The Cuban National Ballet School in Havana is the largest in the world, with more than 4 000 students. It is considered the premier Cuban ballet school and many of its gra-duates dance in companies worldwide.

Elena Cangas teaches at the school and has been working with the ballet students who have entered the Cape Town International Ballet Competition.

Despite graduating as a performer, Cangas chose to teach because that is where her passion lies.

Speaking through interpreter Geoffrey Neiman, Cangas explained what the local ballet students need to do to up their game.

In Cuba the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company was merged into the Cuban National Ballet School in the early 1960s at a time when Alonso, her brother Alberto and husband Fernando were recognised by the government as the kind of people they needed to target: “They were the kind of people who could come in and help the poor lift their standard of education by giving them a chance to be able to dance and go to school,” explained Cangas.

“After the revolution, they realised that this was a way of getting education to the people.”

For Cangas, the biggest problem facing local ballet students is the lack of a similar structure – a school that children can attend from a young age which would immerse them in an environment of dance, by which she means four to five hours of ballet tuition in addition to school studies.

“The most important thing is to organise the teaching of ballet in South Africa,” she said.

“In Cuba they start from the age of 10 or 11. That’s when they go into the school and their whole envi-ronment is centred on dance, which they decide to make a career.

“From the day they enter the school, not only do they receive classes in ballet, but they are immersed in the whole situation of repertoire, study of dance, what it’s about, the history of dance. So, they learn the complete form of what ballet is all about, from that young age. That is the elementary level, a five-year course.”

Once the students finish the five-year course, they present themselves for an examination that determines whether they’re accepted or rejected for median level, which is a semi-professional three-year course.

Those that are accepted into this three-year course, are then helped to decide whether they will become pro-fessional dancers or start teaching.

She chose to teach because it’s what she always wanted to do: “Although teaching is not an easy profession – it’s difficult – to become a dancer is even more so.”

Cangas has been to Cape Town twice before, with students and Cuban teachers, to perform and teach, but this is the first time she has come expressly to coach students who have entered the Cape Town International Ballet Competition.

By the time she got here a month ago, the students had learnt the two classical solos they have to perform in the competition and she has been helping to polish and perfect what they already know, and to add a bit of her own style.

“They had been very well taught by their teachers by the time I got here. There were two entrants who I felt weren’t doing what they could to show off their ability to the best so, in consultation with the teachers and the entrants, I changed two of the dances they’d prepared, to give them what I feel will be a better chance.”

While the competition will produce only one winner, Cangas says the greater aspect of prepa-ration for the competition improves the entrants’ technique, style of dance and interpretation of their prepared classical solos.

“Whether they win or not, the knowledge and the experience they’ve gained is more important. Even more important is that they enjoy what they do.”