It’s early on a sunny summer morning and Damien Martinez Coro is leading a group of young ballerinas through a rigorous dance routine at the Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh.
As he moves through the studio, he keeps time by snapping his fingers while yelling commands and adjusting the girls’ forms.
The dance school in Bethel Park is a far reach from his hometown of Matanzas, Cuba.
When dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba leave or defect, they usually cite economic or creative reasons. They say they want to earn more than $20 a month or they want to dance different repertoires.
But Damien Martinez Coro left for a different reason.
"My girlfriend at that point, she left the country and I tried to get over her but I couldn’t," he said. "I found people who helped me escape the country, and it wasn’t an easy decision. It was a very, very tough decision because I loved ballet and I loved the company and I really thought I was going to be great at it, but then I decided to follow love instead."
He had met his girlfriend Cynthia Castillo at the prestigious National Ballet School in Havana.
"He was like, he and his brother were like the popular two guys at the school," she said. "They had girlfriends weekly at the school, and I was a little popular too, and when we started like everybody was like, 'oh my god, they won’t last a week.'"
They lasted longer than a week. But then at age 18, Castillo got a visa and moved to Miami – leaving a lovelorn boyfriend behind.
"I met these guys from her neighborhood who said they were thinking of building a boat, and I asked them if I could jump in," he said.
The boat was constructed in secret. It was made of wood, irrigation pipes and a car engine. The trip isn’t safe on rickety boats — people die on the precarious journey. But if they make it, Cubans are given asylum in the U.S. For those who don’t, there are repercussions in the Communist country.
As soon as they took to the water, they realized there was a leak in the boat. And the ocean was rough.
"I thought every wave was going to be the last wave we would see," Martinez Coro said. "I thought please somebody come and get us, I didn’t care if it was the Coast Guard I didn’t care who it was but somebody come and get us."
The group arrived on an uninhabited key off of South Florida. Several days later they were rescued, an experience he says redefined hope for him.
Once the couple was back together in Miami, they faced another obstacle – they needed to work.
Subsidized by the state and inspired by the legendary Alicia Alonso, Cuba’s National Ballet School is an elite training facility and a pipeline into Cuba’s National Ballet. Increasingly though, it's also a pipeline into some of the best companies in the U.S. and abroad. In Miami, the couple expected to easily land dancing jobs.
"I thought I was going to be a big shot," Martinez Coro said. "I mean for God's sake, I thought I was so good, and I thought everybody was going to beg me to dance with them."
But when they didn’t get work immediately, the couple needed to support themselves.
"You think you're going to come here and be a principal dancer in Houston, Boston, everywhere – and it’s not that simple or easy," Castillo said.
They got jobs at a supermarket. He worked as a butcher while she was in the bakery, and they took English classes at night. Eventually, they landed with a small ballet company in South Carolina and then with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where they danced for a season. Now they both occasionally appear in shows and regularly teach at studios.
For the most part, dancers who leave Cuba find work. Last year, a group of dancers defected while on tour in Mexico, and within six months they had all landed with companies. While there are Cubans in the top-tier companies such as the Boston Ballet and the American Theatre Ballet, they’re in the smaller ones too — six in the Cincinnati Ballet for example.
Judy Rae Tubbs is the resident choreographer at Laurel Ballet Theater in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. She’s worked with Castillo and Martinez Coro — whom she adores — and said the technique and dedication of Cuban dancers is exceptional. In insular Cuba, though, they are rarely exposed to outside dance or modern ballet.
"Its kind of one of those catch 22 things for Cuba," she said. "I think that they teach these young people to be ambitious, to be self-disciplined, to be hard working, and then they have them in an environment where that ambition can’t be fully realized. That hard work can’t really pay off. So then they go searching for another environment where all those things they were taught through this regimen. And it’s not Cuba. Unfortunately for Cuba, it’s not Cuba."
In 2013, after eight years with the National Ballet in Cuba, Martinez Coro’s twin brother David moved to Orlando. Martinez Coro said he tried to talk his brother out of moving to the U.S.
"I said, David, I have a very good life, I’m very happy, I love this country, but you have a living that you don’t appreciate in Cuba if you think you're going to have a better one here, what is a better life?" Martinez Coro said. "A car, a house, I mean, what is a better life? You’re doing what you like in Cuba, your with your wife, you have a house, your with your son, how is that any better than — I mean, how can you ask for better?"
Nearly eight years after leaving Cuba, Martinez Coro and Castillo have settled into their lives here, taking yoga in the South Hills and running the Pittsburgh marathon. They still struggle with some things. He still instinctively wants to kiss people on the cheek when he first meets them. And then there are the cold winters.
Now in their late 20s, they’re getting old for dancers. In Cuba, there isn’t much opportunity once a dance career is over. But for them here – there is.
The couple is opening their own dance studio.
"The other day I was staring at the building and I was thinking, my goodness, this is our place, only in America, only in the U.S.," Martinez Coro said. "This is the country for opportunity. That’s good that the American dream is still alive, for two guys who are coming from Cuba."
They still keep up with their old classmates and teachers, nearly all of them are working in Europe, Latin America or across the U.S., forming a diaspora of Cuban dancers around the world.