(Photo/Lloyd Englert)

Celebrating women: Prima ballerina Evelyn Cisneros

Evelyn Cisneros is considered the first Hispanic prima ballerina in the United States, but it almost didn’t turn out that way. She discovered her talent entirely by accident when her mother encouraged her to try ballet as a way to overcome the shyness that had taken over her once bubbly personality.

“I couldn’t even raise my hand in class to ask to go to the bathroom,” Cisneros remembers. “My mother and I made a deal: I had to try ballet for a year to see if I really liked it. By the first few months, I was hooked.”

She found a mentor in her first teacher, Phyllis Cyr, and eventually followed her to a new studio to be her apprentice. To pay for the expensive classes, Cyr hired Cisneros’ mother to work at the reception desk.

By the time she was 13, Cisneros was auditioning for the San Francisco Ballet. She was admitted to a summer workshop, which she did two years in a row. Cisneros auditioned for the Joffrey Ballet and School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City, then thought to be the most prestigious school in the country. She was admitted to SAB, but when she made the big move to the city alone, she missed her family and didn’t love the program. She called San Francisco and they happily took her back.

“Coming from a small town in California, I was overwhelmed. When I got home, I was very thin and very disappointed. I was 15 and ready to quit dancing,” she says.

The San Francisco Ballet was ultimately a much better fit and she quickly rediscovered her passion for dancing. During the school year, Cisneros accelerated her coursework in order to graduate from high school two years early. At the age of 16, she became a full-time student with the company.

Cisneros would dance three ballets a night, often making only $5.00 per performance. Her parents were supporting her and she worried her career was too much of a financial drain and burden to them. She spoke to the company director and was offered a long-term contract at only 17-years-old. Cisneros went on to have an illustrious 23-year career, where she was the leading ballerina in everything from “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” to a more contemporary ballet about Native Americans called “A Song for Dead Warriors,” which was choreographed just for her.

Celebrating women: Prima ballerina Evelyn Cisneros tumblr m0je47pJQ31r1767o people NBC Latino News

(Photo/Courtesy Evelyn Cisneros)

It wasn’t always easy. She remembers being discriminated against for her darker skin and features. When she started out in the corps de ballet (otherwise known as the ensemble), all she wanted was to fit in.

“Teachers were hard on me. I said, ‘I’m sorry I don’t look like everyone else.’ I tried so hard to dance like everyone else. I had to put pancake make-up on my skin which had a light pink sheen so that I would physically match the other girls,” she recalls.

“I would get really upset. I didn’t want to look like everyone else. I wanted to be different.”

Eventually, this paid off. Directors noticed her uniqueness and rewarded her for it. Cisneros knows her heritage played a big part in her groundbreaking career. She wanted to break through barriers and be a role model for others.

“It was instilled in us at a young age that we were role models for our people. I carried that through my whole life,” she says. “I always felt my Mexican heritage gave me a richer well to draw from, not the opposite.”

Cisneros had an unusually long career and so did her husband, who was a fellow dancer in the company.

“The ballet world is hard. You pour everything you are into your work. It’s not always fair and it’s very self-focused because your instrument is you,” says Cisneros.

She is now a principal with the Boston Ballet School’s Marblehead studio. She loves teaching and watching her 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter take dance classes. But perhaps most of all, she says, she enjoys meeting those shy young students who remind her of a little girl she used to know.

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