Three days a week, within the walls of Los Reyes Prison for women on the outskirts of Mexico City, a platoon of tall, long-legged prisoners—most of them blond and blue-eyed—gathers to dance ancient Aztec rites. Almost all of them are gringas, American women, serving sentences of 5½ to 13 years for trying to smuggle cocaine from South America through Mexico.

Of the 45 gringas in the Mexican jail on drug charges, some 25 have joined the ballet group. The project was launched last summer through the combined efforts of a new prison director and a Mexican dance instructor, Polo Rojas.

"The ballet has helped us from going crazy, sitting around behind bars watching our lives erode away for nothing, just stupidity," explains Jane Monroe Rusk, a San Franciscan serving the third year of a six-year sentence. "Now I'm 29," she continues. "My daughter is 13 and I was going to pay for braces for her teeth with the money I made for the trip. I just miss watching her grow up."

The ballet can also be a means to quicker freedom. Under the Mexican penal code, two days of work reduces a prison sentence by a day—and the ballet is considered work. "When I came here," says Rusk, "we had a choice of making sanitary napkins or baseball bats or wrapping candy. Those were the only work programs available. The ballet is a constructive outlet. Any kind of dedicated physical exercise helps you mentally, and it is hard on us here mentally." Tall, blond Marie Wiezbowski, 21, of Laguna Beach, Calif. enthusiastically agrees. "It has given us something to hang onto," she says. "We all love to dance."

"It's an escape for the girls, and also a therapy," says instructor Polo Rojas, who danced for 12 years in the United States and Europe. "They have done wonders," he marvels. "And," he laughs, "unlike other groups I've worked with, these girls seldom miss rehearsal."

Under machine-gun security, the dance company has performed outside of the prison four times—in the attorney general's headquarters in downtown Mexico City, at the private theater of a local artist, at a nearby school and on Mexican TV. With exotic makeup, dazzling Aztec costumes (previously used by Rojas with another company and worth $40,000) and feathered headdresses, the gringas execute such ancient Aztec rituals as the dances of fertility, fire and death. One of the few pre-Hispanic ballets in Mexico, the dancers have been received with enthusiasm. Rojas hopes they will someday perform in the Bellas Artes, Mexico's Carnegie Hall. "I want to bring back pre-Hispanic dance," says Rojas, "so in a way, the gringas are helping me, too."

"Because they are beautiful their lives were easy," says Rojas, "and prison is hard on the spirit. This dancing has given them a new lease on life. Some even say they will dance their way to freedom."