Human history bears witness to the fact that dance, as a way to express emotional states through body movement and musical rhythms, has been a form of expression common to all peoples. Its evolution, from ancient religious ceremonies to the festive spectacles of today, evidences a long creative process of cultural enrichment.
The Taínos, primitive inhabitants of the land that today makes up the Dominican Republic, had a complex commemorative expression that they called «areíto,» a mixture of dance, music, songs and theater performance, that they used during funeral and religious rites, weddings, to celebrate war successes, and to tell or remember events from their historic past.
As their language was devoid of writing, what is known today from the cultural significance and details of their imitative and theatrical dances is what appears in the stories of the colonial chroniclers who managed to communicate with them or those who observed them closely while they practiced their daily customs and traditions.
The areítos being a group celebration, all the members of a tribe used to share them, either by participating in a dance, music or singing, or by attending as spectators. They danced hand in hand, with motions that followed a rhythmic pattern of steps forward or backward. Songs were answered by a chorus and dances had a director, who told the story being commemorated and led the modulation of the voices or the movement of the dancers.
The Spanish conquest prevented the transmission of the areíto as a cultural tradition to the next generations. So, the people took the Spanish heritage of the conquerors and the African heritage of the slaves that were brought to the Hispaniola Island to replace the Taínos.
Shaping the national identity, music and dance have been «vital elements of the idiosyncrasies and personality of the Dominican people. African and European roots, blended with the indigenous flavor unique to Hispaniola, have resulted in a strong presence of rhythms and movements in all aspects of all things Dominican,» as indicated in the book «Lo dominicano / All Things Dominican,» by Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo (Funglode).
With the consolidation of the conquest, the prevalence of folk and other dances of Spanish origin, such as the malagueñas, fandango, zapateo, seguidillas, tonadillas and other European dances, the same way that the contradanza and the minuet, both of French origin, began. At the same time, African slaves introduced the calenda, also called calinda, and the chica, where partners dance loosely with swirling and sensual movements. Both were traditional in their cultures.
A particularly elegant dance which gathers «Lo dominicano/All things Dominican» is the Carabiné, in which six couples perform «forward and backward movements, half turns, circles and large circles.»
An indigenous contradanza emerged from the European contradanza, which later led to the La Tumba dance. And from the changes that were introduced to the fandango, other dances emerged, such as a zapateo with variants called sarambo, guarapo and callao.
The first school of classical dance in the country was established by teacher Hertha Brauer, a German citizen who had emigrated in the early 1940s, along with her husband, fleeing the Nazi regime. They arrived in the Dominican Republic from Italy, and lived for a year in the town of Jarabacoa.
From the information that is available, it has been determined that the operation of a small dance school must have started sometime in 1942. Other data, which appear in the work by researcher Jorge Mendoza, point to the previous existence of another instructor who had students, Dominican Olga Margarita Lugo.
Despite having had a good number of students, having had the opportunity to organize numerous presentations together with her students, and being the first dance instructor to bring merengue to ballet, Mrs. Brauer left the country in 1948, after accepting a job offer from the University of Puerto Rico.
The school she opened was left in the hands of Magda Corbett, a Hungarian teacher, who had arrived in the country a year earlier. She said that the school had dissolved, «and I had to re-start it.»
In 1953, teacher Corbett presented what is considered the first full ballet ever assembled in the country, called «An afternoon at a park in Vienna.» The presentation took place at the Instituto de Señoritas Salomé Ureña and it was accompanied by an orchestra under the baton of Italian maestro Mario Carta.
Before arriving in the Dominican Republic, she had already been a professional dancer and ballet teacher in Bombay, India. Her teaching career of 56 years was possibly the greatest push to classical dance in the country, given that successive generations of dancers and teachers attended her school. She taught in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, and then in the provinces of Santiago, La Romana and San Pedro de Macorís.
One of her students, Michelle Jiménez, after standing out significantly in the Dominican Republic, became a soloist with the Washington Ballet, position that she withheld for nine years, and then she held the same position at the Netherlands’ National Ballet.
The next push to the art of ballet is given by the presence of Clara Elena Ramírez, another Cuban teacher, who arrived in 1960, and who is credited with introducing the complete traditional classical ballets such as Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Les Sylphides. She started teaching in 1963 at one of the exclusive social clubs in Santo Domingo and then at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Together with teacher Corbett, she established the National Classical Ballet.
Another important contribution to classical dance was provided by Armando Villamil, Panamanian teacher, dancer and choreographer, who was hired as director of the dance department at the Cultural Center of Santiago. He created the Experimental School of Classical Ballet.
In 1974, distinguished dancer Irmgard Despradel, who was a student of both, teacher Corbett and teacher Ramírez, opened her own school, the Santo Domingo Ballet. In 1978, with the main figures of the academies of the two aforementioned teachers, the Ballet of Fine Arts opened, and later changed its name to Dominican Classical Ballet.
A new milestone is attained with the creation in January, 1981, of the National Classical Ballet, by decree of the Executive Power. Eduardo Villanueva was appointed as its director and teachers Corbett and Ramírez as its deputy directors.
In July, teacher Ramírez established the Dominican Concert Ballet, an unofficial company, with the leading dancers from her academy. The following year, the National Ballet traveled to Mexico, this being its first presentation abroad. And in 1983, with the support of teacher Villamil, the First National Meet of Ballet and Dance Schools is held in the city of Santiago.
In 1984, the National Classical Ballet hires Russian teacher Nelly Golovina, soloist for more than 20 years with the Bolshoi Ballet, who performed The Great Classics, a ballet that, because of its huge success, had ten encore appearances. In 1985, Panamanian soloist Guillermo Tribaldos was hired. Carmen Heredia de Guerrero, in her capacity as head of the country’s ballet, participated in the three specialized conferences sponsored by the Organization of American States and dancer Margot Fonteyn, and which were held in Panama, Buenos Aires and Caracas during the period 1984-1986.
In 1984, dancer and teacher Patricia Ascuasiati presented the first complete experimental ballet, with the folkloric theme La leyenda de Mandé.
During the nineties, the Dominican ballet was influenced by renowned representatives of Cuban dance, among them dancer Armando González, teacher Aida Villoch, and dancer and teacher Zenaida Terrero.
And in 1993, David Howard, who was at the time considered one of the most famous ballet teachers in the world, visited the country. Howard, who passed away in 2013, was an English dancer who taught ballet at important institutions such as the Royal Ballet, the American Ballet Theater, the San Francisco Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. He opened his own academy in New York, the David Howard Ballet School, which operated for 18 years.
At the initiative of Alina Abreu, in April, 2003, the Dominican Republic hosted the World Dance Assembly at the National Theater, with presentations by the Dominican National Ballet, the National Choreographic Center, the Roto Ballet, the National Folkloric Ballet, the Edmundo Poy and Kalalú Dance, and the Folk Dancing Theater, with a production by Mónika Despradel. In July of the following year, the Dominican Dance Gallery opened at the National Theater.
In 2006, the First International Festival of Dance Academies was held in the country, dedicated to the memory of Magda Corbett, with the participation of Cuba, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Spain and the United States. And in 2008, Awilda Polanco and Cecilia Camino won first place at the First Caribbean Dance Biennial – «Caribe en Creación» – held in Cuba, which was the first international recognition won by the contemporary Dominican dance.
In 2010, the Contemporary Dance Program (PRODANCO) was established, attached to the Dominican National Ballet.
At present, the National Ballet and the Concert Ballet remain the most consolidated institutions. The latter organization, through two of its dancers, Mercedes Morales and Víctor Ramírez, won the first medal in ballet received by country at the International Ballet Festival, held in Peru.
Did you know? Silvia Crespo was the first Dominican dancer to perform with Fernando Bujones, who is considered the United States’ soloist.
Did you know? Stephanie Bauger is a Dominican classical dancer who at a young age managed to become soloist with the Dominican National Ballet, performing with a well-known Argentinean dancer (Julio Boca) as his second soloist, successfully participated in international competitions in Havana, and won the Casandra Award in 2010, among other recognitions.
Did you know? Michele Jiménez is a Dominican classical and modern dancer, soloist with the Netherlands National Ballet and, in previous years, soloist with the Washington Ballet. She has won multiple awards at the international level.
The progress and growth of classical dance has continued thanks to the presence of numerous academies that arose in the heat of its strengthening as an artistic activity.
Among the academies we can mention Articentro, led by Miriam Bello; the Alina Abréu Classical Ballet; Danzarte, formerly the Magda Corbett Ballet Academy, opened by Marinella Sallent; the Jeanette Lantigua Academy; the Los Prados Ballet Academy, owned by soloist Pastora Delgado; the Higher School of Ballet, led by Ninoska Velásquez; the Ana Pavlova Academy, established by teacher Eladia de Cuello, and led by her daughter Karina Cuello; the Ximena Quintana Academy, at Casa de Teatro, onwed by Doris Infante; and, Ecos, Dance Rhythms, headed by Awilda Polanco.
In addition, teacher Norma García’s academy, located in the city of Santiago; the Contémpora Ballet, headed by Alfa Rodríguez; in San Francisco de Macorís, teacher María Luisa Bueno’s school; and the Roto Ballet, established by renowned dancers Víctor Ramírez and Mercedes Morales.
Hertha Brauer: Born in Hamburg, Germany, trained in ballet. She ventured in theater, cinema and literature. She worked in journalism and wrote scripts for cinema. She immigrated to the Dominican Republic from Italy, along with her husband, Ernst Hannes Brauer. During her first year in the country, she lived in the mountain community of Jarabacoa. After moving to the capital, Santo Domingo, she opened what is considered the first Dominican ballet academy. She left for Puerto Rico in 1948. Among her students are Lili Nanson, Milena López, Miriam Josefina Jiménez, Olga Espaillat, Olivia González, Alice Ricart, Brígida Coll, Liliano Angulo, Margarita Allanic, Julio Solano (Somá), Frank Vicini, Olga Bello, Ruth Garrido, Annette Enfroy, Rosa Obregón and Alicia Cruzado.
Magda Corbett (La Madame): She was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1916, and died in the Dominican Republic in 2006. She immigrated to the country in 1947, along with her husband, Englishman Francis Corbett, and after the departure of teacher Hertha Brauer, took charge of the small ballet school that she had created. She started classical dance at the age of six, and two years later she was admitted to the Budapest Artists Association. As an artist she traveled to France, Vienna, Austria and other European nations, and in 1939 she visited India where she taught ballet in the city of Bombay. By the time she arrived in the Dominican Republic, she had stopped dancing. In 1992 she was awarded the Heraldic Order of Christopher Columbus, in the rank of Knight, for her contributions to the consolidation of ballet. In March, 2011, during the celebration of the Dance Month, the class and practice room of the National Classical Ballet at the Palace of Fine Arts was named after her.
Clara Elena Ramírez: Born in Santiago de Cuba, she began studying classical dance at the Pro-Arte Society Musical School, under the direction of Hungarian teacher George Milenoff, and later under Russian teacher Nicolai Yavorsky. She also studied at dancer and teacher Alicia Alonso’s academy in Havana, and then returned to her hometown where she was head of the Ballet of Fine Arts at the Conservatory. She arrived in the Dominican Republic in 1960 and, together with teacher Magda Corbett, opened the National Classic Ballet. Some of the dancers who studied at their academy are: Irmgard Despradel, Carlos Veitía (the teacher’s son), Eduardo Villanueva, Jeannette Lantigua, Isadora Bruno, Ninoska Velázquez, Mary Louise Ventura, Lourdes Ramírez, Silvia Crespo, Ana Karina Cuello, Soraya Franco, Víctor Ramírez and Mercedes Morales, among many others.
Eladia de Cuello: Was born in La Vega and, from a very early age, excelled in ballet. Before attending high school, she studied in Santo Domingo at teacher Magda Corbett’s academy. After getting married, she moved to Boston, United States of America, where she took advanced ballet courses at the Boston School of Dancing. On her return to the Dominican Republic, in 1966 she opened the Ana Pavlova School of Ballet, which she headed for 15 years. Some of the most famous dancers studied at her academy, among them Patricia Ascuasiati, Gracielina Olivero, Dilia Mieses and Andreina Jiménez.
Armando Villamil: Dancer, teacher of classical dance and choreographer. He was born in Panama, where he studied with teacher Gladys Portón. In Mexico he studied at the National Institute Concert Ballet. He also studied classical ballet at the University of Chile. He received a scholarship to study at the Musical Theater of the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, and subsequently he was awarded a scholarship by the Harkness Foundation of New York to pursue higher studies with maestro Nikita Talí. In his native country he was director of the National Ballet of Panama, teacher of Fine Arts at the National University and choreographer of artistic extension courses at the same academic institution. In the Dominican Republic, he was head of the Department of Dance, the Culture Center of the city of Santiago, and opened the School of Experimental Classical Ballet.
Norma García: Ballet dancer and teacher. She was born in Havana, Cuba and began studying ballet at the age of 10 at the Higher Institute of Art. When she arrived in the city of Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, she already had a long career as a classical ballet dancer and teacher. When Monsignor Roque Adames managed to bring her to the country, she was working as the head of the Department of Ballet at her alma matter. In Santiago in 1992, teacher García established the Ballet Department of the Culture and Art Institute. In 1994 she opened the Santiago Classical Ballet, and then created the Danzar Foundation, whose objective is to foster learning, professional enhancement and appreciation of classical ballet, and of dance in the general sense.
Irmgard Despradel: Dominican dancer, teacher and choreographer. She began her ballet studies with teacher Corbett, and continued them with teacher Ramírez, at whose academy she was the soloist for years. There, she was the first Dominican interpreting the main roles of the Sleeping Beauty and the Giselle ballets in the country, while she began her teaching career. She then studied at the Harkness Ballet in New York. On her return, together with dancer Mauricio Fernández, created the Santo Domingo Ballet company, and later an academy for teaching. Subsequently, she opened her own space to perform. For five years, she kept the television space La Danza en el Mundo (Dance throughout the world), a program for disseminating ballet, presented on Channel 11 of Telesistema dominicano. She specialized in the Vaganova Method (Russian School). She was acting director and resident choreographer of the National Classical Ballet, and founding teacher of the National School of Dance (ENDANZA).
Miriam Bello: Dominican ballet dancer and teacher, born in San Pedro de Macorís. She began her classical dance studies almost at the age of 11 with teacher Corbett in Santo Domingo, and then received a scholarship for three years at the American Ballet Theater in New York. Some ten years after her return, she created Articentro, her own school of ballet. She has been director of the National Ballet, director of the National School of Dance, deputy director general of Fine Arts and deputy director of the Narciso González Cultural Center. She holds degrees in theater and in international law, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in higher education; and also paints and has studied visual arts. During the activities commemorating the 2012 Month of Dance, she was recognized as «National Glory» for her outstanding work in the dance genre.
Marinella Sallent: Dominican artist, graduated with a degree in pedagogy and a master’s degree in performing arts from the Rey Juan Carlos University, Spain. She was a founding team member of the National School of Dance, where she has worked as a teacher. She established Danzarte, her own school of dance, which in 1996 won the Cassandra Prize for the best classical performance of the year. She has been national dance coordinator of the National System of Specialized Artistic Training, and director of the Dominican National Ballet.
Carlos Veitía: Outstanding Dominican dancer and choreographer. He has been artistic director of the Dominican Concert Ballet and resident choreographer of the Dominican National Ballet. He is the son of teacher Clara Elena Ramírez. In 1995, he won the Classic Choreographer of the Americas Award, presented by the Kennedy Center. He has been a member of the Boston Ballet and of the Miami Concerto Ballet. In 2004 he ceased to be director of the National Ballet to dedicate himself to the Dominican Concert Ballet, which he created and headed. In 2012 he was a finalist at the «Serguei Diaguiliov» 6th Choreographic Art Competition, an international competition held at the Music Theater in Lodz, Poland. The piece with which he competed was La Belleza y sus Bestias (Beauty and its Beasts), performed by dancer Jonathan Castillo of the Dominican National Ballet.