I turned up one morning to watch Eddie Villella's company class at Miami City Ballet, as I do most mornings when I'm in Miami, and there at the barre was a dancer I'd never seen before—a ravishingly beautiful girl with immense natural charm who was working as hard, or harder, than anyone else in the room. After watching her for 10 minutes I sidled over to Villella and whispered, “Who is that girl? She's a star! Give her everything!"
He's used to tolerating my enthusiasms, but it was also clear that he didn't totally disagree, even though he wasn't going to say so. Her name was Patricia Delgado, he told me. She was 17, and she was an apprentice at the company, where Villella is artistic director. When later in the day I said more or less the same thing to Linda Villella, Eddie's wife, who runs the company's school, she just laughed and said, “Wait till you see her sister, Jeanette. She's just as good!" I didn't believe it—until I saw Jeanette in action when she came along two years later.
The Delgado sisters are not only extraordinary dancers, they're extraordinary young women: ballerinas without a trace of pretension, self-satisfaction or opportunism. The reason isn't hard to find, once you know their parents. Millie (Migdalia) is a psychologist with a PhD from the University of Miami; Zeke (Ezequiel), with a bachelor's of science in industrial engineering and a master's in education, is a math teacher. Like their daughters, they're both completely grounded—as far from traditional ballet parents as it's possible to get. When Patricia said she wanted to go to ballet school, that was fine with them—and it would have been just as fine if she'd wanted to take up water-skiing or raise chickens.
The senior Delgados saw, and see, their job as being there to support and advise their girls (when asked). At a crucial moment when Patricia had to decide whether to focus on dancing or to pursue an academic path (she was always at the top of her class), they helped clarify her choices and stood back. Luckily, Patricia knew that deep down she wanted to dance–not to be a ballerina, not to be a star, but to dance. And Jeanette wanted to do whatever her big sister was doing–never in a spirit of competition but in emulation. “I'm so lucky," she says, “to have my older sister as my best friend."
Millie's family emigrated to Miami from Cuba soon after Castro came to power, when some family property was nationalized. They never regretted it; there's none of that nostalgia for the old days. The girls, of course, are Miami-born and bred, went to Miami public schools, and led normal young American lives—with friends, activities and, in Jeanette's case, dates. Patricia's first and only date was with Matthew, a boy she met in high school, and that was that—a year ago they were married.
There have been only two major obstacles in Patricia's professional life. One was a serious injury that kept her offstage, her foot in a boot, for an entire season. The other was worrying whether Matt, who had a good job in New York, could find an equally good job back in Miami. The alternative was too painful to consider, but Patricia—the realistic daughter of realistic parents—had to consider it. Everyone breathed a lot easier when the job came through.
Leaving Miami City Ballet would have been an emotional disaster for Patricia (not a professional one; any ballet company would be happy to have her). “I feel like a deep-rooted part of Edward's company, of the creativity here, of the family environment. This is my place." Villella returns the feeling: “She's a total dancer," he says. “She can grow in every direction. And apart from her extraordinary abilities, she's such a delightful personality—she lights up any room she's in, be it class, rehearsal or onstage."
Observing her progress these past 10 years, I've noticed that even other dancers who might be envious of what she's achieved have nothing negative to say about her as a person, although for a while there were remarks about her “weak" feet. Needless to say, she worked on them obsessively, and a year ago had a difficult operation to relieve her of almost constant pain: A small extra bone—it's called an os trigonum—was removed from her ankle. For the first time, she now feels absolutely free to dance full-out, to stretch her technique without fear of hurting herself. You could see the difference this past season: She was not only radiant, but at 27, she was finally fully secure.
Her range is already large. How many dancers go effortlessly from the “Man I Love" pas de deux in Who Cares? to “Sanguinic" in The Four Temperaments to In the Upper Room? She's classical—Swanilda, Kitri, eventually Giselle—and she's down and dirty: the sexy lead in Paul Taylor's Piazzolla Caldera. And surely she'll be one of the Juliets in the company's upcoming production of the John Cranko version of the ballet. She also hopes to push herself in the direction of the pyrotechnical Balanchine ballets like Ballo della Regina and Ballet Imperial—in a way, Jeanette's turf. Usually, it doesn't serve sisters well to work in the same company, but the Delgados' dance temperaments are so different that there's no problem. Jeanette has a thrillingly blithe propulsiveness and rock-solid technique. It's Patricia's refinement, repose and allure that instantly grab the audience's attention, and hold it. In Miami City Ballet, there's room for them both.
Although Patricia is such an integral part of the repertoire now, she remains eager and modest. “I've never thought of what I do as 'a career.' I've always only wanted to dance wonderful roles. And one of the great things about Miami is that we don't perform anything but the best choreography: Balanchine, Taylor, Tharp (we had a fabulous time with her when she was down here creating Nightspot on us), Robbins, the classics. I just go on working on my feet, on my line, hoping like everyone else that I'll be cast."
As for Villella, he sees Patricia Delgado as a perfect example of how the institution he founded 25 years ago can function. “She comes from Miami. She came through our school. She quickly made a wonderful impression on us and on our audience—she was so appealing we almost had to hold her back. She never makes problems. She's always ready, willing and more than able. If every ballerina had her talent, her temperament and her looks, the lives of artistic directors like me would be a cakewalk!"
Robert Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, is the author of George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker and is currently the dance critic for The New York Observer.