Teachers Trending

Héctor Hernández Grooms Mexico’s Next Generation of Dancers Through 6 Free Ballet Schools

Courtesy Soul Arts Productions

Isaac and Esteban Hernández are two of ballet's leading men, working as principal dancers at the English National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, respectively. Fans may be familiar with the brothers' humble beginnings, learning their first pliés and tendus alongside their nine other siblings in their backyard in Guadalajara, Mexico. But many may not know about their first teacher, their father, Héctor Hernández. Now 74, he has worked diligently to promote ballet's benefits to the masses in his country.

Hector opened the first free ballet school in Jalisco, Mexico, in 2013, the Escuela Municipal de Ballet Tlajomulco. It drew more than 300 students, with 700 on the waiting list. He now has six free ballet schools throughout the state, with a total of 600 students and eight teachers. His mission goes far beyond creating great artists: His work has helped deepen ballet's popularity in Mexico while enriching his students with valuable life skills.

From Nureyev to New York City

Originally from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Héctor grew interested in dancing when he saw commercials for a Russian ballet tour during intermissions at the movie theater. His father disapproved, but when he passed away when Héctor was 15 years old, he decided to pursue his dream. Despite his mother urging him to go to college, Héctor used some money left from his father's savings to move to Mexico City, where he heard of a good ballet school, the Academy of Mexican Dance of the National Institute of Fine Arts.

Héctor trained at the school from age 15 to 18. Since money was tight, he often slept at the basement of Campo Marte, a military base located in front of the school. Eventually, he impressed his teachers with his commitment and obtained a scholarship, which provided him with lodging and groceries. He went on to dance with various companies, including the Classical Ballet of Mexico, Ballet Folklórico de México and the Ballet of the Five Continents.

Two girls and three boys practice tendus on plywood panels at a makeshift ballet barre outside on a patio. Their father, wearing jeans and a blue jacket, stands to the right of them with his left arm out. The children wear colorful dancewear.

Where it all started: Hernández teaching his children in the family's backyard.

Courtesy Soul Arts Productions

The turning point came when he met Rudolf Nureyev when he performed in Mexico. Nureyev suggested Héctor go to New York City to further his training and to look specifically for David Howard at Harkness Ballet. Héctor heeded the ballet star's advice and moved to New York with only 20 dollars in his pocket.

"He slept at the YMCA," says his eldest child, Emilia Hernández, about her father's early years in New York. "Some days he struggled to have money to eat." Any earnings he made went towards taking ballet classes with some of the best teachers of the time, including Howard, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Billy Griffin and Perry Brunson. He remained in New York for six years, performing with Dance Theatre of Harlem for two.

During this time, Héctor began thinking how he could apply all he'd learned towards the specific needs of Mexican students. "I took classes with so many people from different countries and systems," he says. "I said, 'Okay, these systems are good for people who have extraordinary conditions, but what about the people who don't have the perfect conditions?'"

As he began teaching, he developed a method that combines the basic skills he learned from his various instructors with a keen focus on helping his dancers develop clean technique within a short time. It's especially helpful for those who, like him, start their training at an older age.

In a sunny studio, an older man in a blue and gray T-shirt and blue workout pants stands on his left leg with his right in a relaxed tendu. He holds his left arm on his hip and moves his right arm across his body while a young boy in a white T-shirt and black tights stands to his left and watches.

Héctor with his son Esteban Hernández, now a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet

Courtesy Soul Arts Productions

Growing Access to Ballet

In 1973, Héctor returned to Monterrey to establish a ballet school for underprivileged kids. It took nearly a year to even get an appointment with government officials to present his idea to: a free, government-funded academy.

"It was a long, bureaucratic way," Héctor recalls. "I contacted the state governor, the city mayor and the cultural authorities." Eventually, the Escuela de Ballet de la Universidad de Nuevo León opened. The school operated for three years before it had to close due to lack of government funding.

While in Monterrey, Héctor met a fellow dancer who eventually became his wife, Laura Elena Fernández Dávalos (she currently works as his executive director). They married in 1978 and went on to have 11 children, whom they raised in Laura's hometown of Guadalajara. Héctor left teaching to remodel homes while Laura homeschooled their children.

But ballet reentered his life in 1998, once Héctor realized his children needed to do a sport to complete their homeschool curriculum. "Our father started training us in ballet to accomplish this," says Emilia. He created a makeshift studio in the backyard, laying down two planks of wood on the uneven patio and using a railing as a barre.

Their seventh child, Isaac, began to show great potential and eventually started competing throughout Mexico. Seeing his talent, parents started asking Héctor to train their own kids. He was hesitant at first, unsure that the children would take the profession seriously.

An older man in a tan suit stands in front of a large group if ballet students and opens his hands as if about to clap. The young girls wear black leotards and their hair in a bun, while the two boys wear a white T-shirt and black shorts.

Hernández with young students at one of his schools in Jalisco

Courtesy Soul Arts Productions

As Isaac, and then his younger brother Esteban, began to compete more and gain international recognition, young people throughout the area also grew more interested in ballet. The government noticed as well, suggesting that Héctor should start training kids in Guadalajara.

The process of setting up a free ballet school a second time was easier given his experience back in Monterrey. It opened in Tlajomulco, a town southwest of Guadalajara, in 2013.

Tlajomulco was known to be a hotbed of violence, but it wasn't long before the advantages of ballet began to show. "Many kids had problems with academics and no discipline," says Héctor. "Then after they started training in ballet, they started getting better grades. They started to realize how ballet is good for them."

Giving Back Is a Family Affair

Since then, Hector has established five more free schools throughout Jalisco. All are supported by the state or municipal governments, which choose the locations based on populations of underprivileged youth. All of the artistic work—training, choreographic works, securing scholarships, arranging performances and teaching exchange programs—is handled by the nonprofit Centro Relevé, founded in 2006 and managed by the Hernández family. The schools also receive funding through taxpayer money, private donations and programs like the summer intensive Pirouetteando in Guadalajara. Isaac, Esteban and Emilia also created Soul Arts Productions, which presents the successful international ballet gala Despertares ("Awakenings") in Mexico City and Guadalajara.

To prepare his students for professional careers, Héctor also directs the Joven Ballet HH with support from his youngest daughter, Yael Hernández. The youth company performs throughout Mexico, in areas where some people have never seen ballet and are in extreme poverty.

Top-Notch Training

Students dance an average of five hours a day, with daily technique class as well as pointe, partnering and variations classes three times per week and two weekly contemporary classes. Saturdays are dedicated to rehearsals and choreography.

A few students are now moving on to some of the world's leading ballet schools. Danna Rodríguez, 17, has been training at the free school in Tlajomulco since it opened and is now a scholarship recipient at the San Francisco Ballet School. Fourteen-year-old Kenya Ramos Perez has received scholarship offers from both the SFB School and the Royal Ballet School. "Mr. Hernández taught me how to work hard to accomplish my goals, and that I don't have to doubt myself," says Kenya.

A large group of ballet students  in black leotards and pink tights take a group photo. In the middle, sitting on the floor, sit an older man in a gray T-shirt and black workout pants and to his right, a young man in a burgundy long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants.

Héctor and his son Isaac Hernández (center) pose for a photo with students.

Courtesy Soul Arts Productions

A Higher Pursuit

Jalisco's free ballet schools have made such an impact that other states in Mexico are working to develop similar programs.

Héctor credits his wife for all of the success.

"Laura has been my support to accomplish all these social projects," he says. "Even though she is the mother of our 11 kids, who were all homeschooled, she finds strength to give her life to these many ballet students."

He advises fellow dance teachers to continue to be patient and persistent.

"It would be our most precious gift to leave a good legacy of knowledge and learning for future generations," he says. "It's a privilege and a responsibility as teachers: the opportunity to form good humans and good artists. Don't get tired of the everyday work as a teacher. Everything has its time."

The programs in this story are in continuous need of teachers and donations of ballet supplies and technology for students. If you are interested in participating, contact enderezarte@gmail.com and soulartsproductions@gmail.com

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If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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