The young students at the Everybody Dance! studio in downtown Los Angeles twirl across the floor in their pink leotards like so many tufts of cotton candy. It's a scene that's all too familiar to Liza Bercovici, whose only daughter, Gabriella, was also an aspiring dancer. "Since she was a little girl, Gabri would come into the family room, turn on the stereo and just dance," recalls Bercovici. "She got tremendous joy from it."
But on July 24, 1999, the last day of a six-day family cycling trip through Wyoming's Grand Teton mountains, 13-year-old Gabri was struck by a van whose driver had glanced down to pop in a CD. (He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was given community service and a $13,768 fine.) "By the time I got to her, she was gone," says Bercovici, who cradled Gabri in her arms until the ambulance arrived. The loss devastated the family—her attorney father, David, now 51, and brothers Joe, 19, and Jake, 10—but no one more than Liza. "I sat in the house staring at the walls, I was catatonic," says Bercovici, 48, also a lawyer. "I just missed her so much." So did Gabri's friends. "She would go into the school cafeteria and sit with the one kid who was alone," says Ashley Beiser, 15, who had known Gabri since nursery school. "She hated for anyone to be left out."
It wasn't until two months later, when a friend sent Bercovici an article about a mother who started a dance school in memory of her own daughter, that the healing began. "Dance gave Gabri great poise and confidence," says Bercovici. "I wanted to give that opportunity to kids who might not have the chance." She quit her practice in family law and began hitting up friends and local businesses, raising $160,000 in seed money over the next five months. She also secured free use of the ballroom in the once-grand Sheraton Town House Hotel in L.A.'s Mac Arthur Park, which Rob McLeod, a developer friend, had converted into low-income housing for the neighborhood's predominantly Central American and Korean families. "Working on the dance school gave her a focus," says Bercovici's husband, David. Still, on May 1, 2000, opening day for Everybody Dance!, Bercovici paced the polished floors, fearing no one would show. "At first they only came in twos and threes," she says. "But by late morning, tons of parents showed up with their girls—and some boys. That's when I thought, 'This is going to work. Gabri won't be forgotten.' "
Bercovici learned early on that adversity can be turned into opportunity. In 1959 her father, Leonardo, a screenwriter, refused to name names to Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, instead moving with his psychologist wife, Antonia, and Liza, then 6, to Rome, where she lived for the next 12 years. Graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972, Bercovici went on to Hastings Law School in San Francisco and in 1976 met David Axelrad. They married four years later and settled in Studio City. There they raised Joe (now a sophomore at UCLA) and Jake, who is signed up for tap lessons at Everybody Dance! "I never really thought about dancing before," he says. "But my friends think it's kind of cool—and it helps me feel closer to my sister."
For the school's other 650 students, it's helping them change their lives. "There is so much talent here," says instructor Vera Ninkovic, 26, a former dancer with London's Royal Ballet. "I wonder what some of them would be doing if they weren't taking class." Says Ana Rosales, principal of the nearby Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, who steered several of her third-to-fifth graders to the studio last year: "They knew if their grades dipped they wouldn't be able to dance, so they studied hard and behaved well." Even the boys are toeing the line. "Some of them fought learning ballet," she says. "But by the end of last year, they were asking if they could borrow a key to the basement so they could practice in front of the mirror."
Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles
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