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Ballet On the Streets of Havana, My Spontaneous Photo Experience

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Cuba is one of the few places in the world where photography standard bar is set so high that even coming close to those standards feels like an achievement. Anyone who aspires to be creative and want to preserve time through the lenses would want to visits Cuba.

It’s a daunting task to judge your own work, objectively, it always feel that the place’s potential for good photos is so much greater than achieved. It is hard for memories to fade especially from Havana, a city immune to any outside change flirting around with its lazy sun, wrapped with its colonial architecture and dancing with its romantic old cars.

I knew I wanted to capture a bit of it before the big change, I had no idea how would I go about doing it.

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There were so many factors against me in the start, I had no contact, didn’t go with any organized groups, didn’t speak Spanish, and worst of all, after landing there, I was limited to one lens as my Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 died on me. All I had left was my Nikon D610 along with a Nikkor 18-35 f/3.5-4.5.

I had budgeted for five days in a hostel and that was all the time I had to do what I needed to do.

So what was my plan? Well my plan was simple, just get five good shots for my portfolio and that’s that. Cuba is always being photographed in certain ways: you see its old cars and elegant architecture, among other things.

But I wanted to keep my primary focus on the three B’s Cuba does the best: Ballet, Boxing, and Baseball. In the end, Ballet came through most beautifully.

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After couple of days of wondering around and getting my bearings, I ventured into the epicenter of all things Ballet: “Escuela Nacional de Ballet de Cuba”” (The National School of Ballet). This is a beautiful grand old building with airy classes and flurry of students going in and out of the classes.

I was quite skeptical of finding anything good but ran into a few students and their parents who came in from Mexico and spoke English. It turned out that there was a batch of International students graduating the next day from this school, and among them was the first American girls who were graduating along with them.

I had somehow managed to stumble across a historical moment, and my camera would be the testimony to this undeclared international event.

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My humble request to photograph the students was graciously accepted by the parents, and working with these youngsters was an absolute charm.

They would come up with creative poses, providing me with suggestions as to how they want the photographs to be taken. I was getting some good shots but I knew something was missing, so I took a chance and experimented with a new idea: I asked them if they would take their graceful ballet to the rugged, time-worn background of Havana’s streets.

The girls were all for it, but they only had two hours the following day as it was their graduation and most of them were flying out. We were going to have to work fast.

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After a sleepless night tossing, turning, and thinking about this amazing opportunity, I showed up an hour early to our meeting place.

Once the girls arrived, it was a flurry of activity. I had just one hour to do what I needed to do and it was mid-day, with Caribbean sun shining down from right above our heads.

The girls worked hard for that hour, coming up with different poses and jumping on the uneven streets to the amazement and bewilderment of Havana’s denizens.  

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In the end, I hope I managed to get some decent shots. Cuba has a way of throwing surprises at you in an unconventional way, and sometimes in a good way. This was my experience with the “good way,”… I think the photography gods were smiling down on me that day.  

My sincere thanks goes out to all the students in this impromptu project, and to their parents for supporting this crazy idea. (Names have been withheld to protect the privacy of the dancers.)

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About the author: Dominic Santiago is a Toronto-based photographer who has been well and truly bitten by the travel bug. You can find more of his photography by visiting his website or following him on Instagram.

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