Longform

Cuban Ballet in Exile

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The boy inherited his passion for ballet from his mom. Magaly began studying at nine years old when she was chosen for Havana's renowned Alejo Carpentier Provincial School of Ballet. Later, after earning a coveted spot at the National Ballet School of Cuba, she danced roles in classics including Swan Lake and Paquita. She struggled with diet, as many dancers do, and ended up an emaciated 70 pounds. At age 17, she decided her petite, curvy frame was unsuited for the spotlight.

She opted to be a teacher. "I like to be the best in what I do," she says. "And if not I'm not going to be best, I prefer not to do it."

She graduated in 1980 and the same year became one of the youngest faculty members at the National Ballet School of Cuba. Her arduous schedule lasted from 7:30 in the morning to 9 at night, Monday through Saturday. She taught character dances, pointe classes, and pas de deux to the likes of Jose Manuel Carreño, now a principal at the American Ballet Theatre in New York; Luis Serrano, who would later join Miami City Ballet; and Lorna Feijóo (Lorena's sister), now a principal in the Boston Ballet.

At age 19, she married Taras's father, Taras Domitro Sr., who was a violinist. Her son was born five years later. Soon after giving birth, she began traveling abroad to give classes and attend competitions. Her first trip, to Venezuela in 1989, rocked her perspective. In Caracas, she "could breathe, eat, and have some freedom," she says. "I understood how life could be." She had tired of seeing her former dance students given cars while she was stuck riding a Chinese bicycle.

What's more, the government collected a 10 to 15 percent cut of the salary earned abroad. "They treated us like they owned us," she says. "I don't like anything to dominate me. The only thing I let dominate me is ballet, and that's enough."

Magaly worried about leaving her son, who then was only about three years old and asthmatic, even though he was with his father and their extended family. So she returned to Cuba. "Taritas was a baby," she says. "A child always needs his mother, but when they're that little, they need you a little more."

At age nine, Taras began formally studying dance at the Alejo Carpentier school, Magaly's alma mater. By that time, many Cuban parents had begun pushing their children to audition for ballet schools, which dotted the country. Dance can provide rare luxuries such as travel.

From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Taras studied typical school subjects, and from 2 to 6 p.m., he danced. But Magaly wouldn't instruct him. "I never wanted to touch Taritas," she says. "I don't like to him see him suffering."

The boy had big dreams. "I was impressed by the ballet, its scenery, and technical steps," he recalls. "It was always very clear. I dedicated myself to only ballet."

Magaly continued traveling — to Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Brazil, and Colombia — for weeks or months at a time. Taras Jr., meanwhile, won acceptance to the National Ballet School of Cuba.

In 1998, Magaly visited Colombia, where she taught for almost a year. That December she decided to defect. Taras, then 12 years old, was with her. She invited him along. He refused, opting to continue with ballet on the island.

Taras doesn't recall being sad or angry. He was accustomed to his mother's absences. "The life of an artist is very independent," he says.

So Magaly, who had separated from Taras Sr. the previous year, kissed her son goodbye and hopped a flight to South Florida. Taras headed home. "It was very, very hard, but I knew it was best for me," she recalls. "I think he made the right decision. Because, since he studied ballet in Cuba, he has more options. Sometimes we have to sacrifice something to go for something else."

It would be five years until they saw each other again. The National Ballet School wouldn't let Taras travel. And Magaly, who moved to Fort Lauderdale, where she taught at a Cuban-run ballet school, couldn't garner a visa to see him.

She sent $200 every week or two, as well as trendy clothes, iPods, and tights and leotards for her son and his classmates. They talked two or three times a week. "When you are a good mother, nothing can change that," she explains. "It doesn't matter how far away you are."

In 2003, Magaly opened her own studio in Pompano Beach with help from her then-boyfriend, Pedro, an engineer. The pair met in Cuba and reunited in South Florida. They married in 2005.

Around that time, Taras was finally allowed to leave Cuba for a contest in Peru. Though Magaly traveled there, Taras asked her not to attend the first night's performance. "He knows how strict I am," she says.

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Janine Zeitlin