NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — He covers ground quickly as he circles his partner with huge but graceful steps.
Then with surprising strength, he swiftly scoops up his female counterpart as the music swells.
Karel Cruz made his name and living as the principal ballet dancer for several companies in multiple different countries.
Now, his next steps are into the unknown.
“I’ve been dancing my whole life, and it’s what I know the best,” Cruz, 41, told The Oklahoman. “For me, to still be part of ballet after I retired as a dancer is a gift.”
Cruz recently had his first day as a ballet instructor at the OU School of Dance, starting over again in a place and in a role he’s unfamiliar with.
But that’s been the story of Cruz’s life.
“I’ve always had a passion for dance,” Cruz said. “So to get the chance to share that now with students and share my passion, I think that’s going to make it great.”
Cruz is originally from Holguin, Cuba.
When he was 8 years old, his aunt noticed he was gifted athletically and had the frame of the dancer.
She worked as the director of the elementary arts school and wanted Cruz to come dance. Cruz saw an opportunity.
Despite a history of censorship, widespread communist propaganda and general loss of certain freedoms since Fidel Castro’s takeover of the country in 1959, Cuba also had a colorful history and deep dedication to the arts.
Artists there enjoy privileges regular citizens do not, such as exclusion from the military, financial stability and fame.
Cruz trained at Cuba’s Escuela Nacional de Arte, undergoing rigorous instruction and dancing for large audiences in packed Havana halls.
“I was concentrated on the arts and ballet that I didn’t have much time to be anywhere else,” he said. “It was dance all the time if you wanted to become a successful dancer. So that’s what I did.”
In 1998, Cruz left Cuba for Venezuela, quickly becoming the principal dancer for Ballet Clasico de Camara and dancing there for a few years.
But Cruz desired more. He wanted to prove himself on even larger stages.
He moved to the United States in 2000, enrolling in the The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia.
The culture shock was nearly overwhelming.
At 22, he didn’t speak English and was in a large foreign city.
Even the ballet dancing wasn’t the same as Cruz retrained in a different style.
But still, he found his way.
“I’ve learned over the years to just be open and learn in different ways,” he said. “I just kept working and practicing and that was the way to do it. That’s the only way to become great.”
After a year, Cruz left to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle as a member of the corps in 2002.
It was there that he met his wife, Lindsi Dec, as the two became dancer partners.
He was promoted to soloist in 2007 before he became principal dancer with the company in 2009.
A successful career in dance hasn’t been without sacrifice though.
Cruz’s parents remain in Cuba. He hasn’t seen them in many years.
“It’s tough having my family there,” Cruz said. “I always try and talk about the good side of Cuba but I just hope one day for better relationships between the two countries.”
When Cruz decided to retire from dance at age 40, he took a year off and spent it with his son, Koan, before deciding what to do next.
He was attracted by the possibility of OU and its school of dance, which is home to one of the leading programs in the nation for training in ballet and modern techniques.
He said the hardest part of the job so far is having tasks other than dancing. Setting schedules and coming up with lessons are just another new challenge for him.
“For me, what I will get out there the most is passion,” Cruz said. “I was just trying to inject that into the younger generation. You can focus so much on technique and practice and all this, but if you really want to do this from the bottom of your heart you have to have passion.”