From the beginning of my training, I’ve worked with teachers who have a reputation for being tough on dancers. Julio Montano and Gissell Durand started my dance education at All American Dance Factory in Tampa, Florida, and were notoriously difficult to please. They were so strict that at times I thought I might never be able to make them happy. But sometimes I would hear them say “better,” or “good,” and it was the motivation I needed to work even harder. That tough-love teaching style prepared me for the two years I spent as a student at Houston Ballet, where I met Sally Rojas, the no-nonsense educator who refined my technique and prepared me for my professional career.
Sally wasn’t every dancer’s cup of tea, but for me, her class felt like coming home. She was direct yet nurturing, and even corrected me in Spanish just like my old teachers had. If I fell out of a pirouette, she wouldn’t just criticize but helped me fix it. And even if I didn’t quite get it right after her first correction, she never gave up on me. She would say, “You’re getting there, just keep working at it.” Before Sally, I struggled to feel in tune with both my mind and my body during class. Shortly into my time working with her, she pulled me aside after class and spoke to me for nearly an hour, telling me that I wasn’t fully focused. She wanted me to shift my attention from my natural strengths to the little things, like transitions and footwork. “That is what will make you a refined dancer,” she told me. I left the conversation in tears, but something changed within me that day, and I still apply that lesson in class as a professional dancer.
Once, during adagio in Sally’s class, I did a développé to the side with my leg up in what I thought was a beautiful position. But Sally said, “What is that? You’re not fully engaging your legs and your foot isn’t extended.” I hadn’t thought about how I got there or how I wanted to finish the movement; I was only worried about the big picture I was creating at the top of the step. Those words, along with her telling me to get my weight forward, are at the back of my mind every time I dance. Looking back, everything she told me stuck. That’s how I knew she was the best teacher I’d ever had.
I would like to thank Sally, Julio and Gissell, and all the other teachers who got me to this point in my career. Without their tough love, I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rigor that comes with company life as a dancer with Complexions Contemporary Ballet. I’m happy they taught me how to take criticism and recognize it as something that can come from a place of love. In the real world, directors can be tough, and their words can be hard to hear. But because of my teachers, I know how to take feedback and use it constructively.