By Shelley Koppel
Associate news editor
BREVARD - When Kathy Mardirosian began planning her arts academy in Cocoa, others told her she was in the wrong place.
"People said, 'It's crazy,'" she said. "My whole reason for going to Cocoa was that no one else was serving it with dance. Most kids can't afford it and don't have anyone to take them. I felt it was where we needed to be."
The first students began studying at the Renaissance Academy of the Performing Arts and Dance in February.
Ms. Mardirosian has formed partnerships in the community, including the Cocoa Community Performing Arts Initiative, to provide scholarships to help students attend classes.
"By harnessing a community effort, we can make it happen for these kids," she said. "Donations from businesses and individuals who would like to sponsor students go to a specific fund, administered by the First United Methodist Church of Cocoa."
Applicants for the scholarships must be between ages 11-21, interested in the performing arts and able to meet at least three hours per week for mentoring, training and community service. Those younger than 18 must also demonstrate regular school attendance.
Gene Yotka is pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Cocoa. The church has funded 10 scholarships at the Renaissance Arts Academy.
"We were blessed with a grant and decided to use it for outreach," he said. "We decided we would sponsor children with a need, who would like to take dance or performing arts. We would pay for classes and equipment, like ballet shoes."
The pastor and his wife Mary Ann lead the mentoring program. The students meet as a group once a week.
"We talk about integrity, character, good citizenship and how to be a friend," he said. "We use Scripture to discuss how to grow into good, solid people."
For the community service, the young people work in the food pantry or thrift shop at First United or at their own churches.
"It's a way of thanking the church and saying that we understand how important service is," Ms. Mardirosian said. "It also helps them understand the value of what they're getting."
The scholarship program came around at a time when the church was seeking greater involvement in the community.
"We hired a director of outreach ministries, Cassandra Black," Pastor Gene said. "We want to make our church relevant. This program helped three ways: the body, through dance and theater; and the mind and spirit, through mentoring and service."
Ms. Mardirosian has already noticed changes in the girls taking classes.
"The girls have started to bond in class and between classes," she said. "They practice steps and choreography and laugh and have a good time. Dance helps improve self-confidence in young women. It's about how you carry yourself and what your body language says about yourself. It makes a big difference."
Ms. Mardirosian, who often picks up some students and drives them home after classes, mentioned one student in particular.
"She didn't have a lot going on in her life that was positive," Ms. Mardirosian said. "She was failing in school. One day, she watched a teacher and a more advanced modern dance student. She turned to me and said, 'That's what I want to do.'"
"Since then, there's been a complete turnaround. She's graduated, and she wants a ballet barre (a stationary ballet handrail) in her house. She's even open to college. It's amazing how motivating the arts can be, to work toward goal-setting, whether you want to be a performer or not. That's what motivates me."
Renaissance Academy of the Performing Arts and Dance is located at 801 Dixon Blvd., Cocoa. For more information, visit the website at www.myrenarts.com or call (321) 536-0908.