As founder, artistic director, and principal dancer of Mauro Ballet School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Marena Pérez wears a lot of hats, from rehearsal scheduler to casting guru to costume and set designer. When she shifts gears to dancer mode, she loves taking on lead roles in classical ballets such as Sleeping Beauty, Coppélia, and La Bayadère, but it’s her role as an educator to Mauro’s students that inspires her the most.
“When I see the growth of my students and how they fully apply themselves, it makes me feel so proud. I’m so happy for them and for their achievements,” says Pérez.
For Pérez, cultivating that passion begins outside the studio, before ballet class begins. This is the time where she becomes something else for her students: a math tutor. “I love math,” Pérez gushes. “And I love how you can use it in dance.”
For the students who need extra help with algebra or geometry, Perez sits down with them to go over homework, do test preparations, or simply explain a tricky problem. “When I’m teaching the kids algebra, I won’t say, ‘3x plus 2x is the same as…whatever.’ But I will say, ‘If you do three grands battements to the front, and two grands battements to the side and eight grands battements to the back, and the total of grands battements is y, how many grands battements did you do to the side if you did them en croix?’ They get it because [dance is] what they do, it’s what they love,” Pérez explains.
That love really shines through in Mauro Ballet’s youth classes, where Pérez usually teaches two to three dance classes per week. She loves breaking down steps using math terms whenever she can—a great way to bring a bit of academia into the studio.
“When we’re doing [a piece of] choreography, I tell the kids, ‘You need to make an obtuse angle, or a straight angle’. You can put [the steps] right in there without them knowing that they’re actually getting math out of it.”
Pérez, a dancer since the age of 3, has always been intrigued by numbers and loved school, even opting to study math at the University of the Sacred Heart before switching to focus her studies on education. During her senior year in 2007, she became a teaching assistant at Escuela Especializada en Ballet Julián E. Blanco—a performing arts school in San Juan. It was there she began using ballet to help kids struggling with math. Dance-related terms made all the difference, she says. “They understand the steps. They feel it in their body rather than having it written down.”
Pérez lights up when she thinks of a high-flying example—one she has used again and again with her students: “When you’re doing a grand jeté, you need to feel like you’re jumping like you’re doing a parabola.” It helps students to have this image, “not only on paper, but with their body to know how the step should go,” she says.
When possible, Pérez sets aside about an hour right after school for tutoring, although just how many students she helps varies week by week. Sometimes it’s just one or two needing a little extra support for an upcoming exam or homework. And even though it’s her students who are making leaps and bounds in their studies, she feels like she’s the one making the honor roll, again and again.
“I really love it when they come back and say to me, ‘Oh, I aced the test! I got it! I finally understood what [the teachers] were talking about.’ It makes me feel good that they feel good about themselves. You feel like a proud mama,” Pérez says with a smile.