Transplanting The Art Of Cuban Ballet

Ariel Serrano and Ernesto Quenedit were at the height of their ballet careers in Cuba when they left, escaping through Mexico at different times, for a better life in the United States.

Serrano eventually joined the Sarasota Ballet with his Cuban ballerina wife Wilmian Hernandez. Quenedit (pronounced KENNEDY) danced for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet with his wife, Mexican ballerina Catalina Garza.

Now retired from the stage, Serrano and Quenedit run successful dance schools in Sarasota and San Antonio, respectively, passing on the distinct Cuban ballet style to a new generation.

Last year, Serrano and Hernandez opened their Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Florida. Already they’ve received the 2013 Best School Award by the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) in Atlanta. They’ve had several students compete in the YAGP Finals, including their 16-year-old son, Francisco. He started serious ballet training three years ago and recently won a one-year scholarship to study at London’s Royal Ballet School. Their daughter, Camilla, 13, also dances.

“When I see my son dance, it’s like a dream,” said Ariel Serrano, who is from Santiago de Cuba. “I see myself dancing.”

Serrano, Hernandez and Quenedit are products of the highly competitive Cuban ballet schooling system that produces some of the world’s leading dancers. All three trained under Ramona de Saa, the longtime director of the island’s ballet schools. By 18, Serrano was dancing principal roles, first with Cuba’s Ballet de Camaguey (where he met and married Hernandez) and then for Havana’s Pro Danza.

In the early 1990s, when Cuba lost Soviet support, shortages of basic goods and power outages made a hard life more difficult. Many ballet dancers defected to the U.S. and elsewhere, a trend that continues today.

In December 1992, while on tour in Mexico, Serrano slipped away from the troupe at Mexico City’s airport in a last minute plan with another male dancer. They went to Ballet de Monterrey where they had contacts to dance. Hernandez eventually joined her husband. After staying there a year, the couple received U.S. travel visas and were among a group of five Cuban defectors who arrived in Miami in December 1993. They went on to join the Sarasota Ballet.

Around this time, Quenedit was performing as a guest dancer with the National Ballet of Venezuela in Caracas. He was a soloist with the Cuban National Ballet, founded by Cuba’s prima ballerina Alicia Alonso and her husband, Fernando. Quenedit was allowed to work temporarily in Venezuela.

While there, he was asked to join the Ballet de Monterrey in Mexico. But when Ms. Alonso refused, Quenedit went anyway, knowing he wouldn’t be allowed to return home.

It was a difficult decision since his family was in Havana, where he was born and raised. Quenedit’s older brother, Alejandro, was also a Cuban National Ballet dancer. Ernesto’s nephews are San Francisco Ballet soloist Carlos Quenedit and 16-year-old Rafael Quenedit, a Cuban National Ballet School student. His niece, Samantha Quenedit is a young pop singer in Ecuador.

While at the Ballet de Monterrey, Quenedit met Garza. After a year, they left for the National Ballet in Mexico City. An audition with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago brought Quenedit to the U.S. in 1996, with Garza joining him later.

During their Joffrey careers, they danced in many productions including the holiday favorite The Nutcracker. After the Joffrey, the couple went to BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio then to Lyric Opera of Chicago.

They segued into full-time teaching and coaching after retiring from the stage, Garza in 2007 and Quenedit in 2008 following a back injury.

In 2010, the couple moved with their son, Ernesto Jr., now 10, to open the Quenedit Ballet School in San Antonio, Texas, where everything competes with sports.

Like the Serranos, the Quenedits teach Cuban ballet, a mix of Western and Russian styles, which isn’t widely taught in the U.S. Cuban dancers are known for their strong technique and fast footwork. They started in a modest studio with one student. Today with more than 200 students they’re moving into a larger facility.

Quenedit has had students place in the top 12 at the YAGP Finals, and he won the 2011 Outstanding Choreographer Award by the YAGP in Houston.

“We explain to parents that in Cuba, ballet is as popular as sports are here,” Quenedit said. “We train the proper way, we’re working hard with their children and they like the results they see.”

Karen McDonough is a freelance writer and editor of