Ballet West creates welcoming space for all backgrounds, dancers say -
Ballet West dancers say the company creates a welcoming space for dancers of all backgrounds. Members of the Hispanic community speak about the company's atmosphere during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Hispanic and Latino dancers say they feel at home with the ballet company Ballet West because of the accepting atmosphere created by the administration and staff members.

When Victor Galeana first started dancing at Ballet West Academy 10 years ago, he was only one of two Hispanic dancers at the academy. He said not all Hispanic dancers felt encouraged to stay at first, but now it is more normalized for Latino dancers to feel comfortable at Ballet West.

Galeana said the environment at Ballet West looks at everyone as dancers first, giving space for people to feel like this is a safe place where they can just be who they are without any worries.

"You don't have to flaunt one thing that you are. I have never felt like the only reason I am here is because I am Latino," Galeana said. "I am here and I just happen to be Latino."

Galeana is grateful for the community of Latino dancers that has grown at Ballet West and he loves that they all get to speak Spanish with each other.

Ballet West has an education outreach program called I CAN DO, which stands for Inspiring Children About Not Dropping Out. This program selects fifth graders from across the Wasatch Front to participate in dance classes for seven months.

Galeana's first experience with Ballet West was through the I CAN DO program. After doing both soccer and ballet for a while, Galeana chose to focus on ballet because he wanted something that was more disciplined and would make him stronger. He quickly rose through the academy and became the first academy student to be accepted into the Prix de Lausanne, a prestigious ballet competition in Switzerland.

At 19 years old, Galeana is now a member of Ballet West II. He is hoping to start his professional career here in Utah as he is happy with where he is.

"This has been my home and it continues to be," Galeana said about Ballet West.

The changing dance world

Ballet West Academy Director Evelyn Cisneros-Legate said being different from everyone else was challenging for her.

When she first started dancing in the late 1970s, Cisneros-Legate was the only person of color for several years. She had a ballet master who would call her out negatively during class and encourage her to powder her skin during performances to make her appear lighter.

During one performance, Cisneros-Legate was tired and frustrated after being sent to the dressing room to powder her skin for the third time that night. She stopped and looked in the mirror and realized that she didn't want to look like everyone else.

Ballet West Academy director Evelyn Cisneros-Legate works with student Kaiya Mortensen during a ballet class.
Ballet West Academy director Evelyn Cisneros-Legate works with student Kaiya Mortensen during a ballet class. (Photo: Beau Pearson, Ballet West)

She decided that day she was going to work so hard and become so good that she wouldn't have to dance in the corps de ballet and look like everyone else. Instead she would become good enough that she could be a soloist and have her moment in the spotlight looking like herself.

Cisneros-Legate did just that.

She became one of America's leading ballerinas and was the prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet. She is considered the first Mexican American principal ballerina, has danced at multiple famous ballet schools and is a renowned dance educator.

Cisneros-Legate said her Mexican background helped her draw closer to the music and influenced the way she interpreted characters when she danced. This helped Cisneros-Legate feel empowered by her differences rather than feeling out of place.

Similarly, Galeana said his Hispanic background goes hand in hand with everything in his day-to-day life. When he was young he would do a lot of couples dancing such as salsa and bachata, and he thinks this gave him an advantage with his rhythm and musicality.

Although Cisneros-Legate started out alone, slowly, more Hispanic, African American and Asian dancers were hired as the dance world shifted to what it is today.

"The dance world has changed exponentially," she said.

The Hispanic countries have a very strong representation in the ballet world now, Cisneros-Legate said, and having influence from more places makes everyone "richer."

Ballet West principal artist Jenna Rae Herrera said she believes the ballet world in general is becoming more inclusive and accepting of everyone.

A huge proponent of supporting those who aren't the "typical" body type, Herrera said she loves how the dance world is supporting everyone.

"Everyone has a ballet body. You don't have to look a certain way," she said. "I really think that is where things are starting to change and I'm excited to look at the future."

Herrera started out as an uncoordinated toddler, so her parents put her in dance classes at 2 years old. From the age of 7, Herrera knew there was no other option for her and she was going to be a professional dancer. Thanks to support from her family and years of hard work, she has made that dream a reality.

Principal artist Jenna Rae Herrera dances in Ballet West's performance of "Dracula." During this show, dancers wore tights and shoes that matched their skin color.
Principal artist Jenna Rae Herrera dances in Ballet West's performance of "Dracula." During this show, dancers wore tights and shoes that matched their skin color. (Photo: Beau Pearson, Ballet West)

"I love being able to express myself in a way that doesn't use words," Herrera said. "It's so exhilarating to perform and it's otherworldly really."

Ballet West's atmosphere

"Ballet West is so beautifully blended, it's not a predominantly white, European-background company. They are diverse dancers from around the world and it makes it so much better and so much more attainable for our youth to look at that example and be inspired by it," Cisneros-Legate said.

Cisneros-Legate said when she started, she didn't have many role models she could look up to who were Hispanic. Ballet West is trying to become a leader of the community in providing those role models for all.

"We are celebrating different cultures and what they bring to the table," Cisneros-Legate said.

Herrera said she feels so lucky that at Ballet West each individual dancer is celebrated for who they are. "Each dancer and body type is valued and seen," she said.

Ballet West made a change a few years ago where each dancer can wear tights and shoes that match their skin tone. With more than 40 dancers with the company, it is a lot of work, Herrera said, but the staff has made it a priority.

"Until I saw a video and pictures of myself in them, I didn't realize how essential it was to have that. It completes the line and everybody looks so beautiful onstage," Herrera said about wearing shoes and tights that match her skin color.

She believes changes like these will continue at Ballet West and in the dance world to help all dancers feel welcome.

Ballet West Principal Artist Hadriel Diniz said he tries to "bring the joy from Brazil" into his dancing and into the company. Diniz grew up in Brazil and started dancing when he was 12 through a ballet class at school.

Ballet West principal artist Hadriel Diniz performs in "Dracula."
Ballet West principal artist Hadriel Diniz performs in "Dracula." (Photo: Beau Pearson, Ballet West)

Taking that first class, Diniz immediately fell in love with ballet and felt like he was made for it. He loves to jump and smile through classes and rehearsals.

Coming to America was not initially in Diniz's plans. His dance teacher in Brazil had him compete in the Youth America Grand Prix in New York, and his third time competing he won a scholarship for the San Francisco Ballet.

Diniz moved to San Francisco and danced there for three years with plans to return to Brazil and audition for companies. But through a friend, a performance and being in the right place at the right time, Diniz ended up in a private audition with Adam Sklute, the artistic director of Ballet West.

That private audition was in 2015 and Diniz has been with the Ballet West company ever since.

"When I first joined the company, I didn't feel out of place at all. I felt like I was at home, and it felt like I fit in perfectly," Diniz said.

Diniz said that Sklute is great at including and thinking of everyone. He feels that Sklute brings a family aspect into the company and "everybody loves each other here."

Being able to go on stage and be among friends is Diniz's favorite part of Ballet West.

Dreaming big

Cisneros-Legate said she hopes she leaves a legacy that empowers youth to dream big and to "not to be afraid to reach for the highest dream that you can hope for."

Her life unfolded in a way she never could have dreamed of, and she said she is so grateful for all of those who trusted her roles and found her worthy to create with and create upon. She encourages everyone to work hard throughout their whole lives.

Ballet West II member Victor Galeana says each person gets to decide for themselves whether they will reach for their dreams or not.
Ballet West II member Victor Galeana says each person gets to decide for themselves whether they will reach for their dreams or not. (Photo: Beau Pearson, Ballet West)

At Ballet West Academy, Cisneros-Legate and other staff members are teaching their students to be the strongest human beings they can be as well as the best dancers. She said Ballet West tries to instill values, character and critical thinking into their students so they can go forward in life as successful people, no matter their chosen path.

"It's important everyone reach a place they can feel safe and find joy in their own physical bodies," she said. "Everyone can do that and whatever level you can do it, you should."

Herrera's heritage is embraced in every aspect of her dancing. She carries the love and support of her family with her every time she steps on stage.

"I hope with that to inspire others of all people and races, if you have a dream, you can do it. Don't let anything stop you," she said.

Herrera said for those who believe God has called them to do something, there is nothing that will stop them. "You will find a place that you will be celebrated and loved and valued. Just keep pushing, keep moving forward," she said.

For those who are worried they don't fit the mold of their desired dream, Galeana said don't let that stop you before you have tried. Just because historically a certain path was dominated by one type of people, doesn't mean people shouldn't be encouraged to pursue new things.

"There will be naysayers and I've had naysayers, but no one else but yourself can tell you what you can and cannot do," Galeana said.

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