Zapatillas y Corazón: A Journey of Self-Discovery

2012, Reunion of Carla Cuba and the girls recruited from the Latin American Association to dance with the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education on full scholarships (L-R: Ana Moreira, Daniela Garcia, Melisa Soriano, Carla Cuba, Mayra Garcia and Vanessa Alamo). Photo by Kim Kenney.

Before taking formal lessons, I remember dancing in the living room as the sounds of salsa, merengue, and Latin rock blasted through the speakers. Although my family did not expose me to classical music or ballet, what I know to be true is that if you follow your passion, it will lead to a journey of self-discovery.

Growing up in a low-income household, I was not exposed to “elite” art forms. Instead, I participated in community programs like the summer dance camp at the Latin American Association. Unbeknownst to me, the program was actually an outreach effort by Atlanta Ballet. It was because of that program that I discovered ballet. Noticing my newly found passion, Carla Cuba, the then director of Community Programming for the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education (Centre), offered me a full-tuition scholarship to formally train with the Centre. 

2004, Latin American Association’s breakdance class (Vanessa in glasses).
2004, Latin American Association’s tango class (Vanessa in glasses).

Finally stepping beyond the borders of my community, I leaped at the opportunity to take ballet classes. For the very first time, I felt like an outsider. I was one of few Latinas in the studio and, unlike my peers, I only had one pair of tights, one pair of ballet shoes, and Dollar Tree scrunchies to hold up my hair. Nobody taught me how to make a bun or to adjust my ballet slippers, so you can only imagine what I looked like walking into my first ballet class. I rocked a makeshift bun on top of my head that resembled a bird’s nest and naively displayed huge elastic bows atop my brand-new slippers.

 As I developed my craft, I encountered the harsh realities of ballet. I had neither the ideal body type nor the money to advance my career. While my peers attended intensive summer programs at the country’s leading dance companies, I stayed behind in Atlanta. Not only did I miss the opportunity to train with industry-leading instructors, I also missed highly competitive showcases to dance in front of talent scouts that could recruit me for professional openings. Without the capital to pay for the auditions, program tuition, and room and board fees, I felt like my journey to professional dance would be tumultuous. 

2007, Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education Level B4 ballet class. Photo by Kim Kenney.

Fortunately, I had two dance moms that guided me through my toughest years at the Centre – Carla Cuba and Sharon Story, Dean of the Centre for Dance Education. Carla raised me during my early years of dance. She was tough on me and very strict with my parents to ensure I was always on time, in the proper uniform, and that I represented the Centre well. Carla encouraged me to use my summers to volunteer with the City of Refuge in the westside of Atlanta. I loved working with the kids there so much that I created a fundraiser to support the organization’s attempts to expand their dance program and offer afterschool dance classes led by Atlanta Ballet Centre Dance programs. I also advocated for the City of Refuge’s kids at my school, which resulted in them performing pre-show to my high school’s spring musical.

Dean Story became my dance mom when I joined the Centre’s pre-professional division in 2009. She was my biggest supporter as I debated becoming a professional dancer and sought opportunities to push myself artistically. Dean Story urged me to think beyond ballet and use my talents to develop leadership skills. Consequently, I became a teaching assistant at the Centre and worked with kids between 3 to 10 years of age.

2013, Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education’s pre-professional division celebration of the high school Class of 2013 by Dean Sharon Story and then artistic director, John McFall (L-R: Caroline Jones, Sharon Story, John McFall, Sarah Diamond and Vanessa Alamo).

Although I did not become a professional ballerina like I once aspired to be, I am proud and grateful for my experience at the Centre. For one, I was able to provide a different perspective regarding the “ideal ballet body type.” I was also able to inspire my community and show that financial barriers should not deter us from pursuing our passions. Courage and determination can make dreams come true.

As my first chapter at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education came to a close, my focus switched to increasing diverse representation of artists and innovative projects in arts and entertainment. Because of my volunteer work and leadership in dance, I was awarded a full-tuition leadership scholarship by the Posse Foundation to attend Brandeis University in Boston. After my freshman year of college, I returned to Atlanta to initiate my second chapter with Atlanta Ballet. I secured a Marketing & Development summer internship that helped me better understand nonprofit management. Throughout the summer, I worked with then PR director, Sigele Winbush to recreate Atlanta Ballet’s Summer Hotspot Series; collaborated on a graphic design project; learned about various ways to engage current and potential donors; and contributed to a blog post highlighting Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker.

2012, Vanessa as a Dream Fairy in Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker by John McFall. (L-R top row: Brigitte Carter, Madeline Murray, Ceridwen Carter, Katrina Binkley, Leah Hammett; L-R bottom row: Olivia Mott, Vanessa Alamo). Photo by Kim Kenney.

Inspired by my summer experience, I went back to college determined to continue writing and learning about nonprofit leadership. I wrote dance reviews for the university newspaper that garnered recognition from the Huffington Post, now known as HuffPost. I became a frequent contributor for HuffPost, Boston Globe, Celebrity Series of Boston and ArtsATL. I used my dance background to skillfully interview leaders and artists, such as Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and former Atlanta Ballet company dancer Nadia Mara, to demonstrate the hurdles they each overcame to pursue their passions.

Through dance, I discovered a deeper sense of purpose and I intend to always keep dance a part of my life. As I pursue a graduate degree while working in the private sector, I’m also fulfilling my third chapter at Atlanta Ballet – continuing my mission as a volunteer on its Diversity & Inclusion Task Force.

I give a heartfelt thank you to Sharon Story, Carla Cuba, and to the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education for helping me discover that I am a servant at heart and a passionate aficionada of the arts.

Article contributed by Vanessa Alamo

2018, Vanessa and mother, Lucy Rivera, attend premiere of Return to Fall at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.