HAVANA Catherine Conley, the first American full-time student at Cuba's prestigious National Ballet School, hopes to gain an edge back home by learning the powerful Cuban style with its dazzling turns and jumps.
"(Cuba has) an acrobatic style of dance, and I think I could use some of that," said Conley, 18, wearing a black leotard, her wispy blond hair pulled back in a bun, in an interview at the school housed in a colonial-era palace in Old Havana.
Communist-led Cuba is renowned for its rigorous, state-subsidized ballet education and has produced an outsized share of dance stars, such as Carlos Acosta and José Manuel Carreño, for a small island of 11 million inhabitants.
Cuba's National Ballet School (ENB), which claims to be the world's largest with 3,000 students, has long trained many foreign dancers. But no American had joined its full-time program during the half-century long conflict between Cuba and United States.
That looks set to change in the wake of the detente announced nearly two years ago by U.S. and Cuban Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro.
"I think Catherine is the first of many American students to study in Cuba," said Victor Alexander, the director of the Ruth Page Center for The Arts in Chicago, where Conley had studied ballet since she was a child.
For the past two years, Alexander, a Cuban emigre, has been organizing week-long exchanges of students and teachers between his school and ENB. The detente made getting all the approvals and sponsorship easier, he said.
Cuban ballet has fused the best from the Russians, French, Italians, English and Americans with Latino flair and Afro-Cuban sensuality. But the style has also been criticized as dated, based on the approach of the school's 94-year-old founder Alicia Alonso, a principal dancer in the 1940s with the company now known as American Ballet Theater.
Alexander said he wanted his students to see what made Cuban dancers unique.
"We live the passion everyday. We are not afraid to express on stage, we just let it go," he said. Cuban ballet could also benefit from some fresh input, he added.
ENB director and founder Ramona de Saa, 77, said she recalled a time when Cuba had many American dancers. One of them married her twin sister, who defected in the 1960s shortly after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and founded the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet.
Living parallel lives on different sides of the Florida Straits, the twins did not see one another for nearly four decades.
"To have this experience (with the Ruth Page School) is to relive things," she said. "It is very emotional."
For Conley, it felt "surreal" to be a pioneer in the one-year program, she said before a rehearsal for the school's next show, in one of its high-ceilinged classrooms with a wall of mirrors. "I hope it will give me an edge."
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Chang)