“Trust me, we want to do this,” is what Collin Laverty, the founder and president of Cuba Educational Travel, told a skeptical Charles Shapiro, a former ambassador to Venezuela and president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, who knows Latin America well.
Mr. Shapiro first met Mr. Laverty, who has been taking many delegations to Cuba including members of the U.S. Congress, when he was heading the Institute of the Americas in San Diego, Calif. Based on his former acquaintance with him, Mr. Shapiro trusted Mr. Laverty enough to agree to take his business delegation from Atlanta to visit the Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba company in Cuba’s capital, Havana.
Since assuming the leadership of the World Affairs Council, Mr. Shapiro has traveled to Cuba six times in the wake of President Obama‘s thawing relations with the island nation the past two years.
But he had no idea on his first visit to the dance company’s training studio what was in store for his business delegation. Instead of a professional dance troupe what he found were hundreds of kids from 6-to-16 years old learning all the dance moves for which the company has become world famous.
Cuba is full of talent, Lizt Alfonso, the company’s founder, current director,and choreographer, told Global Atlanta. Some of her students as early as 6 years old demonstrate their capabilities while others take longer, but everyone benefits from the discipline and goals that they learn by participating, she added.
When she started the troupe in 1991, Ms. Alfonso’s objective was “to experiment with something new,” she said. What came to be known as her troupe’s fusion of dance traditions including ballet, flamenco, cha-cha, rumba, bolero and salsa, all performed with perfect synchronization.
The company started as a small band of female dancers with training in ballet, who had trouble finding venues or even the support of some of their families. Quite naturally, family and friends wondered where their energy came from when the troupe scarcely had any food and no means of transportation.
Those mothers who did support them were enlisted to create costumes and provided the emotional underpinnings for the band that Ms. Alfonso recalls today as being “insane” because they were so devoted to dance and the idea of developing their company.
A major break came seven long years later in 1998 when a Spanish association, the Conception Arenal, offered its support as long as the troupe provided a Spanish dance school. The next break came in 2000 when it was recognized by Cuba’s National Performing Arts Council and became the resident ensemble at Havana’s Grand Theatre. In 2001, it completed its first tour of the United States, which drew raves and set them on their current course of performances around the world.
As their fame grew Ms. Alfonso has been able to fulfill her ambition of providing a fusion of many dance traditions into a unique choreographic spectrum joining ballet and contemporary dance. She also has produced dance musicals that have attracted other artists such as Enrique Iglesias to participate in collaborations.
Despite the troupe’s success, it has held onto its roots by establishing a Dance Academy, children’s and youth ballets and the summer courses and choreography competitions.
The academy serves as a farm league to develop talent and more than 1,000 students between the ages of 6 and 16 participate. It was here that Mr. Laverty brought Mr. Shapiro and the group from Atlanta including Bernard Taylor, a senior partner at the Atlanta firm Alston & Bird LLP.
The guests were mesmerized by what they saw and an enthusiastic Mr. Taylor turned towards Mr. Shapiro, saying “We have to bring them to Atlanta.”
And that is exactly what happened on the evening of Nov. 10 when the troupe performed “Havana Night” at the Rialto Center for the Arts downtown with the backing of the Coca-Cola Co., Alston & Bird, Diaz Foods, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Delta Air Lines Inc., Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business, Rosser International Inc., JADJ Services LLC, among others.
No longer composed solely of females and dancers, the troupe now has a mix of 18 men and women dancers and an on-stage band, who performed with the verve, precision and synchronization for which they are known – as if they hadn’t just descended from an 18-hour bus trip from Detroit.
Their performance received several rousing rounds of applause by a standing crowd of more than 550 cultural enthusiasts and students from area schools including Georgia State and Brenau universities, and Georgia Gwinnett and Agnes Scott colleges, who were reluctant to leave the Rialto.
Instead of going home, they were treated to dance lessons from the tireless performers and a personal demonstration by Ms. Alfonso herself who told Global Atlanta “We don’t feel tired because we are happy to perform.”
Before everyone did go home, Mr. Shapiro reminded them that the World Affairs Council would be conducting study abroad trips to Cuba in February and April next year. To learn more about these trips, go to www.wacatlanta.org/travel