Today we’d like to introduce you to Vilma Machin.
So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Everything started in Cuba, my native country, where my love for ballet originated. Cubans dance with passion and without hesitation. We are people who understand that dancing begins in the soul. My mom remembers that I would always drop whatever I was doing and run into the room with the TV if any classical ballet was on one of the channels. I would sit in front of the screen, entranced by the dancers until the final note of the ballet. I also loved to dress up and imitate the many dance movements I had viewed on television. My mom could not help but notice how much I enjoyed classical music. My parents can also recall how I would constantly ask them to take me to the ballet school [National Cuban Ballet School]. If you ask anyone on the street, they will know about the National Cuban Ballet Company and its dancers. It is likely that this individual would even be able to tell you when and where the company will be performing next, Cubans appreciate ballet to that extent. Dancers in Cuba are admired, well-known and highly respected. Thousands of children audition each year in the hope that they will be accepted into the National Cuban Ballet’s prestigious school. In Cuba, one has to pass a number of tests to be selected for the school. An applicant must have the ability and facilities to become a dancer (i.e. specific body conditions such as natural back, legs and feet flexibility, turn-out from the hips and pleasing body proportions). Prospective students must also pass a musicality exam to ensure that the student has a good ear and can count the music. One also has to undergo a physical exam to look for any bone abnormalities or any other factors that could limit the dancer’s training. Finally, the child must complete a psychological test to ensure that the child is stable and can face the pressure and demanding nature of the intense training at such a young age. Acceptance into the National Ballet School is a privilege and a dream for many Cuban children. The school is free, so future pupils are only selected if they meet all the criteria. All the instructors at the school are Cuban and focus specifically on teaching the Cuban method of ballet. The government supports the arts in Cuba, and ballet is often given special attention.
A dancer’s career is very hard and like many other dancers, I have faced many challenges and disappointments. Soon after presenting myself at the National Ballet School entrance exam at the age of nine, I suffered a horrible injury to my hamstring. I was not a very flexible dancer at the time and the exam was only a week away so my teacher was focusing on physically preparing my class. He needed to push me a little harder that day to see if I was going to be ready for the upcoming audition. As a result, I tore my hamstring and I was not able to pass the required exam to join the school. I was devastated, but I never gave up on my dream. I had to stay in bed for two months without being able to walk and then underwent a very slow recovery process that lasted for a year. During that year, I worked with a gymnastic teacher, who helped me gain confidence and improve my flexibility. My dream of becoming a professional ballerina was still alive, pushing me to work harder than ever. I remember my mom took me to the school the following year, knowing it was highly unlikely that I would be accepted because in Cuba you can only start dancing at the age of nine, not younger or older. I was ten years old at the time but I wanted to try again. We went and luckily the school had just started a new program that year. This program would accept students who were ten years old. These unique students would then be placed in a special group were during their second year of training they would be tasked with completing two years of ballet training curriculum over one year. My first year of ballet was very challenging, turn-out from my hips did not come naturally and it was a big limitation for me. I also had not achieved the level of technique required to pass. My ballet instructor spoke with my parents, telling them the simple truth. In order to keep my spot at the school, my technique would have to significantly improve and I would have to overcome my physical limitations. However, I was determined to work hard enough to hold onto my place at the school so my teacher offered to give me private lessons during the two months of vacation we have in Cuba. These added classes caused financial strain because my family was not wealthy and it was a real struggle for my parents to be able to afford private lessons for me seven days a week for three hours each day. My teacher believed in me so much that she did not request any specific payment from my parents and allowed them to pay what they could. My family and I will forever be grateful for her generosity, and how she enabled me to succeed in my career. Pursuing ballet was a big sacrifice not only for me but also for my family as I saw them struggle economically every day to ensure that I could achieve my dreams. However, no matter how hard the road was they never stopped encouraging me and I am here today because of their sacrifice and unconditional support. I remember my teacher and I worked for many hours every day for two straight months and when I returned to school for my second year of ballet, everybody was amazed by my improvement. That year was very difficult, but I pushed myself to accomplish two years of training in one.
I had academic classes in the morning from 7:30 am until 12:00 pm in the afternoon. Then I would complete my level two ballet classes from 1:00-5:00 pm. Afterwards from 5:00-9:00 pm I would complete my level three ballet classes. At the end of that day I would journey home, often walking because transportation was unavailable. I would arrive home exhausted, eat dinner (Cuba’s economy was struggling at this time and often my family had barely enough food to eat), take a shower and finish my school work and finally go to bed. In the morning, my routine would begin again, repeating throughout the week from Monday through Saturday. Despite governmental support, the school has also felt the negative effects of the economic downturn in Cuba. I can remember one year when my school lacked the funds to purchase pointe shoes so my level lost a year of pointe instruction. A similar situation occurred with our dance uniforms. I was given a single leotard my first year at the school and I had the same leotard for five years because the school could not afford to give me anything else. I continued to take private ballet classes during my breaks for four years and all our hard work and collaborating paid off. In my fourth-year ballet exam I scored ninety-five out of a hundred possible points; receiving the best score in my class. My improvement continued, but many more challenges arose along the way. Not a single part of my training was easy, yet although I faced many challenges and hardships my determination and desire to achieve my dream helped me overcome them. With each new experience, I grew and came to the realization that anything worth fighting for requires sacrifice.
Each year at the National Cuban Ballet School, students must take academic and dance exams to determine if they will remain at the school. Dancers undergo a lot of pressure to pass and continue with their training each year. The training there is very demanding and there are a number of requirements that each dancer needs to follow in order to retain her spot at the school. Usually each level has around twenty students in each class. Over the next five years many students were eliminated for various reasons ranging from discipline issues, frequent absences from classes, lack of improvement in technical and artistic skills throughout the year (thus they do not pass their yearly exam), and academic issues (bad grades and lack of effort).
After eight years of intense training and a whirlwind of emotions, I finally completed my training. I began to prepare for the final exam that would decide if I was qualified to join the National Cuban Ballet Company under the direction of Alicia Alonso. Everyone in Cuba knows exactly who Alicia Alonso is, and her impact on ballet. Alicia Alonso is an icon of Cuban ballet on the island and internationally as well. She has been presented with numerous international awards, including: The Anna Pavlova Award from the University of Dance, Paris in 1966, the UNESCO Pablo Picasso Medal for her extraordinary contribution to dance in 1999 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Costa Rica in 2017 to name a few. However, a new physical challenge was causing me anxiety, my height. My teachers were concerned that my height was going to limit my chance to join the company, I was 5’9” and at that time the standard height for female dancers in the company was 5’6’’. I was heartbroken, undergoing those eight years of rigorous training, sweating, stretching and strengthening every muscle, only to have my dream crushed by a factor outside of my control. My classmates, friends and family all asked what I would do if I didn’t make it into the company. I honestly could never answer their questions. I could simply not see myself doing anything else. Since the beginning of my ballet journey I had wanted to become a professional dancer and I had decided I was not going to stop until I became one. My family and I had sacrificed too much along the way for me to fail now. So, I pulled myself together; I knew this would be my final opportunity to fulfill my dream. I decided I would give 300% in the upcoming exam and I would have to pass it. I entered the experience with extreme determination and confidence that I would simply have to be selected. After two exams and a performance for members of the National Cuban Ballet, I learned after a week of suspense that I had been selected along with one other girl to become a member of the company. I can say without a doubt that day was one of the happiest and most rewarding ones of my life. I had not only accomplished my dream but I had been able to overcome all my physical limitations that others had believed would stop me. After eight years of grueling training I graduated at the top of my class as a dancer/teacher and then joined the Cuban National Ballet Company for six years.
My first year in the company was very difficult because there were no other dancers of my height in the corps of ballet, so I was barely able to perform that year. Slowly however, the company started to increase the standard height of the female dancers that it selected for the company so everything started to fall into place. After six years in the company, I wanted a change. I dreamed of coming to the United States to search for more variety in my career and also to receive a higher salary so that I would be able to financially support my family in Cuba. On one of my many tours with the company, we traveled to Mexico and I decided to stay there at the performance, intending to cross the border. I was twenty-three years old at the time and I finally did it, crossing the border on my own and arriving in the U.S. Crossing alone as a woman was difficult but my faith and determination helped me to overcome the obstacles I faced along the journey. Once I reached the United States, the number of challenges I faced only grew. I faced many of the problems numerous immigrants battle against as they enter a foreign country. I did not have any family or support system here and with no money of my own I could not afford to live by myself. I was starting my life from zero and so I lived in many friends’ houses for short periods of time and I faced what appeared an infinity of problems down the road. It was tough to audition for U.S. ballet companies because I had arrived after the traditional audition season (at the end of March). I also had no financial stability, so I could not afford to travel to different companies and audition on my own time. Thus, I was forced to wait a year before I could audition for a company and hopeful gain a job. Meanwhile, I struggled to find a place where I could train for almost a year until the audition season started again. It was difficult to even begin to find any sort of balance in my life. After what had seemed endless waiting, I was considering the possibility that I would have to give up on my dream of dancing so that I could find a job to support myself. However, I was given a new opportunity when I met Guillermo Leyva, my husband today.
Guillermo Leyva was also a Cuban principal dancer, and he owned a professional ballet company in Chicago. I was leaving Miami looking for work and he happened to be looking for new dancers for his upcoming company production. Another friend of mine, also a Cuban dancer, mentioned this opportunity to me and I contacted Guillermo immediately. After viewing a video of my dancing, he hired me for the production and I was able to travel to Chicago. Once I arrived I fell in love with the city and I knew right then that this was the place I wanted to live. After completing my time as a guest dancer with Guillermo’s company, I decided to stay in Chicago. It was hard to start from zero again in a different city, and I was settling in just as the recent economic downturn was occurring in the U.S. Job opportunities were shrinking and I was lucky to even find a job as a waitress at a restaurant. Temporarily I worked many different jobs in restaurants, stores and other places. I simultaneously searched for positions as a ballet instructor in the suburbs which I soon found. I taught at the Chicago Academy of the Arts, the School of Dance West, and the Academy of Dance Art. I also worked at State Street Dance Studio and Faubourg School of Ballet for five years too. Fortunately, in Cuba, to be a dancer you must also take classes to become certified as a teacher as well. This extra training helped me to quickly succeed as a teacher here in Chicago.
After several years of teaching in the Chicagoland area with my husband Guillermo Leyva, we decided it was time for us to start our own ballet school. We both shared the same vision for our school and dreamed of giving children the opportunity to have the best training available in the suburbs. We felt the experience we had gained through from Cuban training, dancing professionally and teaching around the world was a blessing. Here in the U.S. I have danced as a soloist for a season with the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, and as a Principle dancer with the Alma Dance Company. My list of performance repertoire includes: Le Vivandiere, Bayadere, Swan Lake, Coppélia, Dying Swan, Majisimo, Classical Symphony, Frankenstein, Giselle, Don Quixote, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Les Sylphides, Ballo de la Regina (Balanchine), and choreographic pieces staged by Alicia Alonso such as Romeo and Juliet and The Magic Flute to name a few. My husband, the Co-Director and Co-Owner of Alma has also had a very successful dance career. Guillermo was a principal dancer in Cuba for eleven years, a principal dancer at the Monterey Ballet for three years, a Principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Lexington Ballet, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Illinois Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Ballet de Santiago, Chile and the Royal Ballet de Wallonie in Belgium. He has performed roles in Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Majisimo, and Nutcracker, to give a brief selection. It was this great combination of experiences that gave us all the tools we needed to make our school special and unique from others in the area. We underwent intense training and had robust dance careers. Our experiences in Cuba and internationally have prepared us for wonderful careers in ballet, and also for successful teacher positions around the world. In September of 2014 we made our dream a reality and Alma Dance School was born. Many people have asked us why we chose Alma as the name of the school, and we chose this name because it means soul in Spanish. To us, ballet is pure feeling, we dancers love our careers more than words can describe. Our love for ballet is authentic and goes far beyond any financial reward. For Guillermo and I, to dance is to feel it in one’s soul.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
As with sport or art, the time required to acquire a high level of proficiency is demanding and requires a high degree of self-sacrifice. Like an Olympic athlete, the family is intimately involved. Today’s young student is torn between many activities and options beyond schoolwork. Creating an environment of support and dedication to one very difficult art form is a family affair! Parents rearrange schedules, shuttle students, alter vacation dates and wait, wait, wait for their child. It is a difficult journey which involves both student and parent in order to achieve success. However, this parental support is key to the success of the student. The path of the student is the path of the family, and it is filled with highs and lows.
To illustrate the sacrifice of time that must be made, I remember Fernando Alonso, the founder of the Cuban National School, once said, “It takes about five years with the periodicity of a daily lesson to develop the technical base of a dancer who starts between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. After that, training should be intensified, with a knowledge of theatre, and should continue until the student has managed to control his body and learned to project his personality in his movements”.
Close cooperation between teachers, students and parents is key to prepare a dancer for a demanding and rigorous career in ballet. The student is trained both physically and mentally. Training is an important time for students to consolidate vital skills and learn the discipline and commitment necessary to achieve their dreams. From our career experience, Guillermo and I know the intrinsic value of serious and consistent training for a student who aspires to be a professional dancer. At Alma, our vision is focused on preparing students to achieve their goals and this belief sets the foundation for our daily training. Having a specific agenda for each class in terms of what step or artistic skill you will work on with your students is crucial. As a teacher, it is important that you know the areas in which your dancers need to practice and ensure that these aspects of their technique are addressed in their daily classes. I focus on creating exercises and combinations that will help the dancers correct and improve their dance weaknesses. At Alma, we strive to prepare our students for performances and this is the reason our dancers are able to dance technically challenging productions. The training received at Alma Dance School will impart dancers all the tools they need to pursue a career in ballet if they so wish.
Please tell us about Alma Dance School.
At Alma Dance School, we instruct our students in the Cuban Method of ballet. Below I have described this specific type of technique so readers can learn about the aspect of our training that makes our school so unique.
The trio of Fernando, Alberto and Alicia Alonso formed the foundations of the Cuban National Ballet School, which reflects the technique of the Cuban method of ballet. Fernando Alonso, was a master teacher who exceled at guiding dancers to a higher level of personal expression. This new level enhanced the emotional spectrum of the piece while advancing the technical vocabulary. Fernando studied and integrated the disciplines of psychology, philosophy, anatomy of the body and performance in his teaching. His goal was to draw the best from each of his students. Alberto Alonso, a master choreographer was capable of creating a stunning new dance language and new interpretations of classical pieces. Finally, Alicia Alonso, a world-famous dancer has become the epitome of Cuban ballet. When she danced, she was named a Prima Ballerina Assoluta, possessing the technical proficiency, spirit and dedication to bringing the art form of ballet to a new level.
The creation of the Cuban method of ballet dates back to the 1930s. Fernando Alonso’s study of schools in France, Italy, Denmark, Russia and British formed the basis for developing his own methodology. The Cuban method has its origins in the Russian Vaganova method, which emphasizes dancing with the entire body. This results in harmonious movement between arms, legs and torso. As with other methods of ballet, in the Cuban method the torso is the foundation of all movement, the dancer’s core is trained to be strong and well aligned. Movements are then achieved through control of the core, producing action which is clean and precise but not rigid. However, the Cuban method diverges from other styles of technique in that it has a romantic feel that also combines high Russian extensions and jumps with intricate Italian foot work, French arm artistry and British attention to detail. Of special importance is the emphasis in the work of the pas de deux, where the couple dances in tight synergy. In the Cuban method, communication between the couple is enhanced, so that the art of ballet is heightened through expression and drama. The unison and harmony between the couple is achieved through a true connection, one made through the eyes, the arms and the hands. The physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of Cuban ballet fuse to create a style of ballet which is like no other. The purpose of the creation of this Cuban method, also known as the “Alonso Method”, was to create an ideal style of ballet which, unlike any other, pays attention to the form as a whole and not by its parts, turning the dancer into an esthetically perfect figure.
As professional dancers, ourselves, Guillermo and I trained in one method of ballet so that we could perfect our technique and become expressive artists. This is why we have carried on this tradition and continue to train our dancers’ in a single style of ballet. In our past teaching experiences at other dance schools, we have often found that several different styles of ballet such as like Balanchine, Vaganova, and Cechetti are taught all together. We believe discrepancies in training between styles can create learning difficulties as a student strives to perfect his or her technique. Students become confused as they work to master the correct body positioning and to learn position names as each style has unique requirements. If dancers are constantly taught several different variations of a position, they can become confused and ultimately, their technique will suffer overall. Variations in style aside, the students’ best interests are served by learning one pure style of ballet. Once they have mastered a single style the dancers can explore other styles or modify the style they trained in based on the wishes of the companies to which they are accepted. Otherwise, a student may become confused and his or her technique may be perceived as undisciplined and sloppy rather than a harmony of several training styles. Alma Dance School is distinctive because Guillermo and I only train our pre-professional division in the Cuban Method of ballet. Our shared vision for the school is to enable students to train so that they will have the skills and ability to reach the technical level required to become great dancers. The students are taught a powerful, lyrical and emotional form of ballet. Our school is known for the high-quality training we offer and how Guillermo and I dedicate our time to assist each dancer in individual progress. We strive to help each student fulfill their potential. Alma Dance School is also renowned for our annual high-quality productions. We have two professional productions each year, the Nutcracker and the Simply Classic Series. During these two shows we are able to showcase our dancers and also invite several international professional principal dancers to perform with our students. We are exceptionally proud of the technical quality that our dancers have achieved. Training is intense; however, the results are displayed every time the students take the stage. We are amazed by the amount of growth we see in each student from year to year. We are also delighted by the school’s success over such a short period of time and with limited finances and resources. Guillermo and I have learned so much during our studio’s journey and we are very excited for what the future holds in store for Alma Dance School.
If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
I think that every struggle and every hard lesson learned throughout my life has been a blessing and has made me the person I am today. Maybe if my life would it be easier, I would not value it the same. I am thankful for each and every experience, the goods and bads, and I would not change any of them. All these experiences have made wiser, more generous and, most importantly, more appreciative of all the small things in life… and to always remember my roots and how far I have come.
- Ticket Prices for our upcoming show “Simply Classic Series” on Saturday June 3rd at the McAninch Arts Center College of Dupage : Children’s-$20, Adults-$28
- Address: 246 E Geneva Rd, Wheaton, IL 60187
- Website: www.almadanceschool.com
- Phone: 6305809784
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org