Dreams of ballet stardom in Cuba


April 18, 1999|By Nanine Hartzenbusch | Nanine Hartzenbusch,Sun Staff

Little feet patter on a wood floor to the rhythm of a slightly out-of-tune piano. A teacher barks out a tempo and taps her foot as the pupils repeat a dance move over and over until perfection is achieved.

Hard work, practice, dreams and disappointment -- it could be a ballet school anywhere in the world. But these pupils study at the Escuela Elemental de Ballet Alejo Carpentier in Havana, Cuba. Founded in 1961, it is the feeder school for the National Ballet of Cuba, 90 percent of whose dancers started at Alejo Carpentier.

The pupils, ages 9 to 14, spend half of each day in an academic program and half at Alejo Carpentier. The competition is stiff: 45 pupils are selected annually from a pool of 800 to 1,000 applicants. Current and former professional dancers are on the faculty. The director, Silvia Maria Rodriguez, has taught at the school for 30 years.

The state outfits the pupils with basic wear: two pairs of tights, one leotard and a pair of shoes. Donations from abroad often supplement the allotment of dance wear.

Since the beginning of the "special period" -- the austerity that followed the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of its economic subsidy of Cuba -- supplies have dwindled and pupils must make do with what they have. Often girls can be seen in hallways stitching up runs in their tights for the third or fourth time. Some dance with tights that are practically in shreds.

A select group will go on from Alejo Carpentier to a higher ballet school, and from there a lucky few dancers will see their dreams come true -- on the stage of the National Ballet of Cuba.

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