Dancing dreams thrive at Pro Danza

Dancing dreams thrive at Pro Danza

This is the second of a four-part series on the arts and culture of Havana, Cuba.

Tucked in the quiet, desperately poor barrio neighborhood of Marianao sits one of Cuba’s cultural gems.

The Centro de Promoción de la Danza (known as Pro Danza) of Cuba is a special place where dancing dreams come alive and are nurtured by Laura Alonso, the daughter of Cuba’s legendary ballet royalty, Alicia and Fernando Alonso. It’s where dancers, regardless of race, size or financial means, thrive and learn the art of Cuban ballet from the inside out. And, though it’s an offshoot of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s specialized training department, it’s uniquely different.

The school is housed in crumbling mansion that was formerly a hospital long after it headquartered the United States Calvary during the Spanish-American War. Laura Alonso started the school in 1994, with her trademark fiery passion, providing professional-minded dancers, who weren’t accepted into the national ballet school and company, with an opportunity to study, grow, and perform.

Cuban dancer Laurence Gonzalez, 19, at Pro Danza.

On a recent afternoon, several young adult dancers, who look as though they’re still in their teens, gathered outside the second-floor rehearsal studio named Salon Alicia Alonso, which pays homage to Laura’s world-famous mother. The female dancers, part of the dance company attached to the school, were rehearsing the can-can and other neo-classical works with one of the school’s instructors, Moskel Castellanos.

Despite the dilapidated conditions — peeling floors, decaying walls and bathrooms with little running water – there’s an uplifting sense that something wonderful is occurring here.

Families living near Pro Danza (in background) watch a performance.

The school trains 800 students each year in Cuban ballet and other European styles, folklore dance, pointe and variation. Many students start at age 5 and by 10 they can audition for the pre-professional track.  But the competition is fierce. “In Cuba, being one of the best is not good enough,” Ms. Alonso says, seated in her office to a group of visitors from the U.S.  “To dance onstage you need to be a fighter.” For every 25 students, only 5 to 10 have what it takes to become professional. “Those who don’t make it take fewer classes,” but remain in the school, she says. “We want to build a knowledgeable audience too.” The school stages 180 performances each year. Ms. Alonso’s mother, Alicia, at 91 and nearly blind, still directs the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in the heart of Havana, and oversees the selection of dancers. “I get the ones she doesn’t want,” Ms. Alonso says with a smile. “I fix them and she comes in and steals them,” for her company.

Ms. Alonso is known as an expert coach and teacher and spent a 25-year performing career as a soloist

Laura Alonso, daughter of Cuba's legendary ballet couple Alicia and Fernando Alonso, started Pro Danza.

with Ballet National de Cuba, the company started by her mother. For seven years, she was the personal coach and teacher for Alicia Alonso.  She’s won many awards including best coach at the 1990 International Ballet Competition in Jackson, MS when her student, José Manuel Carreño, was awarded the Grand Prix de Ville, the top prize. She’s coached and taught at the world’s top ballet companies and continues to travel abroad teaching and staging the classics for pre-professional and professional companies such as London’s Royal Ballet School and The Royal Danish Ballet.

Despite her clout and family name, Ms. Alonso receives minimal support to run her school and relies on donations and financial contributions from overseas. There are no stockpiles of new pointe shoes — a ballerina’s most necessary tool — or dance tights or material to sew new costumes or a list of other ballet necessities. Funding to build a proper enclosed theater remains a far off dream. “There’s no impresario here,” Ms. Alonso says. For now, the school’s theater is a rustic, outdoor space on the ground-level with a concrete floor and metal trellis that opens to a backyard area. Dirt from the neighborhood blows onto the dance floor as families stop to watch an afternoon show for foreign visitors.

A Pro Danza dancer performing for visitors.

Many of the female dancers — Elaine Guillén Osorio, 25; Mayda Melendez Gelluez, 22; Patricia Hernandez Ortega, 22; Daniella Oropesa Espallargas, 20; Yaimara Naranjo Lopez, 23, and Yadira Yasell Varela, 27 — make due with what they have. Their pointe shoes were so worn that, during the recent performance, holes were visible. A piece of green tape, holding the toe of one dancer’s shoe together, gave way and dangled as she spun, leapt into her partner’s arms and turned, delivering an amazing performance. She seemed unfazed by the occurrence.

Despite its humble setting and difficult conditions, the school has produced professional dancers including Lester Diaz, 23, who’s from the local neighborhood. He now performs outside of Cuba and recently danced in a joint event with the Classical Dance Company of Yucatan, Mexico.

Through her work at Pro Danza and with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s school, Ms. Alonso has taught and coached some of Cuba’s best dancers now working abroad including Carlos Acosta, José Manuel Carreño, Xiomara Reyes and Lorena and Lorna Feijóo. She says most of them come back to her school and help financially.

A view from inside Pro Danza.

On a recent visit, the Sarasota International Dance Festival presented Ms. Alonso and her school with donations of dancewear, hair accessories, medicines, toiletries and other items that had been collected by the festival’s visitors. Some contributions came from American youth involved in dance, businesses including Oak Dental in Frisco, Texas and this non-profit magazine. The donations, along with a cash gift from the dance festival, were presented by Robert de Warren, president and CEO of the organization.

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