THE ARTS 06.11.10
THE ARTS 06.11.10

Dance teacher’s hope: heal kids in detention, step by step

At 9 a.m. on a Monday, Ehud Krauss leaves his Palo Alto dance studio, gets into his Lexus van and drives to a modern campus in the San Mateo County foothills. With an expansive outdoor track, a large gymnasium, well-equipped classrooms and colorfully painted interiors, the facility is welcoming.

But make no mistake about it. This is juvenile hall, and the youth are there to correct past mistakes and hopefully make a better start. Krauss, founder and artistic director of the Zohar Dance Company, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, is there to help them find a way, stretching bodies and minds. He can’t undo the past, but maybe he “can make them better.”

For Krauss, 65, who grew up on a kibbutz near Haifa before making his way to the United States to study dance with Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and Robert Joffrey, that work is a mitzvah. He spends two mornings a week at the facility, and also works with autistic children and at-risk youth. He’s been working with incarcerated youth since 1995 and with at-risk youth since 1985.

In his own life, dance helped to heal him after he broke his back and underwent 18 surgeries. Though his own pain continues, it doesn’t impede his mission.

“I feel as a teacher, [there is] a lost generation of kids who don’t know how to connect,” he says. “I meet kids, [age] 14, who have killed somebody. They’re not born murderers, but gangs give them a sense of belonging to something, like a kibbutz. … We need to learn how to connect” to them.

Says head teacher John Bordagaray, “We call [the dance program] an image breaker.” Afterward, “they behave a little better. It’s a disciplined art.”

As Krauss enters the gym, where 16 boys get ready to move, that discipline becomes apparent. Though he’s on a first-name basis — Krauss goes by “George” at the facility, because it’s easy to pronounce — he runs a structured program. Moving to Latin music, he demonstrates an eight-step combination, which gradually becomes more complicated. Then he gets the boys to slide on their stomachs, with combinations of pushups and claps, some done with partners. Some horseplay is inevitable.

Ehud Krauss works with girls at San Mateo County’s Juvenile Hall, while (top left) he leads boys in dance exercise at Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall. photos/sam forencich

“If you fight, I’ll lose my hair,” warns Krauss, who is bald. “I can’t afford to do that.” Then he gets out basketballs for another exercise.

“Do not shoot a basket. Do not bounce,” he says, but many can’t resist. As they lie on their stomachs, the balls are placed under one leg and the arms are extended. He changes the music to rap. Some clearly catch on to the exercise; others are baffled.

Afterward, most are smiling. “Listening to music makes us feel better,” says Felipe. [All names of youth have been changed.] And “we’re not locked up.”

Says José, “It makes everybody laugh, even if you don’t do it right.”

Adds physical education teacher Anna Wolfgram, “They giggle a lot, but it’s also serious.” The youth are “not audio learners. The nice thing about [working with] George is they visually [or kinesthetically] get it.”

Learning to follow directions is paramount. Krauss recognizes that the combinations aren’t easy to master. By putting together physical and mental challenges, maybe they’ll learn to “concentrate five seconds more than before. I’m building a ladder to the unknown, to Elijah,” he adds, smiling at the biblical reference.

He moves out of the gym onto the outdoor track area, walking toward the girls’ complex. A whistle blows and staff in maroon polos come running. A dozen or so boys lie on their stomachs at the opposite end of the field, standard procedure when a fight erupts. There’s a lockdown.

In the girls’ area, the students remain in cells until the all-clear signal, when about 10 girls in pink tops and black pants emerge cautiously.

As the combinations become increasingly difficult — Krauss adds twirls and partnering moves he hadn’t attempted with the boys — the enthusiasm rises. A couple of girls show talent, and he plans to give them scholarships to take classes at his studio when they get out.

Julie says the dance classes “give us freedom. … It feels like I’m not locked up.”

Adds Maria, “Learning new steps is hard, but that’s what makes it fun. He’s preparing us for ‘Dancing With the Stars.’”

The youth do leave, and the goal is to prepare them, says Roy Brasil, director of the probation department. The dance program “helps us build foundations for kids so when they go back, they’re better off for having been here.”

Nonetheless, “the majority of kids are repeat offenders,” says Rachel Wiesenborn, who runs the independent study and GED program. “They come back because it’s the only place they can function. It’s sad, but it’s true.”

Krauss measures success in baby steps. “This kind of program makes better teachers,” he says, adding that he treats the youth “like professional dancers.” They “need to know there’s a structure for everything.”

Playing the score from “Schindler’s List” in his van as he leaves the facility, he discusses his connection to Judaism and his family background. His German-born mother escaped from the camps; his Czech-born father was a Partisan.

He chose to name his business Zohar, which is the foundation of Kabbalah, because it means “splendor.” Taking that splendor beyond the studio is key to his religion. But it’s a challenge, and he relies on private support. His program at the San Mateo facility is funded by the Oakland-based Philanthropic Ventures Foundation.

“Every morning before I leave the house, I kiss the mezuzah. I touch it for the wisdom of the past, the wisdom of the future. I’m looking for something meaningful. Sometimes I feel like what I do in juvenile hall is a drop of water in the ocean.” But for the youth, it may be a step in the right direction.

Information: (650) 494-8221 or

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].