This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
The last time Pointe caught up with Conley, she'd finished her year of training at the Cuban school, and had decided to audition for the company. She had just found out about her acceptance into a six-month professional training program (the equivalent of an apprenticeship) with the National Ballet. Conley dove into her apprenticeship at the end of last summer. While apprentices typically don't get cast in roles, they're expected to attend every corps de ballet rehearsal, know the choreography and be ready to fill in at any time.