This Dancer Defected from Cuba and Relaunched Her Career in the U.S.
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.
Santander captivated as Myrtha with her steely grace. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.
Hometown: Matanzas, Cuba
Training: Alfonso Perez Isaac elementary and Cuban National Ballet School
Accolades: 2011 International Ballet Competition in Havana, Cuba (silver), 2011 Mediterraneo Dance Festival in Italy (Best Classical Variation award)
Family business: At a young age, Santander wanted to follow in the footsteps of her stepfather. "When I was little, watching him in his company, Danza Espiral, I wanted to be a contemporary dancer. But after I saw ballet I changed my mind."
Then and now: "Her body is beyond proportioned for ballet," says BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang. "She has beautifully arched feet, high extensions and is strong." But the long-limbed, 5' 8" Santander says her facility wasn't always that way. "I was really bad when I was 10 or 11," she says. "I wasn't flexible and couldn't point my feet."
Defection: During two years in the corps of Cuban National Ballet, Santander found its strictly classical repertoire, low wages and the fact that she wasn't dancing much with the company depressing. This led her, along with eight others, to defect to the U.S. in 2014 during a tour to Puerto Rico. "The company knows it is going to happen on every tour, but they don't like to talk about it," she says.
"She's humble, hungry for artistry and
really wants to dance—I love that."
New home: Santander lived in Miami with family for eight months while waiting for the necessary paperwork and green card to audition for ballet companies. She took class at area studios, freelanced and also met her husband, a non-dancer and fellow Cuban émigré.
Adjustment period: Honed as a textbook classical ballerina, Santander says that BalletMet's contemporary rep, such as Liang's Murmuration and Gustavo Ramírez Sansano's 18+1, challenged her the most when she joined. "I thought, It's so cool, but how am I going to move like that?"
More to come: Heading into next season, Liang feels that she has the skill and sensitivity required to expand her repertoire and perform more leading roles. "Her trajectory can be massive."
It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.
Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.
It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.