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Blanca Huertas, instructor at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, worked to bring more Puerto Rican students to the summer intensive program. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News
Blanca Huertas, instructor at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, worked to bring more Puerto Rican students to the summer intensive program. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet welcomes Puerto Rican dancers

An instructor at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet offers a unique opportunity for young ballet students from the island.

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Eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Blanca Huertas decided to go to her homeland of Puerto Rico and offer ballet students there the chance to audition for PA Ballet’s summer intensive program.

Usually the students, ages 8-21, would come to different sites around the country and audition there. However, Huertas felt that the high cost of travel to audition spots on the mainland led to a substantial amount of talent on the island being missed.

“We wanted to offer them the opportunity to be seen more than anything,” Huertas said.

For Huertas, it was a way to reconnect with her roots. Born into the dance world on the island, Huertas’ mother was her first ballet teacher. Her father was also a ballet dancer, and Huertas followed in her parents’ footsteps by auditioning for local companies and working as an apprentice at Ballet Concierto.

As a young dancer, Huertas participated in summer intensive programs on the U.S. mainland, from New York City to Washington D.C., to develop her skills. The instructor feels that having her students be aware of her background as a dancer can inspire them to continue pursuing their passion as dancers.

As a teacher, Huertas recognizes that certain economic barriers and lack of funds for the arts have decreased opportunities for many dancers in Puerto Rico. With support for this new initiative from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet to audition the students on the island, Huertas and her partners began planning the audition dates.

“We sent information to all the local instructors in the island. I was so lucky that most of them were colleagues of mine when we were dancing professionally,” Huertas said.

A total of 85 students showed up for the auditions in Puerto Rico, held at the end of 2018. Out of the initial 85 who auditioned, 15 were accepted. In the end, eight Puerto Rican students, one male and seven female, came to Philadelphia to participate in the intensive.

The intensive program operates in a pre-professional environment which challenges the young dancers’ abilities and artistic expression. Throughout the five weeks of classes, the dancers work with the instructors at the school and collaborate with their fellow students to improve their technique.

Huertas emphasized that the program doesn't just teach ballet; it helps students develop life skills as well.

“It is a very rigorous environment once you [are at this level]…There are so many areas for them to become disciplined,” she noted.

One of the students who came to the program from Puerto Rico, Isabel Nieves-Carrasquillo, said that dancing has had a significant impact on her life.

“Ballet was a way for me to escape… from the real world,” she told AL DÍA.

Another student, Alejandra Purcell, said, “[Dancing] has taught me to be a person who values the simple things. You appreciate everything in a totally different way.”

All of the students have been dancing most of their lives and are dedicated to improving their skills as dancers, with the hope of becoming professional ballerinas.

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Each of the four students who spoke to AL DÍA about their experiences said that they were ecstatic once they knew they were selected to the summer intensive program. Although the girls are striving for improvement, they recognize that no ballerina is perfect.

The young ballerinas feel that the program has changed who they are as dancers. 

“Over here I’ve learned to flow better,” Grecia Sanchez said.

“When I return to Puerto Rico, I’m going to be a completely new ballerina, with a lot of knowledge and good experiences,” said student Añalix Oliz.

As for Huertas, she already has the dates selected for next year’s auditions, which will be held at Centro de Bellas Artes in San Juan. Huertas recognizes the importance of providing these opportunities for the students.

“It is a great opportunity and life changing for them. What they're seeing here is what they will see in the real world. Even when they come back, their perspective on what they can do with this dance education is going to be completely different,” she said.

Huertas said that the effort to ensure that Puerto Rican students have access to programs like the PA Ballet summer intensive is part of a greater goal to create an environment in the classical ballet world that does not just practice diversity, but also inclusion.

“Historically classical ballet has not been very diverse,” Huertas said, noting that as educators in the ballet world they want students from diverse backgrounds to “feel part of the system of the classical ballet world.”

Huertas believes that having students from all over the world to enrich the culture and foundation of classical ballet is necessary.

“It’s not just the diversity, it’s inclusion and acceptance and becoming the norm. It should be the norm. It should not be one or two, it should be whoever has the talent and wants to participate,” she said.

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