American ballerinas build bridges to Cuba amid heartache for Cuban dancers denied travel

From left to right: Erin Butts, Fabiola Brown, Catherine Conley and Samantha Sacks are the four American dancers in Cuba’s national school and company. Photo by Riley Robinson

Story by Riley Robinson ·

HAVANA, Cuba — One by one, three female ballet dancers in long pink tutus leap onto the shoulders of their kneeling partners. The women look identical from the audience — chiseled calves propel petite bodies through the air, dark brown hair slicked over the tops of their ears into matching chignons.

It’s the graduation performance for Cuba’s eminent ballet school. A representative from the national company sits in the second mezzanine, making preliminary judgments about which students will be offered professional contracts.

One of the young women on stage already stands out: Samantha Sacks, 19, is the only American performing today, nearly finished with her year-long exchange in Havana. She is one of three Americans currently enrolled in Escuela Nacional de Ballet, one of the world’s most rigorous ballet schools and a revered bastion of Cuban culture.

In the second row are Sacks’s Cuban and American friends, and her father, who flew from Chicago for the performance. They’re from two sides of a strait that they’re really not supposed to cross, but over the past two-and-a-half years they have all adopted each other as family.

“They don’t want to be involved as diplomatic symbols, but in a way, they are,” said Victor Alexander, director of Sacks’s home studio, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, and founder of their exchange program. “They are pioneers.”

This unusual and tight-knit community is the product of ongoing intercambio, or exchange, between Cuba’s largest ballet school and small American studios with Cuban instructors.

It’s a rare act of relationship-driven diplomacy, though none of the dancers would call it that. They break long-standing norms simply because they want to do great ballet. But international politics continually interject into their training — especially when, in February, the American embassy in Havana stopped issuing most visas to Cubans, effectively halting one side of the exchange.

“Ballerinas are some of the people who travel here most,” Sacks said in an interview days before. “The people in the highest levels here were so excited. All those trips got canceled.”

At the end of the performance, the three couples unfurl into a final line for formal bows, and Sacks’s partner presents her to the audience, holding one hand and one side of her waist. Her father yells a tentative “Samantha!” from the dark theater. The Cuban parent next to him encourages him to cheer louder.

Bridging the gap

American schools that exchange with Escuela Nacional de Ballet, or ENB, represent various parts of the United States: Ruth Page in Chicago; the Quenedit Academy in San Antonio; Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City and Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Sarasota, Florida.

Unlike their Cuban counterpart, they’re not the nation’s defining ballet establishments. But these schools employ defected Cuban teachers with lasting connections to the island.

“It’s all very informal,” said Steven Sacks, Samantha’s father, and a member of the executive board at Ruth Page. “I think it’s impossible to get down here without a personal contact.”

Sometimes students rehearse together to perform in festivals or competitions, like the Encuentro Internacional de Academias de Ballet, a two-week-long competition held every other year in Havana.

That is how Erin Butts, 19, first came to Havana with Quenedit in spring 2016. A year later, she emailed the school asking to return for the year because the University of Utah ran out of freshman housing.

5
Erin Butts, from San Antonio, Texas, on the Malacón. Photo by Riley Robinson

“My mom was like ‘I’m not comfortable with you living off campus your first year of school, so think of other options,’” Butts said. “She was like, ‘What about Cuba?’ And I was like, ‘Really?’”

Ruth Page’s exchange is similarly casual. For three years, Alexander has sent about a half dozen American students and two teachers to Havana to attend two weeks of Cuban classes each spring and fall. They host a similar-sized group of Cuban students to Chicago to train in the summer and perform in the Nutcracker at Christmastime.

Last December, two Cuban students performed the Sugarplum Fairy’s pas de deux for a Chicago audience, but it is unlikely that will be possible this year.

The professional company still obtains visas to tour abroad, but dancers first have to fly to Mexico and interview at the American embassy there. Schools generally don’t support this third-party visit for students because it’s unclear who would be responsible for them during processing.

“For us, and for the school, it’s pretty sad,” said Angel Ramirez Castellano, 18, who has exchanged with Ruth Page several times since 2016. He said his dream is to one day dance with the Royal Ballet in London.

The visa freeze also ends the financial support Cuban students received during exchange. American schools pay for both sides: They pay Cuban students’ airfare and offer stipends, and American students pay to take class in Cuba. Sacks says tuition costs about $2,000 for the school year.

Sometimes Cuban dancers save their per diem allowances from American schools —Quenedit gives Cuban students $30 a day for food — and use them to buy air conditioners or other appliances to bring home to Cuba, where those goods are harder to come by.

It costs the Quenedit Academy about $2,000 for each Cuban dancer it brings to San Antonio. Since 2015, it has hosted four groups of about six to eight students, using funds the school has received as a nonprofit and personal savings from the husband and wife team who own the school.

“It’s been tough,” said Catalina Garza, Quenedit’s artistic director. “We’ve put a lot of our own money into bringing the kids here.”

But Garza recalls one of her American students who was able to do twice as many pirouette turns after training side-by-side with the Cuban dancers, which reaffirmed for her it’s worth the cost.

“For me, just that is a win-win,” she said. “Even if I don’t make anything from the festival. I’m just looking for more ways to help out my students.”

Playing with fire

Cuban technique is based on the Russian Vaganova school, with French influence: The elbows are soft and the fingers are flat. Their upper bodies command large, unapologetic spheres of space, as if their ribs float inches above their lumbar spine. Where most American ballet became more linear after George Balanchine’s influence, Cuban technique preserves a classical roundness.

But Cuban ballet is uniquely known for its fire.

“I describe the Cuban school as like a spicy kid, like a hot pepper,” said Ariel Serrano, a former dancer with National Ballet of Cuba who is now the director of Sarasota Cuban Ballet in Florida. “It’s the jumps, the turns, the balance, the bravura.”

Usually, the American students feel most different because of their movement style, not government-related tension.

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Samantha Sacks interrupts a street soccer game in the Vedado neighborhood. Photo by Riley Robinson

“I’m starting to dance more like them, but I look… different,” Sacks said. “Even the worst girl in the class, she has this technique, and she looks just like the rest of them. She looks Cuban.”

Dancers from both countries face challenges adapting both in and outside the studio.

Some American dancers arrived speaking little to no Spanish. While this is not a problem for understanding ballet teachers in class, it challenges their ability to make friends outside their expatriate circle.

The American women also had to change their pointe shoes: Most expats at ENB have switched from traditional paper and glue pointe shoes to plastic-based ones by an American brand. The toe boxes of traditional shoes last only weeks or sometimes days, but the plastic core lasts months—which is vital because the U.S. embargo makes pointe shoes almost impossible to buy here.

They’ve also had to accept ENB’s frank grading system, which Butts calls “brutal.”  At the end of each semester, the school’s faculty watches them perform a memorized ballet class in the studio, progressing from barre exercises and stretching in flat shoes to leg extensions, jumps and turns en pointe. Immediately after, the faculty sits the class down in the center of the studio and publicly announces each person’s grade and corrections.

Fabiola Brown’s shoes, with the toes worn through the satin and foam. Photo by Riley Robinson

“They’ll be like ‘You need to lose weight,’ or ‘We feel like you don’t really have an understanding of ballet,’” Butts said. “People start crying. There aren’t really any private conversations.”

At least that criticism is a bonding experience with their Cuban peers. But other moments have made them feel like outsiders.

For Sacks, at first, it was during school announcements, a formal daily assembly called formation. Before morning ballet class, the entire school gathers in the lobby wearing Cuban school uniforms — a white button-down with a khaki skirt for the girls, pants for the boys.

Usually students are given state news clippings to read in front of their peers, but sometimes it’s a lecture on not kissing in stairwells, or “maybe the director yells at us for 20 minutes about how we have no discipline,” Sacks explained. She found the formal assembly strange, but now finds comfort in it.

“I feel like a part of something,” she said. “I’m a part of something and it’s so much bigger than myself, so much bigger than the ballet. It’s a cool feeling, being there in the uniform.”

But her sense of community felt more like isolation when students heard news of new tensions with the United States — when President Donald J. Trump announced tighter policies toward Cuba this February, ending the visas that allowed Cubans to visit the States.

“The whole room looks at me. The entire room,” Sacks said. “I’ve never been so aware of my nationality as I am here.”

Cultural exchange

As opportunities for student exchanges shrink, one American will remain with the professional company.

Catherine Conley, 20, fair and blonde but with a practiced Cuban accent, was the first American student to enroll at ENB for the school year. In April, she accepted a verbal offer to join the national company, where she will be the only foreign professional dancer. She’s put down roots in Havana.

“I was worried that when I got here I was going to be like the token American friend,” she said. “Everyone’s Cuban and then there’s me. And I don’t even think about it.”

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Catherine Conley and Angel Ramirez Castellano partner in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. Photo by Riley Robinson

Out of the small group of Americans enrolled at the Cuban school, she is the only one who will be continuing a professional career here. Butts will attend University of Utah this fall, and Sacks is enrolled at Columbia University in New York City.

However, Conley’s nationality still challenges any long-term relationships forged here. She’s been dating Castellano, who she met during his exchange in Chicago, for a year and a half. He also recently received a company job offer, along with his two other triplet brothers. But unlike them, Conley can’t plan to spend her career in Havana.

“If they can pay me, it would be like $15 a month,” Conley said. “It’s not going to be a deal breaker, but I can’t stay here forever.” Like other public employees in Cuba, dancers’ salaries are capped at modest amounts.

Conley hasn’t seen a contract yet, but was told the formal offer would come when the company returns from its tour to the United States in mid-June.

After this year, neither Ruth Page nor Quenedit will have dancers enrolled at ESB. This spring was the first time in four years that Sarasota Cuban Ballet School has not brought students to Havana.

“It’s really painful seeing something we’ve achieved hurt due to political things,” said Serrano, from Sarasota. “It’s a shame. I miss being there.”

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