"In Argentina you'd see these big men at the bars talking about soccer, and then all of a sudden they're having a conversation about ballet and I'm like 'no way,' " recalls Alejandro Ocasio, a freshman at the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts. "In America, if you see men like that talking about ballet, most of the time, they're making fun of it."
Alejandro spent three weeks last summer studying at Teatro Colon, a world-renowned ballet company and school in Buenos Aires. Alejandro, who dances at Neglia Ballet Artists in Buffalo, was invited by Mario Galizzi, the director of Teatro Colon, to attend the institute's winter study (the seasons are reversed in Argentina).
Alejandro seemed destined to be a dancer. According to his mother, Kim Ocasio, his career started "when he was about 3. Riverdance was on TV and he put Legos on his sneakers and would dance on the hardwood floor. He insisted that he wanted to take dance classes, so he started with tap and jazz at age 4."
Alejandro switched to ballet by age 7. He says preferred the quality of "its movement -- with jazz and tap, you move in one way."
To illustrate his point, Alejandro put on a contrived smile and strut, tapping out a repetitive rhythm with his feet. Then, he allowed his facial expression to change from light to dark, while his gestures became nuanced and flowing. "But, in ballet, you can move in multiple ways, like that," he said, after sitting back in his seat.
Heidi Halt, co-director of Neglia and one of Alejandro's teachers, remembers Alejandro "wanted to dance ever since he saw 'Billy Elliot,' " a British movie documenting the struggles of a young male ballet dancer living in a working-class community. Billy transcends his circumstances through sheer determination and goes on to pursue his dancing dreams.
"Billy Elliot" does seem uncannily appropriate as an inspiration for Alejandro's career. Alejandro's love of ballet as well as his mature approach to its rigors is characterized by an impressive inner direction like Billy's.
When asked what he does if he makes a mistake during a performance, Alejandro immediately replied, "You have to get really mad. At the end of a solo you get tired and you think, 'oh, I can't do this any more', but you know you messed up, and it makes you want to give it your all. I was watching a clip of a man who had won gold at a competition and had to dance in a ceremony for it. He makes a mistake, and by the end of it, he's infuriated, and he's got this really long hair, so he's whipping his hair around, and just dancing his heart out, and I found that really cool."
The same part of Alejandro that appreciates the opportunity to express strong emotion through dance, is drawn to the inherent "pain and the passion" of the art form, according to Kim Ocasio. "I think he actually loves the rigidity of it," Kim admits. "He's a purist about the classical aspect of ballet, and he appreciates the physicality and all the work it takes." Shalymar Perez, a sophomore at Performing Arts who also dances at Neglia, remarks on Alejandro's impressive "dedication -- in class, when he doesn't get stuff right, he gets very frustrated and talks to himself."
Like most young male dancers, Alejandro had to learn how to deal with teasing from his schoolmates. "The way I think about it is my friends come to see me all the time -- I tell everyone, and if someone doesn't like it, then I don't care, because I know who I am, and if someone has a problem with it -- it doesn't affect me."
Alejandro never had the benefit of being part of a group of male dancers comparable in age and ability level, which was no doubt isolating. Now, he can help foster a sense of solidarity and community in the ranks of the younger boys at Neglia. According to Halt, he serves as a role model for "the group of 10- to 12-year-olds at Neglia who all look up to him."
Halt affirmed "one of the reasons Alejandro went to Argentina was to have more competition with boys his age." Sergio Neglia, co-director of Neglia and another of Alejandro's teachers, remarked: "In Argentina, Alejandro was in a class of 10 or 15 boys all dancing together -- it really opened his mind. He saw how good they were, but also how well he has been trained. [Argentina] made him appreciate his own personality and be more secure in who he is. It was a big motivation for him."
Buenos Aires also held a significant cultural experience for Alejandro. "The kids there were very mature and responsible, but also allowed themselves to be kids. It was much more cultivated than America as far as the arts go. We went out to dinner every night at 10, got home around 1, and had to be up for class by 6 in the morning. It was amazing." Kim commented: "Argentina's culture has such a high esteem for their dancers, and the government promotes this respect for the arts."
Alejandro's plan for the future entails "moving to New York City, receiving training from the school of American Ballet Theater, and dancing in their company." Halt, a former professional dancer, believes in Alejandro's vision: "I'm sure Alejandro will be a dancer because that's what he really wants to do and he doesn't care about the obstacles in the way."
Galia Binder is a junior at Amherst High School.