Dancing Back to Havana

Ariel watching class.
Ariel Serrano watching a class.


By CARRIE SEIDMAN*  ([email protected])

Photos: Elaine Litherland

HAVANA TIMES — It all seems a little surreal. From the darkened wings of Havana’s national theater Ariel Serrano stares toward the brightly-lit stage, where the finalists in the XII Concurso Internacional para Jóvenes Estudiantes de Ballet, an international ballet competition for aspiring student dancers, are awaiting the announcement of the medal winners.

Seated among them is his 17-year-old son, Francisco, the only American ever to participate in the April event. With a long and lean ballet body, a conversational grasp of Spanish and the curly, black hair and cafe con leche coloring of his heritage, he seamlessly blends in with the other dancers, who are all from Cuba or Mexico.

Oh Panchito, m’ijo, Serrano is thinking, murmuring a diminutive of the nickname his wife gave their eldest child as an infant. How can this be? Are we really here — aquí, en La Habana? Is that you on the stage, or is it me?

Francisco during a rehersal.
Francisco during a rehearsal.

Serrano scrubs his face with his hands as if to wash away the sheen of disbelief. His thick fingers clench and release, clench and release. He is sweating in his black Ralph Lauren polo shirt, though the backstage area is one of the few over air-conditioned spots in this hot and congested city.

At the front of the house, perched on one of the hundreds of fraying cloth seats in a theater that has seen better days, Serrano’s wife, Wilmian Hernandez, makes small talk with her sister, Magaley. A week of escorting a half-dozen students from the Sarasota ballet school she and her husband founded, of waiting in endless lines to renew her Cuban passport, and of dealing with Havana’s traffic, pollution and chaos has left fatigue etched on her eternally cheerful face.

She is thinking back to that day, four years earlier, when her son asked if he could take up ballet, the art that propelled his parents from this Caribbean island to the United States more than two decades ago. Francisco was 13; she had started her own training at 8. Her husband, watching his son try in vain to touch his toes, told her firmly: “No, Wilmian. It is no good. He doesn’t have it.”

She believed otherwise. This was her only son, the one she had nicknamed “Panchito” because “Pancho” – the usual Cuban nickname for Francisco – seemed too big for such a slight, sweet and subdued boy.

Now seated on a folding chair in the back row, behind dozens of his dancing peers, Francisco wonders why he is here — in this strange moment, on this foreign stage, in this country that is both his and not his. Why is he sitting alongside all of these dancers who are more experienced, more at ease, more “into it,” in a way he can’t begin to put into words?

Ariel Serrano instructs his son, Francisco.
Ariel Serrano instructs his son, Francisco, shortly before the competition.

Why did they ask him to dance tonight, at this final gala? Could this mean he has actually won something? That can’t be, he tells himself, tamping down a quiver of expectation, hoping he is mistaken. Because much as he doesn’t like competitions, he does love performing.

And maybe…

Just maybe, when I do my variation tonight, I will throw in that step at the end, a step no one, not even my father, is anticipating, he thinks. Maybe they will clap for me as they did last night — that thunderous rhythmic, unison pounding that Cuban audiences reserve for their favorites. He’d felt like running back on stage for a second bow when it happened, wishing he could scoop up the ephemeral weight of the accolades in his upturned palms.

Ramona de Sáa, the director of the Cuban National Ballet School and Ariel Serrano’s former teacher, steps toward a microphone at the front of the stage.

The house lights dim.

The backstage shuffling ceases.

Voices fall silent.

Ariel Serrano takes a deep breath.

The announcer begins:

“Buenas noches, señoras y señores…”

Editor’s note: Sarasota Herald-Tribune staff writer Carrie Seidman and photographer Elaine Litherland accompanied Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, two former dancers who defected from Cuba in 1993, as they returned to the land of their birth and the ballet school where they both trained as children. With them were students from the ballet school they founded in Sarasota, Florida and their children, including their 17-year-old son, Francisco, a late-bloomer poised on the brink of a promising professional career. This is an excerpt from “Home to Havana,” a story of remembrances, reunions and hopes for building a ballet bridge for the future. To read the entire three-part story, see a video documentary and an extensive photo gallery from Cuba, go to: http://havana.heraldtribune.com

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6 thoughts on “Dancing Back to Havana

  • As argued in other strings:

    1) external threat prompts repressiveness, e.g. McCarthyist job purges and imprisonment in US; compromise of Bill of Rights after 9/11; NSA surveillance; Guantanamo

    2) problem even greater when extreme disequilibrium of power and wealth and over a century of direct and indirect intervention

    3) 54 years of economic and failed political embargo created psychological, informational and trust deficit between Americans and Cubans

    4) virtually every American who visits Cuba, regardless of politics and opinion about Cuban system, returns more strongly opposed to the embargo, increasing prospect for change (the reason you don’t want them to go)

    5) Cubans have had perspective widened by contacts with Cuban Americans, those Europeans and Canadians who do not limit themselves to all inclusive resorts, and people to people travelers

    6) general license travelers staying in privately owned bed and breakfasts will have substantial interaction with often English speaking hosts

    7) short term arrests and detentions vs. longer term imprisonment? Is the number of people detained larger or is it mostly the same people with a different pattern of more frequent detention? If the number is larger, could a factor be exposure to ideas and resources of visitors?

    8) How can you prove the growing number of visitors increased arrests and detention? Post hoc ergo propter hoc? (“after this, therefore because of this”, a famous logical fallacy)

    9) Your only model of change is collapse. It is a classic fantasy of exiles and hasn’t worked for half a century. I put greater confidence in the Cuban people, all of the Cuban people including party members and opponents, taking advantage of the end of US regime change policies, to build creatively on the achievements and history of their own culture and society. Greater personal freedom will be part of that process, as has occurred in China and Vietnam. The implementation of democracy is an uneven and imperfect path for every country. not least our own. (c.f. our similar debate here http://thehavananote.com/2014/07/meditation_larger_problem_us_intervention )

    10) Why is freedom of travel for Cubans a good thing, but not for Americans?

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • I simply don’t accept as fact your assertion that a tourist from San Bernadino, CA. will have a more positive impact on the Castros than a tourist from Toronto or Munich. What is true is that increased tourism, no matter where it comes from will benefit the Castro regime greatly by fattening their coffers and funding even greater repression. Not only for my benefit, but for the benefit of other readers following this thread, please briefly explain how more USD from increasing general license travel will bring freedom and democracy to Cubans when the current revenues from the 3 million tourists who will visit Cuba this year has only caused an INCREASE in arrests and detentions of dissidents. It is not my intent to avoid the topic nor throw insults per se. Being accused of being on an “ideological bandwagon” was a tad provocative though, don’cha think?

  • “Moses”,

    Your consistent modus operandi is to avoid the topic and fulminate, while throwing in personal insults.

    I don’t know Ariel and Wilmian’s family background, but it seems unlikely that they would have had the same opportunity to become ballet dancers before the revolution. Perhaps that is why they brought their dance students to Havana.

    The embargo creates a contradiction by preventing people who benefit from publicly financed education and training in the arts and sports from returning income earned in the US. Malaysia had a system that if you received a government scholarship to study in the US and remained, you had to repay the government for the scholarship. Was that wrong?

    I publicly supported Cubans having the right to travel freely before the white card exit visa was ended. You don’t support Americans having that right.

    The depth of our historical and cultural ties and the artificial separation since the revolution mean that a broad increase in Americans traveling to Cuba would have much greater two-way significance than visits by Canadians and Europeans. Overcoming 50 years of mutual ignorance and distrust is a unique benefit of US Cuban engagement. In fact, the destruction of the Cuban American ultras’ narrative and their politically imposed wall of separation is the main reason they fear expanded travel.

    In addition under US law massive numbers of all inclusive sun and sand vacationers, the predominant foreign model with the biggest economic impact, can not happen.

    It is revealing that you, Senators Rubio and Menendez and Dr. Suchliki are not strong advocates of a general license for purposeful travel. That would allow a greater diversity of Americans to be able to afford visiting Cuba and put more of their money into the private sector by letting them stay in bed and breakfasts rather than government owned hotels. Instead of being forced by OFAC to go on tours organized by state companies, they could create their own unsupervised unguided itineraries using public transportation and renting cars (with countless opportunities for frank conversations with hitchhikers).

    You should stop misleading readers that we are a travel business. The Fund for Reconciliation and Development is a not-for-profit organization that works on behalf of normal diplomatic, economic and cultural relations between the societies that exist in Cuba and the US, just as we did with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, so that their populations and governments can find a more natural path to authentic evolution.

    Promoting ravel and educational exchange are the principle means we utilize toward that end with Cuba.

    Singling out Cuba for economic warfare and attempted isolation, in total variance with world opinion, because the US doesn’t like its domestic political system suggests that something else is afoot. Conventionally that is blamed on the political power of vengeful exiles harboring illusions of restoration. I am more inclined to see it as Russian and Chinese style assumptions of hegemony over the near abroad and to agree with the remarkable essay by Lou Perez of the University of North Carolina, “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” http://www.democracyinamericas.org/pdfs/Cuba_as_an_obsessive_compulsive_disorder.pdf

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • The regime did not “give” Ariel a g’damn thing! That’s the problem with you apologists. You choose to give Fidel credit for allowing people to have what was already theirs! Here in the US, we call it “inalienable rights” I will get off my ideological bandwagon when you set aside your personal financial interests in increasing travel opportunities for Americans to Cuba. As “purposeful travel” increases, your travel business will benefit, will it not? My comment simply reflects the emotion Ariel must have felt watching his son, a free young man, do what was not possible for Ariel to do when Ariel was his son’s age. Ariel was not “free” to travel to the US to compete and win. The regime you support denied athletes and entertainers unsponsored travel abroad. Ariel was forced to “escape” Cuba in order to start a business, buy a home, own a car and a list of many other things that you can take for granted. If we are to begin to talk about “allowing the same freedoms” we should start where freedom is in shortest supply. I agree with you that what Cuba needs most must come to Cuba organically. Cubans must do their own heavy-lifting. What the US should NOT do in the meantime is provide the economic lifeline to these tyrants through increasing the flow of USD to the Castro treasury. Giving the whorish economic policies that Raul is currently contemplating, it is clear that he understands better than you that the revolution is in its last days. If Cuba is not more democratic with the nearly 3 million tourists who will visit the island this year, why do you suppose that an estimated 1 million more tourists will cause the Castros to suddenly become democratic. On the contrary, more tourism $$$ means more repression. The regime is on track this year for the highest number of arrests and detentions dissidents in its history. Americans don’t need more awareness of Castro repression and tyranny. What you call “cross national moments” is just double-speak for hoping that the US come to accept as the norm Castro-style repression as we have come to accept Chinese, Vietnamese or Saudi repression. Why should we? Why should we continue to ignore American ideals just to make nice with another dictatorship? Finally, why don’t you urge the Castro regime to make changes toward democracy with the same passion that you make urging Americans to accept Castro totalitarianism. Would you agree to that?

  • Moses, it is also a moving story about the healing and reunification of the Cuban family. Get off your ideological bandwagon against the regime which gave Ariel his opportunity to learn and provided the occasion for the participation of his students.

    Surely we both applaud the consequence of President Obama’s opening of unlimited visits and remittances for Cuban Americans, an acceptance of the reality of Cuba as it is mixed with a longer game of encouraging natural evolution.

    Allowing the same freedom of purposeful travel to all Americans will facilitate similar cross national moments and consequences within both countries. Do you agree?

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • You gotta’ believe that Ariel is one proud papa to have left Cuba penniless 21 years ago and now to return with a handsome and talented young son who proceeds to win the competition. Yet another example of what Cubans, once free, can achieve. I can only imagine how many more Cubans would have achieved their own professional, financial and spiritual potential if only the Castros had not held them back with their tyrannical dictatorship. Kudos to this Cuban family for their struggle.

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