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Image: Karen Arango

Sarasotans Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez beat Obama to Cuba. Two years before the president’s historic visit last March, the couple began their own rapprochement with their homeland, from which they had defected in 1993. In spring 2014, just two years after founding the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School (which offers black box performances this month), husband and wife returned to their old dancing grounds, reconnecting with former teachers and colleagues at the renowned National Ballet School of Cuba and introducing their best students and über-talented son, Francisco, to its international ballet competition in Havana.

To say the reunions went well is like saying Cuba makes a heck of a cigar.

Francisco, then 17, won a gold medal as a soloist, which buoyed his confidence as he headed to London to study at the prestigious Royal Ballet School on a scholarship. That summer, before he left, he helped his parents launch a dream in Sarasota, an intensive summer session with 70 students from around the world, including four other medalists from the Havana competition. Joining the faculty was Dr. Ramona de Saa, director of the National Ballet School of Cuba and Ariel’s former teacher.

The Summer Intensive with its Cuban exchange proved so popular that it grew to 112 students in 2015 before shrinking back to a more manageable 85 last summer. Serrano and Hernandez travel modestly to recruit, to Philadelphia and Puerto Rico, for instance. But most dancers come to them to audition, in person or via videotape, from states beyond Florida and countries like Japan, Italy, Columbia, Guatemala and Mexico. Each class includes a Cuban contingent.

When the kids arrive, joining local students, “It’s like a hurricane here,” says Hernandez, who helps manage dorm life as well as classroom training. “They are all excited; they want to be together all the time.”

Although the school arranges field trips to Busch Gardens, Siesta Key and the Ringling Museum, dance upstages sightseeing. “We call it intensive for a reason,” says Serrano. Ambition runs high, especially at the pre-professional level. All of the first summer’s stars went to “higher and bigger places,” says Serrano, pointing to photos on the wall. One is a prima ballerina in Philadelphia, another first soloist in the National Ballet of Cuba. One performs in Queensland, Australia. Francisco has just joined the Royal Ballet. Several summer students have moved to Sarasota in order to study year-round at SCBS while attending high school. The best graduate to companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem or Ballet West.

Local appreciation is also growing. The Summer Intensive concludes with performances at the Sarasota Opera House, which last summer drew some 800 people. “We have a diamond, and we don’t have the proper light yet to show it,” Serrano says. “But now it’s becoming a little bit of a tradition.” The school is mounting several small black-box performances in January. And thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, SCBS is bringing dance into four Title I Sarasota schools with performances, movement classes, and Q-and-A sessions with students and parents.

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Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez

Image: Karen Arango

“We’re hoping that we can create excitement in these kids to be part of something as beautiful as ballet,” says Serrano.

The U.S. government’s easing of restrictions on contacts with Cuba has made collaboration easier—“less paperwork, less money in travel expenses, less political friction, less time waste,” says Serrano. But it has also introduced competition for cultural exchanges. Other schools in the States want to study the athletic, romantic style taught at the National Ballet School of Cuba—Russian technique fused with Latin grace. “We are open to sharing, because after all we live in America, and we want [Cuban dancers] also to be known everywhere,” says Serrano. But since he and his wife have a relationship with the National Ballet School of Cuba that dates back more than 25 years, “we’re pretty secure” in the long-term partnership, he says. SCBS and the Cuban school cross-pollinate throughout the year; for instance, Serrano and Hernandez plan to take a group of students on a study trip to Havana next April.

Crossing borders requires funding and patience, but healing the rift between Cuba and the United States will only benefit both nations, Serrano says. “Why not open a relationship? There are new generations in Cuba. There are new generations here. Things in the past are back there in the past. Right now is a new day.”

See them live: January 2017, TBA Black Box Performances; July 29, 2017 Summer Intensive performances at the Sarasota Opera House. More info: (941) 365-8400, srqcubanballet.com

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