead, in jail, or walking through life without direction," Maldonado recalls.
That was back in San Antonio. His parents sent him to a military school, and then to a Catholic boys high school. He played on the basketball team there. He says the coach was a very big, very tough guy. And one day he brought a ballet teacher to the gym.
"And coach says, 'OK, gentlemen, you will do exactly what she says, when she says it, how she says it. I don't want to hear anything about it,'" says Maldonado.
After basketball practice, the ballet teacher asked Maldonado to join her company. She gave him private lessons. Six months later, she drove him to Dallas to try out for a bigger company. From there he went to Budapest to study dance.
So now he says it's part of his mission to work with kids. And not just kids whose parents can pay for lessons.
"I danced for this one director, and I specifically asked him, I said, 'How come we don't do education outreach with troubled youth, and the underprivileged and the poor, because there's a lot of potential talent there for kids that would never get this opportunity,'" Maldonado recalls. "And I was flabbergasted when he said, 'Well, those are high-risk areas, and we just wouldn't risk huring one of the dancers.' And I thought, 'Well, I'm a little insulted because that was me. That was me 25 years ago.'"
Armando Maldonado says he doesn't expect the boys from Woodland Hills treatment program to become professional dancers. He says a few of them could be pros if they wanted to. But he says the main point is to teach them that they can be extraordinary. He says if they go home and fall into being ordinary, they'll end up back in treatment, or in jail.
So far, the boys have never seen Armando Maldonado dance. But they're planning to attend one of his performances in March. The American National Ballet Company will perform Hamlet. They'll dance an experimental tango. And they'll dance to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." The boys from Woodland Hills dance to Pink Floyd every week.