MIAMI (AP) — They practice in the back of a dance studio next to a Wendy’s restaurant in a strip mall. Six ballet dancers leap across the floor, hidden from view from the mothers watching their daughters in pink leotards in a front room.
“Uno, dos, tres,” ballet master Eriberto Jimenez calls out.
The dancers move in sets of two, their pointed toes and outstretched hands a hint of the grand stages where they have performed. In the background plays a recording of “La Bayadare,” the French choreographed ballet they are practicing.
These dancers could be among the young talent of any ballet company, but for the moment they are something else: Immigrants in the United States trying to land dancing opportunities while navigating cultural differences and learning English. The ballerinas fled from the Cuban National Ballet while on tour in Mexico in April, and crossed the U.S. border into Texas.
Pedro Pablo Pena, himself a Cuban exiled dancer, has taken them under his wing, providing a place to stay, practice and perform. In May, they made their U.S. debut in a special performance with Pena’s Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami.
Now they are trying to determine their next steps. They arrived after ballet company auditions for next season had already taken place, and arts organizations around the country are grappling with tight budgets.
Just one of the ballerinas has signed a performance contract.
“It’s a tough time,” said Octavio Roca, a dance critic who wrote a book about Cuban ballet.
Still, they say they have no misgivings about defecting.
“I’m going to start a new life now,” said 20-year-old Arianni Martin, speaking in Spanish.
The journey of these dancers, and many ballet defectors before them, started in Havana, where each rose through the island’s selective ballet schools to earn spots in the Cuban National Ballet, widely regarded as one of the best classical companies in the world.
The ballet is led by Alicia Alonso, 92, a former prima ballerina who danced well into her 70s. Alonso founded the company in 1948 and has managed to steer it forward even during periods of great economic strife. She’s accomplished that in no small part with the support of the communist regime; Alonso has been closely aligned with Fidel Castro and the ballet is a source of national pride.
Despite the company’s prestige, dancers defect during every international tour. The first defections occurred in 1966, when 10 dancers fled while performing in Paris. During the early years of Castro’s government, dancers who defected would cite political reasons for their decision.
More recently, dancers who have defected, including the ones who arrived in April, have cited political, economic and artistic reasons for their departure: They want freedom of expression, in speech and on the dance floor, and more opportunities to support their families. Cuban ballet dancers earn no more than $30 a month.
“I would have been stuck,” Martin, a pretty, petite brunette with brown eyes said.
So many Cuban ballet dancers have fled through the years that they now dance or teach at nearly every major U.S. ballet company. Their collective influence is comparable to that of the Soviets in the 1970s and 80s, Roca said. For the Russians, that influence was seemingly natural, as they hailed from a large and populous country with a long and storied history of successful ballet. But Cuba is a small and isolated Caribbean island of just over 11 million people.
“There’s no reason why that tiny country should have that kind of influence, but there you are,” Roca said. “Obviously, Alicia was doing something right. And even as she loses dancers.”
In April, a group of 70 dancers were sent to Mexico to perform Giselle, a classic and frequently danced piece in the Cuban ballet’s repertoire. Martin was selected to dance the part of Giselle’s friend in the second act.
Before leaving, Martin shared her plans to defect while on tour with her family. Though difficult, they supported her decision. She wouldn’t escape alone; a close friend in the ballet and both of their boyfriends, also dancers, would join.
The four ballerinas did not mention their plans to anyone in the company until after their final performance in Chetumal, Mexico. To leave, they would need their passports, which an assistant traveling with the group held.
Martin pulled the woman aside that evening and asked for hers back. The assistant told her and the others to go to her room early the next morning.
“We were nervous the whole time,” Martin said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The friends knocked on the assistant’s door at 5 a.m. She handed them their passports and wished them well.
“Write me,” she said.
The four ballerinas met up with three other dancers as they exited the hotel. Initially, the seven dancers stayed together as they made their way north. Later, one decided to stay in Mexico and two others charted separated paths to the U.S.
Martin and her friends first took a bus to Cordoba, and then to Laredo, where they crossed a bridge on foot into Texas.
As they crossed, they walked in silence, fearing their Cuban accents might be a giveaway to a thief looking to steal their passports. Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are generally allowed to stay under the “Wet-foot, Dry-foot” policy, while those stopped at sea are usually returned home. Mexicans and other Latino immigrants do not receive the same treatment; Most caught at the border are returned to Mexico.
Immigration authorities questioned the dancers for an hour “about everything,” Martin said.
When they were allowed to enter the U.S., they embraced and were received by a relative of Martin’s friend. They took a van to Miami, home to America’s largest Cuban community.
A friend put them in touch with Pena, the founder of the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami and a former ballet dancer. Pena started the company six years ago, more than two decades after fleeing Cuba during the Mariel exodus of 1980, in which more than 100,000 Cubans were permitted to leave by boat amid rising economic and social tensions on the island. Pena saw the need for a company to help recently defected Cuban dancers stay on point until they landed a contract.
He bought and renovated a deteriorated but historic house along the Miami River. The ballerinas stay in small rooms on the third floor named after famous Cuban artists. On the second floor are practice rooms with pianos and ballet barres.
In May, they performed at the Fillmore Miami to mixed reviews.
“Cuban defectors show promise in debut,” read the headline in The Miami Herald. The review said three of the dancers had “excellent prospects,” while the other three were “less than exceptional.”
One of the dancers, Edward Gonzalez, will perform next season with the Sarasota Ballet. The others have been practicing, giving classes and discovering life in America. On their Facebook pages, they’ve shared photos standing next to a U.S. flag, shopping at a Ross clothes store and hugging each other.
Martin and her friend are amazed at how many foods come canned and can be easily heated up in a microwave.
“It’s incredible. We don’t have to do anything,” Martin said.
Miami, as Gonzalez put it, is like “a developed Cuba.” He’s looking forward to going to Sarasota, about 230 miles northwest of Miami.
“That’s really the U.S.,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “There I’m going to have to learn English.”
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