Cuban ballet finding toehold in Tampa


More and more Cuban dance instructors are finding a new home in Tampa where they teach that country’s style and rigor of ballet, as José Patiño Girona reports in this article for The Tampa Tribune.

Fifteen sets of eyes focus on Nestor Garcia as he grabs on to a white portable ballet barre with his right hand.

He extends his left arm and swiftly moves his left leg forward, side and back. He taps his foot, continuing his fluid motion with his leg as he counts and calls out positions.

There’s no music playing as he demonstrates to the adolescent students, but his steps, taps and movements create a rhythm as he quickly reaches a crescendo and counts “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, front.”

“So you got it?” asks Garcia, wearing dark slacks and a light blue T-shirt that shows his athletic frame. The students respond favorably.

He presses play on his iPhone, an up-tempo piano piece fills the room and the students begin to imitate their teacher.

Seven months ago, the 27-year-old Garcia was a professional dancer in his native Cuba.

Now he lives in Tampa, where for the last five months he’s been teaching ballet at Frank Rey Dance Studio. He teaches alongside his mother, Lourdes Santos, who emigrated from Cuba in December and was a former professional ballet dancer, instructor and director of a ballet company in her homeland.

Garcia and Santos are part of a growing trend in the Tampa area of dance studios hiring Cubans who trained in the country’s world renowned ballet program and became professional, respected ballet dancers. They are teaching local youths the art, style, passion and rigor of the Cuban school of ballet.


“The Cubans bring a passion and an athleticism to the art form and an unflinching desire to improve,” said Peter Stark, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet and dance chair at the Patel Conservatory. “It’s very passionate. When you bring that passion, you bring that love of the art. When they (ballet students) feel that passion, they want to do it.”

Garcia has felt that passion since he began studying ballet at age 9. He spent hours training and rehearsing daily and began to perform professionally in Cuba at 17. In a country that understands and celebrates ballet, he became a local celebrity.

Now he’s trying to instill that same love of the art form in Tampa Bay teenagers.

“Our first job is to get them to love the profession,” Garcia said. “You have to love ballet to be able to do it. Ballet is full of techniques that are difficult, complex and foreign from the natural and normal movements in everyday life.”

“My goal is that they improve each time their ballet technique and that they are able to use the knowledge they gain in the ballet classes to be better dancers in any style of dance,” Garcia said.

Inside a room at the Patel Conservatory, Ivonne Lemus walks around the room watching and helping as about two dozen ballerinas strive to achieve the perfect pose.

Lemus joined the Patel Conservatory in 2007 as ballet mistress. She loves ballet but said she never imagined herself becoming a teacher.

Like Garcia, she started dancing in Cuba at age 9 and became a professional at 17. She danced as a soloist with the Cuban National Ballet, which was founded and directed by world-famous Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, and with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada.

She retired as a professional dancer in 2005 and taught classes at the Boston Ballet before coming to the Patel Conservatory.

Lemus said Cuban dance instructors have moved to Tampa because the city is growing both in population and in the arts. The Cubans are snapped up by dance schools because Cuban ballet has an international reputation, she said.

“I coach and train these students as if it was the Cuban school, and the Americans are left impressed,” Lemus said. “We are people who are dedicated without limits.”

“The Cuban ballet dancer is strong technically because we learned it from the Russians but filled with a hot heart because we’re Cubans,” Lemus said. “That’s what the Cuban school of ballet has that it’s pure passion. The Cuban ballerinas stand on stage proudly. They have nothing but give it their all.”

Mary Frances Granell, owner and director of the Frank Rey Dance Studio, said Cuban-trained ballet dancers “bring a no-nonsense, very structured, very proficient (style).”

“The certain type of training that they have had and the experiences that they have had, they’re able to share,” Granell said.

The intensity and passion of the Cuban dancers begins with the rigorous and demanding ballet training in their country.

Not all students in Cuba get to participate in the ballet schools. Admission is earned through an audition at the age of 8 1/2. Because the students are novices, those in charge of admission look at a child’s physique, health and for a natural grace.

Those selected start training at age 9. Their school curriculum serves as an enhancement to the ballet program, which is the focal point of their education for the next eight years.

Students don’t excel are dropped from the program. Those who thrive graduate at age 17 and can become professional ballet dancers.

When the students turn teachers, they typically bring the same focus and intensity to their classes.

Santos said a typical ballet class will last an hour and 45 minutes, even for beginning students. There are no restroom or water breaks.

“It’s taught as a profession,” Santos said. “It occupies all your time from the time you wake up until you go to bed.”

The Cubans also distinguish themselves because of the country’s history in ballet.

In the late 1940s, Alicia Alonso and her husband, Fernando Alonso, helped found today’s ballet style in Cuba. They succeeded abroad and returned, creating the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company that later became the Cuban National Ballet.

The company would help train, shape and inspire ballet dancers in the island nation, creating a distinctively Cuban style of ballet that merged facets of the strong and rigorous Russian tradition with the refined style of the English, Garcia said.

Cuban dancers have gone on to be part of the San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, Royal Ballet of England, the Orlando Ballet and the Miami City Ballet, Stark said.

“It’s the birthplace of some of the greatest dancers and teachers as well,” said Stark of the Patel Conservatory.

“I understand at a ballet performance (in Cuba), people cheer like at a football game,” Stark said. “It’s a viable career option in a way that it’s not in the United States.”


For six years, Cuban-born Osmany Montano has been ballet master at America’s Ballet School in New Tampa. He also teaches ballet at the University of South Florida.

“I like to see the children grow,” said Montano, 41, who also has a cousin in Tampa teaching ballet. “I like to see how they develop and change and how they progress and transition.”

Montano says Tampa is growing culturally, a change Cuban ballet teachers and dancers have been part of and helped feed.

“It’s something beautiful that is happening in Tampa,” Montano said. “Tampa is growing at all levels. It has helped us to remain here.”

Garcia sees the same thing.

“Several things have come together: the right time, the right moment and the right people have come together to grow and develop an interest for ballet in Tampa,” Garcia said. “There’s an interest in ballet in this city that is growing quickly.”

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One thought on “Cuban ballet finding toehold in Tampa

  1. I wanted to learn ballet since a long time. Going through an informative article like this can help me know a little more on the subject. Thanks for sharing this article.

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