What My Teacher Taught Me: San Francisco Ballet’s Isaac Hernández on His Father, Héctor Hernández
September 15, 2022

I first started ballet lessons at the age of 8 in our family’s backyard in Guadalajara, Mexico. We were 11 kids in the family and my father, Héctor Hernández [a former dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Harkness Ballet and Houston Ballet], started teaching us dance so we had some physical activity since we were homeschooled. He laid down two planks of wood on the patio and we used a rail as a barre.

Technique-wise, my father has always been really keen on the placement of the hips, which has been “revelatory” in a sense, because it’s a fundamental placement for turns. My brother, [San Francisco Ballet principal] Esteban Hernández, is a really good turner mainly because of the placement of his hips. I learned that this is also very important for à la seconde, as well. My dad was also great at explaining the dynamics of jumps. We didn’t have YouTube at the time, but because he was so good at explaining the feeling when you jump and land, I was able to understand it well without any references.

Héctor Hernández (second from left) with his sons (from left) Isaac and Esteban (both San Francisco Ballet principals) and Joel, Somus app founder. Photo by Alex Lopez, courtesy Issac Hernández

My father also taught me that when you find inspiration, you feel like you can fly. And when you are well-trained and have all the strength at your disposal, you can reach that feeling more often. It also has to do with the state of mind: When you let your mind feel rather than analyze, this feeling comes to you more easily. But when you start overthinking things, then there’s a sort of a barrier that hinders you. I find that translates, from my point of view, into an emotional motivation for the steps. So when you can give emotional intention to a jump or other movement, together with the music, then you can find those moments more often than not. 

My dad always told me that in order to be a good artist, you ought to have values and principles. Dance has allowed him to transmit those values through a profession that requires those values. I recently hosted a youth conference called “Living with Purpose” in Monterrey, Nuevo León, my father’s hometown, as part of Despertares Impulsa, a program my family’s production company, Soul Arts Productions, created to provide free workshops and auditions to help young people develop their creative talents. This year, I taught master classes, and we offered free auditions to the Royal Ballet School, the first time the school has been to Mexico.

Isaac Hernández performs during the Despertares gala in Mexico City’s National Auditorium on August 6. Photo by Alex Lopez, courtesy Hernández

With the examples he has given me throughout his life, my father taught me how to live with purpose. My parents used to travel the country in this VW van with the whole family and they would stop in different cities and small towns, often in the poorest places, and talk to people about their lives. People would come to them for advice and my parents would help them with drug problems, alcoholism or violence at home. We’d often get frustrated, because my dad would start our ballet classes at home and then when someone would call in desperate need of help, he’d grab the car to see them. I eventually understood that it was his purpose in life. He wanted to help people. He wanted to be there for them and change their lives in a positive way. And even though my parents were pushed to sell empty cans of powdered milk to make a living, we always had food on the table. We always had our parents nearby, and we always saw how they helped people without expecting anything in return. So when ballet came into our lives, people would show up to our house and ask my dad if he could teach their son or daughter. And he would help them not only dance-wise, but also sort of adopt them into the family and teach them important values. 

My dad has never given up the idea that through ballet you can really save people and offer them a new life. It was so special to host this year’s Despertares Impulsa in Monterrey, because it was also the place where my father opened his first free ballet school, Escuela de Ballet de la Universidad de Nuevo León, in 1973, which closed down after three years due to lack of government funding. [He now continues to teach at his six free ballet schools in Jalisco state.] When I was 12, I remember reading a letter my father addressed to the governor of Monterrey, saying how he was frustrated that he was forced to close down his free ballet school project, and stating that he was not losing hope or commitment and was certain that one day it will be time to resume that project again. My father was frustrated that the government couldn’t see the benefits that ballet had at the time. In fact, the students of that free ballet school had put together some money amongst themselves and given it to my father when they heard that I was training in the backyard at home. They wanted to help build a little studio for me. Some of my father’s former students from that project were in Monterrey attending the conference I hosted recently, so it was really special.

Isaac Hernández teaches free master class during Despertares Impulsa in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Photo by Gen Gibler, courtesy Hernández

Now I have a son of my own, Mateo, who is 1 year old. He is full of possibilities because he is a baby and life can be whatever he wants it to be. And I know that he has [dance] in him; I can see it. He dances around all day. Sometimes, in the mornings especially, [my partner] Tamara [Rojo] always plays some music and dances for him. I wish he’s lucky enough to have my dad as a teacher. My dad was quite sad when I and Esteban left home [to train in the U.S.], but he would say, “Don’t worry; have babies and send them to me. I will train them!” I hope Mateo will get that opportunity. 

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