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Cuban Ballet school: ‘Welcome to hell’

Cuban Ballet school: ‘Welcome to hell’

I’ve been dancing for over thirteen years and have experienced the gamut of dance teachers, from a six-and-a-half foot tall gay man wearing pointe shoes the size of my forearms to a Baroque-dance reenactment teacher who game in full regalia, high-heeled shoes, waistcoat and all.

Taking ballet classes makes people touching you on your chest and ass more commonplace than at a high school prom and you learn to be unfazed by pretty much anything. I thought I had seen it all, until I started taking classes at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s Catedra de Danza.

Setting up my classes with the school was an adventure in and of itself.

I found the office of the director of the school, in the second floor of a building behind the main building, and scaled the steep and rickety stairs lined with old pictures of the famous Cuban ballerinas and founder of the NBC, Alicia Alonso. I could hear the soft tinkle of piano keys drifting from upstairs and seeping through the walls of the main building as I rounded a corner into the director’s office.

A woman with a perfectly S-shaped back was hunched over what I think was one of the first personal computers ever made, industriously puffing on a cigarette that emitted smoke that was the same color as the dirty grey monitor.

She turned to me slowly and peered at me over square glasses.

“Digame,” she croaked in a voice that sounded like she might have gargled with glass shards.

I explained myself, in Spanish, and she reached for a giant manila folder with stapled sheets of paper and extricated my series of e-mails that I had sent to the director of the ballet school. She took down all of my information and the schedule of classes I wanted to take and gave me my “credential” to get into the ballet school: a piece of cardstock about the size of a business card with the ballet’s logo printed with faded ink and my name hastily scrawled on a line. I was officially a student of one of the most renowned ballet school’s in the world.

The first day of class I arrived, already sweating through my pink tights and black leotard and was directed to a tiny studio where the international students take class. It was 15 minutes before the class was supposed to start and there was only one girl in the studio, stretching in a corner. In the neighboring studio, I could see company members already well into rehearsals even though it was only 9:45 in the morning.

I snagged a spot at the barre and started warming up as one of the tallest Cubans I’ve met (though probably still under six feet) walked in. Through his short mustache he asked me in accented English, “Are you Georgia?”

I confirmed that I was indeed and he introduced himself as Daniel. Another girl arrived and went to the barre as the pianist sat down and began playing through some chords.

It was time for class to begin. Within the first 30 seconds of class, Daniel swooped down on me, forcibly molding my foot into the correct position while turning my legs out more, pushing my butt under while pushing my stomach in and telling me to “grow!, grow!, grow!.” It happened in the space of one exhale and then he moved on to the next girl, sculpting her like PlayDoh.

Within 15 minutes, I was dripping and trembling. I know I’m not the best dancer but I’m certainly not the worst, yet Daniel had me thinking that I had missed some crucial lessons in my early training. During every exercise he barked commands at us in English and Spanish while maneuvering our bodies into the closest version of perfect for every position.

“Do you not like pain?” he drawled at one point, “Then perhaps you should not be ballerina. A ballerina’s life is pain. Do not take pills or run from the pain, learn from it, learn what you are doing wrong.”

I felt like I had been dropped into some Cuban ballet fight club and this was my trial by fire. Even though I was scared shitless, it was also pretty hilarious. Daniel was tough but under that exterior, we all knew it was good-natured. If he didn’t care and didn’t want us to improve he wouldn’t have given us as many corrections.

We barely paused in between combinations, doing complicated sequences of turns and releves in every imaginable direction all under Daniel’s watchful and critical eye.

As a ballerina, I’m no stranger to hard work, but after an hour-and-a-half of Daniel’s non-air conditioned class, I felt like I had run a marathon across the Sahara.

I’ve had my fair share of tough teachers, but never in such a concentrated setting. I completely understand, though, why the Cuban ballet dancers are so phenomenal — they won’t accept anything less than perfection and aren’t afraid to do what it takes to get there. Although I can take criticism, (it comes with the territory) I think a lot of American dance teachers have to stay P.C., and not completely rip their students apart because the schools need to make money to stay afloat. In a government-supported setting like the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the focus is not on profit but on producing the highest quality product possible.

Though I haven’t had the benefit of Cuban teachers for my whole life, I think that after my two and a half months at BNC I’ll definitely be a higher-quality product than I was going in. It will just be a matter of a little hard work.

During class Daniel stalked over to me and said, “We have a case of needing a little P.T.C. Do you know what that is?”

Bewildered, I said the first thing that came to mind. “Parent-teacher conference?”

“No. Practice. I think your parents are a little too far for that,” he replied.

Although I’m not really sure how P.T.C. translates to practice (practice ‘til cardiac arrest?) I’m willing to give it a try- I don’t think my parents would be able to get into Cuba for a P.T.C. with Daniel.

“Bienvenidos al Infierno. Aquellos que Cruzan este Puerto dejan todos sus esperanzas.”

“Welcome to hell. Those that cross these doors leave all hope behind.”

Daniel, my Cuban commie ballet drill sergeant, greeted me with these cheery and welcoming words one morning before class started. I’m not sure what his religious affiliation is but I can’t help but wonder if he was raised extremely Catholic or possibly Seventh Day Adventist because his classes are always peppered with colorful religious imagery.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is no air-conditioning in the ballet studio, so Daniel welcoming us to hell wasn’t too far off the mark. But I think he also fancies himself as some sort of gatekeeper of hell or distributor of infernal justice.

“You know I wanted to be a demon,” he told me conspiratorially after one class, “But the position was already full so I had to settle for a being a ballet teacher.”

Daniel once told me that he and his wife were yogis but somehow I don’t think the entire philosophy has really sunk in with him. He definitely doesn’t believe in karma.

“Why do people do ballet?” he asked me, “They think that if they suffer a lot in ballet class then they won’t suffer in the rest of their life. But they’re wrong. They suffer a lot in both.”

He always delivers these lines after staring upward and to the left, maybe looking for divine inspiration. After sharing his little sound bites, he grins mischievously, cackles and then makes us do a complicated six-part combination that makes me think I’m atoning for some serious sin (sis, I’m sorry I put a lollipop in your hair when I was nine).

More likely I’m atoning for committing one of the sins of Daniel’s class. In his class, there aren’t seven deadly sins, only three: Don’t stop, don’t be lazy and don’t change the combinations.

I’m certainly guilty of the last, but it’s nearly impossible to do his combinations perfectly because he changes them a dozen times while he’s teaching them. Luckily, he has a few set combinations that we do every class he refers to as “our daily bread.”

Oh Daniel, forgive us our bad passés as we forgive those who chasse and run into us. Leap us not into exhaustion and deliver us from turned in feet. For thine is the class of sweat, blood and tears forever.
Amen. About Georgia Schrubbe

Georgia Schrubbe is a senior at the College of Charleston and fell in love with Cuba after spending three months studying in Havana with her college’s semester abroad program. She has written for national websites and blogs, College of Charleston publications, and is beginning a foray into travel writing. Sshe’s trained at the San Francisco Ballet School, Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s Catedra de Danza, Alabama Ballet, Kaatsbaan Extreme Ballet and Mobile Ballet, but considers herself a ballerina gone wild, supplementing her love of ballet with an addiction to salsa dancing.   April 2012

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