Catherine Conley is now a member of the National Ballet of Cuba. Photo courtesy Riley Robinson

American Dancer Catherine Conley Joins the National Ballet of Cuba

This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.

Photo courtesy Miguel Gutierrez


"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.

The last time Pointe caught up with Conley, she'd finished her year of training at the Cuban school, and had decided to audition for the company. She had just found out about her acceptance into a six-month professional training program (the equivalent of an apprenticeship) with the National Ballet. Conley dove into her apprenticeship at the end of last summer. While apprentices typically don't get cast in roles, they're expected to attend every corps de ballet rehearsal, know the choreography and be ready to fill in at any time.

"At first it was kind of hard," Conley says. "I would have ballet class in the morning, and then they would have rehearsal and there would be like 15 of us in the back marking." But she embraced the challenge, checking the cast list every day before rehearsal to see if any dancers were absent. She started filling in frequently. "It taught me a lot about learning things quickly and being very adaptable," she says. That diligence paid off. When a corps dancer got sick during rehearsals for Swan Lake, Conley was asked to sub for her, and was later chosen for the second cast of the ballet.

Conley learned that she'd officially made it into the company in late April, right before the troupe's U.S. tour. The first thing she did was call her parents, followed by Victor Alexander, her teacher from the Ruth Page School of Dance in Chicago (and the one who'd set up the original exchange program with Cuba). Though Conley didn't tour with the company, the National Ballet did perform in her hometown. "A lot of people from the company hung out with my family," she says, laughing. During a pre-show talk with prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés at one Chicago performance, an audience member asked if all of the dancers were Cuban. Naturally, Valdés mentioned Conley, describing her as a "beautiful, graceful and very talented ballerina."

These days, Conley is working on Cinderella, which the National Ballet will perform in July, and adjusting to company life. "I learned a lot from watching the more experienced dancers," she says. "I think it's changed the way that I move." She's developing her own approach to interpreting the movement, asking more seasoned company members for corrections or advice, and soaking up every opportunity to watch and learn.

Latest Posts


Macau Photo Agency via Unsplash

Ask Amy: How to Find the Right Pointe Shoes if One Foot is More Flexible Than the Other

I'm 14, and I feel totally stable and on my box on my right foot on pointe. But my left foot? Not so much. How can I fix the problem of being on one box and not all the way on the other? —Summer

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

How Coming Back to Ballet After Years Away Has Saved Me During the Pandemic Shutdown

I was 4 years old when I took my first ballet lesson. My mom had dressed me in a pink leotard with matching tights, skirt and slippers. She drove me on a Saturday morning to a ballet academy in downtown Caguas, the town in Puerto Rico where I grew up. I don't remember much from the first lesson, but I do recall the reverence. My teacher Mónica asked the class if someone wanted to volunteer to lead. She was surprised I—the new girl—was the one to raise my hand.

I made up most of the steps, mimicking the ballerinas I had seen on TV and videos. At one point, Mónica stepped in and asked me to lead the class in a bow. I followed her directions and curtseyed in front of the mirror with one leg behind me and a gentle nod. I looked up to find myself in awe of what I had just done.

This was the same feeling I had when, after years away from dance, I finished my first YouTube ballet class at home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
La'Toya Princess Jackson, Courtesy MoBBallet

Join Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet for Its 2020 Virtual Symposium

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, founded in 2015 by writer and activist Theresa Ruth Howard to preserve and promote the stories of Black ballet dancers, is offering three weekends of interactive education and conversation this month through its 2020 Virtual Symposium. The conference, titled "Education, Communication, Restoration," encourages participants to engage in candid discussions concerning racial inequality and social justice in ballet. While it is a space that centers on Blackness, all are welcome. Held August 14, 15, 21, 22 and 28, MoBBallet's second annual symposium will allow dancers to receive mentorship and openly speak about their personal experiences in a safe and empowering environment.

The first event, For Us By Us (FUBU) Town Hall, is a free community discussion on August 14 from 3:30–4:30 pm EDT via Zoom, followed by a forum for ballet leadership. The town hall format encourages active engagement (participants can raise their hands and respond in real time), but the registration invoice also contains a form for submitting questions in advance. The following discussions, forums and presentations include topics like company life as a Black dancer, developing personal activism, issues of equity and colorism in ballet companies, and more. Tickets range from free to $12 for each 60- to 80-minute event.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks