Cuba is home to salsa, bachata and rumba, famous styles of dance that have spread across the world since their creation on the small tropical island. In a place where daily life is often referred to as la lucha (struggle), dance brings joy in between moments of hardship. But the form for which its dancers get the most international recognition may well be not any of the styles created on the island, and instead is one adopted from Cuba’s ally, the former Soviet Union: ballet.
In Cuba, attending the ballet is less expensive than the average cost of a movie ticket in the U.S., and most people are as familiar with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s dancers as the players on the national baseball team. Government subsidies for ballet tickets and sponsorship of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba — founded by ballet legend Alicia Alonso in 1948 and later nationalized by Fidel Castro after the revolution in 1959 — make the classic art form accessible. “Taxi drivers know who the principal dancers are,” Smith College dance professor and former dance critic in Cuba and Chile commented to Yahoo, after the opening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2015.
April 29 marks International Dance Day, a worldwide celebration of an art form that continues to empower women and girls. Established in 1982 by the International Dance Council, this year the day is dedicated to teachers. President of the International Dance Council Alkis Raftis states, “Learning dance is more widespread than performing: ten times more people practice dance in class than perform on stage.”
The Cuban ballet held two performances on April 28 and 29 in el Gran Teatro de Habana, where President Obama spoke only a month ago, to celebrate the day.
Alonso, now 94, is recognized both in Cuba and around the world as a renowned ballet visionary. She founded her company in 1948 with her then husband Fernando. When Castro took control of the country, he gave Alonso $200,000 to develop the company and train its dancers to be among the best in the world. The influence of Soviet teachers, combined with the island’s own afro-Cuban style, has since created a unique dance form. Alonso gave her last dance performance at age 75, challenging stereotypes about the physical limitations of female dancers, and remains the creative director of the company today, despite her age and blindness.
Omar Robles, a Puerto Rican photographer living in New York City, traveled to Havana in March to capture the raw strength of the world-famous Cuban ballerinas against the backdrop of their city’s streets.
“[The photos] show how Cuba has maybe not spent their money on their infrastructure, but they have spent it on the human resources,” Robles said. “You can see the excellence that they have put into this education of dancers.”
When they travel the world to perform, many dancers get invitations to stay abroad and dance for other companies. Some, like Carlos Acosta, are able to leave the company and remain in Cuba’s good graces. Acosta ended up as a principal dancer in Britain’s Royal Ballet after getting his start at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and recently returned home to start his own dance company. Other dancers are prevented from leaving the company, while some leave on bad terms and aren’t welcomed back. Acosta is trying to bring some of the opportunities he found abroad back home.
“I am trying to share new choreography with Cuban audiences,” Acosta told Yahoo. “In many ways, Cuba has been isolated from the world and dance has remained stagnant. I want to bridge the gap between what it is now to what it could be.”
Funding for ballet training is completely covered by the government, and Cuban girls can start training as early as age 8. Once they turn 18, they can audition to be a part of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s company and start working as professional dancers. While ballerinas come from all over the island, the national company trains and performs in Havana.
For young girls, ballet can be a path to opportunity. Ballet dancers make a decent, stable salary compared to other government jobs on the island (earning more than doctors, for example) and travel internationally with the company, not to mention they also gain the respect and admiration from fellow Cubans. “People carry their heads up high over there,” Robles said. “You don’t see a sense of shamefulness or self-doubt that you see here. We are always second-guessing what we’re doing. Over there, they know that’s what they do.”
Even though dancers’ salaries are comparatively better than some other government jobs, they still struggle to make ends meet between costs of food, transportation and other basic expenses. “They have to take two buses, and each one is approximately 50 cents. So, in a day going back and forth, they are already spending about two dollars in transportation. After the week, that’s 12 dollars,” Robles said. “After a week or a week and a half or so, they run out of their salary, so they just have to make ends meet however they can. They do it, and they do it with pride.”
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This is probably one of my favorite images from my shoots in Cuba. While I was shooting Daniela Cabrera, this elderly woman got really close to her and just stood there watching her for the longest time. I'm almost certain she didn't even notice me shooting. It seemed as if she was reminiscing about her own youth. As she stood, I moved back to adjust my composition and include her into the frame. #OZR_Dance || #🇨🇺💃 || #Cuba