Margarita de Saa's Home Away From Home

December 26, 2007

With flawless balance on a high demi-pointe, one of Margarita de Saá’s advanced students performs brilliant multiple pirouettes, finishing in a precise fourth position. He then tries the left but falls out of the turn after a double. De Saá encourages him to adjust his passé, to firmly touch the point of his right foot to the left knee without crossing over. Her corrections are both sharp and heartening, demanding and patient. She prompts him to keep trying, until he finally finds the place where he can hold his balance and pull off multiple turns.

De Saá, founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, is one of several teachers who have brought the famed Cuban ballet training to the United States. The documentary Mirror Dance, recently featured on PBS, narrates her reencounter with her identical twin sister Ramona after 40 years of separation. Both sisters studied with Alicia and Fernando Alonso and danced for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. However, Fidel Castro’s revolution set the twins on divergent paths. Ramona married one of Castro’s associates and went on to work for the government as head supervisor of the island’s network of ballet schools. Margarita married John White, an American dancer who was, like herself, a member of the Cuban ballet troupe. The couple moved to the U.S. “We did not want our son to grow up within the Cuban political atmosphere,” she explains. “We wanted him to have choices instead of being constrained by a communist government.”

De Saá initially thought that moving to the States would mean leaving behind her career in dance. “But everything kept pulling me back to ballet,” she says. She was asked to dance with the Western Ballet in Los Angeles. Later she and White both taught for Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia. In 1974 they decided to open their own studio.

Located in Narberth, a suburb of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet offers thorough training to ballet students with professional aspirations. Among its graduates are Molly Smolen, principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, and Craig Biesecker of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Smolen praises the training she received from de Saá and White: “It was very complete and full of details. I gained a deep understanding of the steps, which now helps me to perform the most complex contemporary ballets.”

De Saá proudly shares a letter from John Neumeier congratulating her for the well-rounded education that she gave to two of his Hamburg Ballet dancers. The letter commends their solid technique but also their training “in the more practical aspects of company living, professional working, and ensemble behavior.” She stresses that discipline and work ethic are just as important as technique. “My students learn that they have to work very hard to become professionals.”

The school has become a home away from home for de Saá. “Opening it was a relief. Leaving so many things behind in Cuba was difficult. I was very homesick.” Her own warmth gives the academy an inviting atmosphere. In class, her generosity translates into an unceasing stream of corrections from the first plié to the last jump of the grand allegro.

“She is a giving person who loves teaching,” says Smolen. “When she coached me for the Varna International Ballet Competition in 1992, she gave me every free minute that she had between her classes.”

De Saá says that she owes herself to the students. “A teacher should be generous with his observations. I learned this from my own teacher, Fernando Alonso.” What she gives, she gets back. De Saá is much loved and admired. The premiere of Mirror Dance in Philadel-phia in 2005 filled one of the largest auditoriums of the city with her friends, her students, and their parents.

De Saá and White’s teaching styles complement each other. “John is very methodical and pays the highest attention to all details. He expects the students to execute his combinations exactly how he demonstrates them,” she says. “I give them a margin of freedom to offer their own interpretation. His strictness and my openness work well together.”

All teachers in the school follow the Vaganova method as a way to offer a coherent curriculum. De Saá credits her husband, a specialist in the method, for the solidity of the program. “From level one to level six to our preprofessional classes, students receive consistent information,” she says. “There are ballet schools where you find instructors who, for example, teach port de bras in different ways. This is confusing for the students. It undermines their learning.”

Although she follows the Vaganova curriculum, de Saá’s teaching retains the strengths of the Cuban training. “The students in my preprofessional class all balance and turn on a beautiful, strong demi-pointe. I stress this along with proper alignment and correct use of the abdominals. Also, I direct the students’ attention to the rhythm of turning.” She believes that the first step to musicality is to work with a good pianist; the second is to not let the students move mechanically. “They have to dance, even at the barre.”

One scene in Mirror Dance shows de Saá observing Ramona teaching class at the National Ballet School in Havana, where she is director. Margarita notices that they continue to teach similarly in spite of the four decades spent apart. The major difference is that because of the selectivity of Cuban schools, Ramona works with students who have ideal physiques for ballet. She also teaches for a state-supported school in a vast colonial building, while Margarita works in a former warehouse that her husband transformed into studios with his own hands. As is the case of most American dance academies, financial stability is never certain. De Saá organizes bake sales to raise money for her production of The Nutcracker.

The differences between the two systems affect the students too. In Cuba the auditions for acceptance are very competitive. “But once a student enters the school, the system accommodates her educational needs and she can focus on learning ballet,” says de Saá. “In America, ballet students don’t have that benefit. They study ballet on the side, juggling the demands of general education and extracurricular activities. American students need the greatest determination to stick to their ballet classes.” Of course they do have other advantages, including a broader range of professional possibilities—there are only two major ballet companies in Cuba.

After the reunion in Havana, the sisters have continued seeing each other. They have met twice, in Canada and Mexico, where Ramona was invited to teach classes. And a new mirror dance has sprung up at the Narberth studios, where de Saá has two sets of twins among her disciples.