Castro's Cuba:
Fifty Years of Revolution

Gail Scott on Cuba

Of all the stories I have covered on radio, TV and print over almost three decades, my stories on Cuba got the most reaction. Not a week goes by since my first trip to Havana with the Washington Ballet that someone doesn't call or stop me at an embassy event to ask me about Cuba.

My Cuban trips still give me great joy and great pain.

Traveling to Cuba

If you have not yet traveled to Cuba, I strongly encourage you to do so. Unfortunately, if you are an American, you have only until the end of this year. The Bush Administration has decided to stop granting visas for Americans traveling on "cultural trips" to Cuba, the only legal door currently open, as of December 31st, 2003. There are many groups nationwide who will be making trips before this deadline. Two Washington groups are listed below. For more information please contact them directly.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art Trip to Cuba November 7-15
For more information, please visit their website or call 202-639-1772

Cultural Educational Tour to Cuba
James Early, Director
Cultural Heritage Policy Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Smithsonian Institution
For more information, please contact:

James Early
Transeair Travel, Inc.



" Ballet is the star in Cuba: Washington dancers join Ballet Nacional for rousing program during final gala at international festival held in Havana"

by Gail Scott
published November 4, 2000 in
The Washington Times.

Both young men want to dance more than anything else; young ballet stars who already get rave reviews and make audiences swoon. One is American, 23-year old Iowa-bred Jason Hartley. The other is Cuban, 19-year old Rolando Sarabia. And last week, in Havana’s spectacular baroque Gran Teatro, they danced their hearts out on the same stage during Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s standing-room only final gala for the 17th International Ballet Festival—the first time an American classical ballet troupe has set foot on that huge stage in more than four decades.

Jason was one of 130 in The Washington Ballet’s entourage of dancers, choreographers, teachers, students, theatre directors and arts patrons who flew to the controversial Caribbean isle of Fidel Castro by invitation of Alicia Alonso, the grand dame and cultural icon of the world famous Ballet Nacional de Cuba. The weeklong trip, allowed by the State Department’s People-to-People program for cultural exchange, was a dream come true for Washington Ballet’s Artistic Director Septime Webre whose mother is Cuban. Mary Day, the beloved founder of The Washington Ballet, was there to see and hear the Cuban jump up and yell for her American dancers. Back in 1956, she got to know Alicia Alonso when famed Cuban ballerina toured with The Washington Ballet in the Dominican Republic with a final performance here at Carter Baron Ampitheatre.

For more than half a century, ballet has been Cuba’s national passion. Ballet stars are super heroes, recognized and hugged on the street. For those who can’t jam inside to sit in the isles or lean on the curved walls of the red-carpeted, multi-tiered hall, the performances are broadcast live over state TV. Your taxi driver talks about the performance the next day; your waiter knows that The Washington Ballet got seven curtain calls. No one relegates ballet as just for sissies.

Here, in this machismo society, men fight to get ballet tickets that cost fifty cents or less—a major expense to a physician who only makes $26 dollars. Husbands proudly bring their wives and children to The Gran Teatro. Men jump to their feet and yell as if they were at the Super Bowl. They know the dancers, the music, and the steps so well that they applaud for their favorites as the music begins, even before the curtain goes up.

Compactly built Jason Hartley who could easily pass for a gymnast or a college wrestler thinks American audiences could learn a lesson. “Cubans are very serious about art and eat it up and love it,” says this Midwesterner, “Cuban ballet dancers are trained to be royalty, the public expects it. American artists are treated like dirt, it’s our roots.”

Long ago, Jason, who married his sweetheart from The North Carolina School for the Arts, figured out how to deal with the common American attitude about male ballet dancers. “You only have to beat up one kid to take care of that,” says Jason who “settled the score back in sixth grade” and hasn’t worried about it since. “But Americans are closed minded,” Jason adds, “And, Iowa is the land of conservatism…where there is no funding, no support for ballet.” This son of a quilter and janitorial service manager adds to his argument, “These Cuban dancers are strong as oxes.”

Dark, curly headed Rolando is the heart-throb of young American and Cuban ballerinas alike. He’s danced with Les Jeunes Ballet de France in Paris “where my girlfriend is” and dreams of coming to America to dance with “your ABT” (American Ballet Theatre). “I dismiss it if people turn their mouths down when I tell them I’m a ballet dancer. It’s never a problem.” Both Rolando and his 15-year old brother whom he coaches on ballet technique take great pride that their father was also a ballet dancer with Ballet Nacional.

When I ask Rolando if he likes being recognized everywhere he goes on this large island, he arches his dark eyebrow and shrugs his shoulder just ever so flirtatiously, “Yea, I love it.”

Audiences and fame aren’t the only difference between these two male ballet stars. Rolando has security, unlike any American performing artist. Although he still lives at home with his parents and brother, he makes more money (about $55 a month) than a Cuban doctor, lawyer or engineer--only less than the flamboyant stars of the legendary Tropicana nightclub. “I give everything to my mother,” says Rolando, who had “help” from the Ministry of Culture for his new yellow car and is expecting to move his family to a bigger house in coveted Old Havana now that he has become a romantic lead.

Down-to-earth Jason knows he will have to keep dancing and planning for his future, without any state support. “Someday I want to be a choreographer, teach dance and build a stage.” Will he return to Iowa. “No, I want to go someplace tropical.” Would he want his children to dance? “They will have to grow up and decide for themselves.”

Brought to the Washington company by artistic director Septime Webre, Jason is very matter-of-fact about being one of Webre’s favorites. “He’s my paycheck. He has given me opportunities and I am taking them all. But I don’t let that bother my relationship with the rest of the company,” says the former American Repertory Ballet dancer.

According to Fernando Alonso, the Ballet Nacional’s founding partner and Alicia’s former husband of forty years, admits this positive Cuban attitude about male ballet dancers was not ready-made.

“It wasn’t always like this,” says the fit gray-haired dancer who still works out every day even though he is in his nineties. “When I started dancing myself, I had lots of fights, even punching noses. Here in Cuba, they thought dancing was queer or you turned queer. But we worked with the Cubans in two ways: first we had to teach the dancers, then we had to teach the audiences. It helped when the government took over (in 1959 when the Cuban Revolutionary Government came to power with Castro) and gave the male dancers a sense of decency.

“I remember going to an orphanage and picking out 15 young children—half boys and half girls. We taught the young boys to be very manly on stage. We worked with them as an example. We taught our audiences to like and to know what was good and they began to yell for more. Now you can see the results.”

“Mary Day, also over ninety and The Washington Ballet’s founder compares “this first” to the Washington troupe’s news making trips to China in 1985 and 1988 when, “crowds were everywhere we went…just mobs. But there they looked at us as if we were…from outer space. We had tall boys and girls with blond hair and red hair.”

From this trip, “everyone came away feeling that the Cubans have tremendous respect for the art of ballet and the name of Alicia Alonso. In classes, even the little children show deep respect for the ballet, it permeates the whole society. Everyone loves dance.”

“The paradox of Cuba,” said American Ballet Theatre’s Amanda McKerrow who danced as a Washington Ballet principal guest artist in Cuba with her husband John Gardner, “is that the people are so poor is so many ways but so rich in others—dance, music, their culture.”

“I make a good living as a dancer so I can’t complain,” says the former Washington ballet star who at 17 traveled with Ms. Day in 1981 to the Soviet Union and became the first American to win the Gold Medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition.
“I am at the top of my field but by comparison to American football, baseball or even women’s sports figures, I am not considered important by many people. I have no endorsement opportunities; in America, art is not rewarded as much.”

“Our duty as dancers is to education but dance isn‘t even in our school systems,” says the 36-year old. In Miami on the way home, relaxing on the floor between planes she vows, “John’s the strongest person I know. Anyone who knows anything about ballet would never for a second think it is sissy to dance.”

Copyright © 2000 News World Communications, Inc.
Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.
Visit our web site at


Copyright © Gail Scott 2003. All Rights Reserved. Website Design by Metro Graphics. Web Hosting by Metro Net Host.