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Once upon a time, there was a Cuban ballerina who was blind. Her name was Alicia.
As a little girl, Alicia was a naturally talented dancer. She spent her days filled with hours and hours of practice. She became one of the best dancers in the world. Then when she was 19, a medical condition caused her to lose her ability to see but that did not stop Alicia. She continued to dance and choreograph. She even started her own dance company which became the National Dance Company of Cuba.
Yuan Yuan Tan is a Principal dancer with the famous San Francisco Ballet, celebrating her record-breaking 25th anniversary in this 2020 season. Born in Shanghai, Yuan Yuan began dancing when she was 11 years old and went on to become the youngest principal dancer in the history of the San Francisco Ballet. She also continues to perform several times a year in China where she also frequently participates in teaching workshops, competitions, and other community programs to nurture new generations of dancers.
YUAN YUAN TAN Once upon a time, a Cuban ballerina was determined to dance through the darkness. Her name was Alicia.
TAN One fateful night, Alicia took to the stage at the famed Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. A prima ballerina had been injured. Alicia was a last-minute replacement. She had never danced a lead role before. Or for a crowd this big. This was her moment.
The spotlight shone down on Alicia as she started to dance. Her mouth was trembling with fear, but her legs were ecstatic with joy. The difficult and demanding role required precise footwork and long holds on pointe, where Alicia had to balance on the very tip of her toes. Gisele had been performed by many famous ballerinas, but Alicia made it her own.
She gracefully stretched her arabesque into a split. Her light blue tulle skirt made a perfect half circle as she leaned to fold her body over evenly. She hopped on pointe and remained balanced for so long, it was as if she defied gravity. The audience was mesmerized by the fearless ballerina who displayed so much beauty and emotion as she danced.
But Alicia was hiding a secret as she brought down the house with her brave performance. The cheering audience had no idea that Alicia danced while nearly blind.
I’m Yuan Yuan Tan. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Alicia Alonso
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TAN As a little girl growing up in Havana, Cuba, Alicia danced anytime she heard music. Her mother used to keep Alicia entertained for hours by putting on music and giving her a scarf to wave about. Alicia would spin around and do what she imagined was dancing. She would even dance with towels on her head, pretending she had long streaming hair.
At nine years old, Alicia declared, “I want to be a dancer!” Alicia’s father disapproved of ballet. He thought dancing and showing one’s legs was inappropriate. But Alicia’s mother encouraged
her. She enrolled Alicia into Cuba’s first ballet school. It only took one ballet lesson for Alicia to fall in love.
Unfortunately, Cuba was a poor island country that suffered short supplies of many items, including pointe shoes. But one day, a patron donated a pair to the ballet school. Each student tried on the shoes to see whose feet would fit. Alicia wanted so much for the shoes to be hers. When it was her turn, she slid her feet into them. Alicia’s feet were the only ones that fit the shoes!
TAN Alicia thrived in her classes. She’d practice her holds and footwork while a piano played in the corner. Day after day, she rehearsed until she became one of the most promising students. Alicia dreamed of nothing but ballet. It was her life.
When she got older, Alicia met Fernando Alonso after a dance performance. Fernando was a fellow dancer and political rebel. The two would stroll Havana’s streets arm in arm. They drank chocolate sodas or snacked on fried bananas, and talked about ballet.
Even though they were happily in love, there was trouble brewing in Cuba. A brutal dictator was making the country unsafe. Alicia and Fernando knew that in order to improve as dancers and have a future, they’d have to leave their home.
Fernando left first for New York City. Then, at seventeen years old, Alicia got on a boat to meet him.
TAN Life in New York City was everything Alicia had hoped it would be. She and her now husband Fernando had a baby girl, Laura. Alicia and Fernando joined what would eventually become the American Ballet Theatre. But just as nineteen-year-old Alicia’s star was rising as a dancer, her life plunged into darkness.
Suddenly, Alicia found herself bumping into things. The vision in one of her eyes became blurry. A ballerina needed to hit her marks on stage but Alicia was having trouble doing the simplest movements. Her eyesight declined.
Alicia saw an eye doctor who discovered she had a detached retina. This caused her blurry vision. She had to get surgery in order to fix it.
TAN After the surgery, Alicia was ordered to lie in bed without moving for three months. It was torture for the ballerina. She couldn’t resist practicing. She’d point and stretch her feet to keep them alive. She was a dancer; she had to dance—even in bed.
Finally, the day came when she could take the bandages off. But a day that was supposed to be happy, turned out to be heartbreaking: the operation wasn’t successful. And when Alicia had a second surgery, that one failed too. Alicia was told that she would never see beyond what was directly in front of her.
Alicia felt hopeless. She went back to Cuba to have a third surgery, even though she knew her vision would never be fully restored. This time she had to lay in bed without moving for an entire year. Alicia couldn’t dance. She couldn’t play with her baby daughter. She couldn’t laugh, cry, or move her head. She couldn’t even chew food too hard. She was forced to remain perfectly still.
TAN Alicia’s desire to dance burned so strong, she used her imagination. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself performing different routines. Even though her eyes were closed and her body remained still, she would envision herself holding pointe. She twirled and leapt in the air without moving a
single muscle in her body. Her mind wouldn’t let her body forget what she was capable of doing.
“This is a career where you must exercise every day, almost to the extreme,” Alicia said of this time. “It was torture to me being still, feeling my muscles lose their power. I danced with my fingers, and after a while, I could do any step with my hands.”
Fernando would sit by her bed every day. Since Alicia’s eyes were bandaged, Fernando used his fingers to teach her the greatest roles of classical ballet. As Fernando’s fingertips traced patterns on Alicia’s palms, she envisioned the steps in her mind.
Using only her fingers, Alicia practiced her dream role.
“I danced in my mind,” she said. “Blinded, motionless, flat on my back, I taught myself to dance Giselle.”
TAN After an agonizing year, Alicia was allowed to be active, but that didn’t necessarily mean that she could dance again. Alicia’s eye surgeon had warned her that if she continued dancing, her eyes would worsen, and she’d eventually be completely blind.
At first, Alicia was satisfied to just be up and about. She walked with her dogs. She played with her daughter Laura. But eventually, the pull to return to the ballet studio was too much.
Against doctor’s orders, Alicia began to dance ballet again. She went to the ballet studio down the street every day and woke up her muscles by doing a few easy moves. As Alicia got stronger, she began practicing more difficult moves. Hope swelled in Alicia’s belly as her strength began to return.
One day, a hurricane swept into Cuba. The wind and rain relentlessly descended upon Alicia’s home. Alicia’s house shook from the storm. A gust of wind shattered a door, spraying glass across her face.
Luckily, Alicia’s eyes were not injured. After her doctor examined her, he told Alicia she could begin dancing again. If she could survive a hurricane, she could dance.
Alicia was on her way to New York City with a determination to get back onto the stage. She had something to prove.
Alicia said, “They told me I’d never dance again. Well I did dance again.”
TAN With her blurry eyesight, Alicia arrived back in New York impatient to get back to dancing. She wouldn’t have to wait long.
A week before the opening of The Ballet Theatre’s performance of Giselle, the prima ballerina got sick. The theatre was sold out. The company didn’t want to close the show. So the organizer asked each of the dancers if she’d be willing to dance the lead role of Giselle.
Every single dancer said no. Finally, Alicia was asked.
While it was a chance of a lifetime, the role of Giselle was difficult and demanding, and there was less than a week to learn the role.
TAN Still, Alicia had been dreaming of this moment. She had rehearsed the role in her mind when she was confined to her bed. She knew the role better than anybody. There was only one answer for Alicia.
“I’ll do it!”
Alicia practiced day and night until her feet bled! Seven days later, she stepped out onto the stage to perform Giselle. She was immediately declared a star.
Alicia would end up playing the role of Giselle around the globe. She even received a rare invitation to perform the role in a country called the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union did not get along very well with some other countries, including the United States. No western dancer had been invited to perform there before. Alicia was the first. And her performance of Giselle was so impressive she performed it across Russia to standing ovations. People threw flowers at her feet.
TAN Every performance was a victory, despite Alicia’s partial sight in one eye and inability to fully see the stage or the other dancers.
In order to dance with her limitations, Alicia trained her partners to be exactly where she needed them to be. They’d whisper instructions to her as she moved.
Alicia described her eyesight as a camera being out of focus. She could see the outline of a person, but not make out the face.
So she asked the ballet’s set designers for help. They installed bright spotlights in different colors to guide her movements on the stage. Still, she had to be fearless whenever she took to the stage.
Every stage light told her where she was by its brightness. She knew if she stepped into the glow of the spotlights near the front of the stage, she was getting too close to the orchestra pit. If she wasn’t careful, she would fall. To protect her, there was a thin wire stretched across the edge of the stage to help guide her.
TAN The audience never knew that the ballerina they were cheering on was partially blind. Even with limited vision, Alicia quickly became one of the most celebrated ballerinas in the world.
And yet, as she traveled around the globe, Alicia yearned to return to the place that mattered most: home.
TAN At the height of her career, when she was 28 years old, Alicia brought ballet home to Cuba.
“We Cubans were born to dance as people,” Alicia said. “…I thought it was very important to bring culture to the people. The arts are essential to human beings and dance is an art that expresses everything. Cuba deserved a company, it deserved a school.”
Alicia started the Alicia Alonso Academy of Ballet in Cuba. She wanted to bring ballet to the people. Her company would perform in the countryside. The poorest of people had never even seen a movie. Now, they watched ballet performances done on the back of a flatbed truck.
After their debut in Cuba’s capital city, Havana, the company went on a very successful tour in South America. However, they were running out of money and got stuck in Santiago, Chile. Alicia had already used her savings to help fund the project. So she found herself calling home to Cuba to ask the government for money. They agreed…but then the same thing happened again in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
TAN The company wasn’t only in financial trouble. They had issues with the Cuban government, too. The Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was in control. He thought artists like Alicia were against him. Batista cut the little funding the company had.
Then one day, Batista came to ask for Alicia’s help. He was facing threats of a revolution. He wanted the company to dance on demand in order to distract from protests. If they didn’t join him, he told Alicia that she’d lose everything.
Alicia told him no.
She declared that she wouldn’t dance again in Cuba while Batista remained in power. A supporter of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Alicia issued a public letter in 1956 rejecting any government assistance for her dance school. Instead, she closed the school. Alicia went back to touring the world, leaving her homeland behind, once again.
TAN But Alicia had earned the respect of the future leader of the Cuban revolution. Three years later, Castro took power. As soon as he was in control, he reached out to Alicia.
“How much do you need to start again?” Castro asked her.
Alicia named a figure she thought was impossible.
Castro didn’t hesitate. “We’ll double it, but make it outstanding.”
Alicia started the National Ballet of Cuba in an effort to be part of the revolution.
Alicia wanted to recruit dancers and to get the people excited about the National Ballet of Cuba. She had her new group give small performances at unusual places like farms, factories, and military bases. She went to orphanages and gave free tuition to those with potential.
Alicia turned the National Ballet of Cuba into one of the most successful ballet schools in the world. But Alicia’s support of the revolution came at a cost.
TAN For nearly twenty years, Castro prevented Cubans from traveling to the United States. He was worried many would leave and refuse to return.
Even though Alicia was one of the best ballerinas of all time, she was not allowed to step foot on American soil. She had been all but forgotten about in American ballet circles, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have critics.
While Alicia was celebrated in Cuba, many outsiders attacked and turned their backs on her for supporting Castro’s leadership. Dance Magazine had given her their annual award, but one year later there was a ban on even mentioning Alicia’s name. Any materials the National Ballet of Cuba mailed to publications in the United States would be returned. Her close friends in Europe turned their back on Alicia and refused to invite her to dance.
“Nobody, nobody would ask me,” Alicia said.
Finally, in 1975, Castro allowed Alicia to return to the United States to perform. It was as if no time had passed. Some critics said she’d even improved with age. No matter the politics, the audience cheered on one of the greats.
TAN Alicia felt vindicated. She was allowed to tour in the country that had been her second home. She would return to the United States throughout her career. In 1995, at the age of 75, Alicia danced with the San Francisco ballet. Reviewers remarked on how so many of Alicia’s best years as a ballerina were spent isolated.
TAN Despite having trouble walking, Alicia danced into her seventies. Even after she turned 90, Alicia would travel the world to attend ballet openings. She was often described as regal, wearing her signature dark sunglasses, her head held high and wrapped in a colorful scarf like the one she danced with as a girl.
“Throughout history, I have been the ballerina who has danced the longest on stage,” Alicia said.
Alicia continued to lead the National Ballet of Cuba up until her death in 2019. She was ninety-eight years old. Alicia was so beloved in Cuba that over twenty-thousand mourners came to her funeral. They wanted to pay respect to one of the country’s greatest treasures.
While Alicia was born in Cuba, the stage was where she lived.
One of Alicia’s last appearances was during a National Ballet of Cuba performance in San Diego, California. Alicia, then 83, looked out at an adoring audience.
“I’m so happy to be here,” she told them. “And I’m happy whenever I’m on the stage. The stage is where a dancer should be, even if it’s only to walk or sit. I am at home on the stage.”
The podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producers are Elena Favilli and Joy Fowlkes. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. This episode was written by Elizabeth Eulberg and edited by Joy Fowlkes. Proofread by Maithy Vu. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli is the sound mixer.