Bridging cultures with ballet

By Rebecca Kirkman and Roy Henry on August 4, 2019

TU dance department welcomes Cuban National Ballet School director for summer teaching seminar

In Towson University’s Center for the Arts, about two dozen ballet students warm up at the barre in a sun-drenched dance studio. A spry, petite figure weaves between them, stopping to adjust the position of a hand here, a shoulder there.

The woman is 80-year-old Maestra Ramona De Saá, director of the internationally renowned Cuban National Ballet School since 1965. One of the most respected figures in the pedagogy of dance in the contemporary world, De Saá is here as part of TU's Cuban National Ballet School Teaching Seminar. It's the first time she's taught such a seminar in the U.S.

A four-day program designed to highlight and share the distinct Cuban ballet methodology with dance instructors in the U.S., the seminar was made possible through a partnership between TU’s Department of Dance and Community Dance Center, along with the Ruth Page School of Dance in Chicago.

“I am Cuban American, and it was always a dream of mine to connect with the Cuban National Ballet School,” says Catherine Horta-Hayden, professor and chair of the Towson University Department of Dance. “It really is a methodology that is coveted worldwide. They develop some of the best trained dancers in the world.”

Horta-Hayden explains how the infusion of Cuban culture into the country's ballet methodology makes it unique. “One of the many intriguing notions of the curriculum is how they make it distinctly Cuban. There’s this wonderful cultural aspect to training their ballet dancers [...] They have found a way to infuse the culture of the island, the warmth of the people, the aesthetics, into this ballet form.”

The seminar's 25 available spots were filled quickly, showing a keen interest from the dance community. Attendees include ballet instructors at public schools, private studios, pre-professional programs and in higher education from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Over four days, participants learned about the training done in year six and seven of the Cuban National Ballet School’s eight-year program through lectures, question and answer periods and hands-on teaching demonstrations.

Cuban dance seminar class
Maestra Ramona De Saá instructs a master class at Towson University during the Cuban National Ballet School Teaching Seminar.

“This partnership is crucial for Towson University, for the department, for the community, because it’s about educating people about the cultural aspects of this art form. It’s also understanding a different culture and their perspective,” Horta-Hayden says.

The heart of the program is about more than just dance. It’s about cultural exchange and dialogue.

“The impact has to do more with this human element,” Horta-Hayden says. “It’s also about embracing another culture. Showing others how their efforts are valued and that we see the impact they have on dance across the world.”

Despite more than a half-century of experience teaching ballet, De Saá sees the seminar as an opportunity to continue learning. “It’s been a beautiful experience to be here. The same way that I have taught, I have learned from everyone who has been here,” she says. “We may have different social experiences, but we all come together to learn from one another. It’s like a fraternity of individuals, and it’s an honor to be here.”

Horta-Hayden hopes to resume the program again next year, and one day expand it to include an educational exchange program where TU dance students could travel to Cuba to take classes at the Cuban National Ballet School.

“This idea of opening your doors, your heart, sharing this knowledge across cultures—I think is part of Towson University’s mission of inclusivity, of diversity,” Horta-Hayden says.

Thank you Towson University Department Of Dance and TU Community Dance for a great week of learning and connecting with teachers from the Cuban National Ballet School and the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

Posted by Maryland Dance Education Association on Thursday, August 1, 2019