Published on June 15th, 2023 | by Gustavo Arboleda


Erica De La O

A Ballet dancer who went from East LA to dancing on the biggest stages.

(Photo by Sam English, courtesy of Louisville Ballet)

Erica De La O grew up in Los Angeles. She discovered dance through her godmother Martha Baldwin. Erica trained with Phillip and Charles Fuller and Cynthia Young at Le Studio Pasadena Dance Theater, and continued her studies with Gilma Bustillo, Charles Maple, Roberto Almaguer, Alicia Head, Daylena Ruiz Garcia and Marat Daukayev. Erica began her career with Columbia City ballet and is now principal artist with the Louisville Ballet, which she joined in 2003. Highlights in her career as a ballet dancer include The Sylph in La Sylphide, Giselle in Giselle, Odette/Odille in Swan Lake, Kitri in Don Quixote, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella in Cinderella, and Marguerite in Lady of the Camellias. Erica was a principal in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Concerto Baroque, Serenade, Agon, Divertimento No. 15, Western Symphony, and Square Dance. She also performed Prokovsky’s Three Musketeers. In contemporary ballet her credits include Ben Stevenson’s Four Last Songs, Tharp‘s Nine Sinatra Songs, Picket’s Etesian, Choo-San Goh’s In the Glow of Night, Taylor’s Company B, and Ma Cong’s Tethered Pulse, Erica created roles in Hougland’s Fragile Stasis, Daniel Riley’s Sacred Shifts, Jevies’ Human Abstract, and Malloy’s Hunger, among others. She is a guest artist with companies such as Raiford Rogers Ballet, Terpsicorps Threatre of Dance, and iMMe Dance Company. Erica medaled at the Music Center Spotlight Awards of Los Angeles, won the John Orr Award from the Pasadena Arts Council, and was invited by Ilona Copeland to perform at the closing ceremony of the New York International Competition. She is a recipient of the Sono Ossato Scholarship Award and was awarded a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

Note from Apuntes Interviewer Marcile Montoya: I distinctly remember being 11 years old and hoping that one day I would be able to dance like her. Erica De La O was, and is, a passionate ballerina. At the time she was one of the most breath-takingly talented young women in our dance company that I admired and respected most. She was committed to doing her best whether it be in daily technique class or hour eight of weekend rehearsals. One could see that she had the drive and perseverance to make it professionally . . . and she did.

Apuntes: You stated in your profile that your introduction to dance was through your godmother. Tell us a little about that initial experience and what took hold for you.

Erica: My mom found a woman named Martha Baldwin, who taught ballet classes out of her pink garage in Montebello, California. She taught classes for 50 cents. She would teach you ballet, guitar, and mandolin. She also had the best plum tree in her backyard. She served the community, the people who lived in the area. She may have taught ballet, but what she impressed on us most was to value and love our culture, heritage, food, skin color, and language. She was an advocate for art and education for the people. She took me to the theatre my first time, at the Los Angeles Music Center, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, where I saw a beautiful chandelier and met ballet dancers. Ms. Baldwin was like an Audrey Hepburn. She was global, spoke several languages, traveled the world, lived in Mexico. She dressed in heels and skirts and had a beautiful posture, spoke elegantly. She would serve me Rompope during the holidays in a crystal “copita” (virgin, because I was little and could not have alcohol). She was just this elegant woman. She would take a flock of people to the theatre and teach us how to dress, how to watch a show quietly. She would bring little candies for intermission and would explain the ballets to us. Often, we attended the after-show tea parties, and it was there I had the opportunity to shake hands with famous ballet dancers and get their autographs. I remember I was so short I would gaze at the veins in their hands: they were working hands, with blood pumping.  

Ms. Baldwin introduced us to classical music and choreographed “Posadas.” She had us perform shows in church, like the story of St. Juan Diego and our Lady of Guadalupe. My dad choreographed “Los Matachines.” So, we danced in the churches, but also in the streets, basketball courts, senior living centers, and parks. Ms. Baldwin dressed us up, with costumes, head pieces, and props. My mom was a huge help to Martha, using the skills she developed working at JC Penney sowing zippers and putting together jewelry. And while helping, my mom also followed Ms. Baldwin’s advice and guidance.

Ms. Baldwin also taught ballet class at an orphanage named Maribel. One day, a dancer named Frank Martinez takes her class. He was a student of hers years back. She saw talent in him and she took him to Le Studio Pasadena Dance Theatre. Frank received a scholarship and they trained him, he went off to dance in Pennsylvania and with San Francisco Ballet. Frank was visiting home. My brother saw him doing tours and pirouettes and he said, “alright, I want to do that.” So, my brother gets into ballet and my mom asks Frank, what’s your story? And he passed down information on Le Studio and the next thing you know, we are in our beat-up ’65 Mustang looking for the address of this Le Studio/Pasadena Dance Theatre. Mom transferred us to that school. My mom didn’t speak English, so my brother had to translate everything. I didn’t speak English then. Phip, Chip and Cynthia offered my brother a scholarship. They put me in classes to catch me up. They were so inclusive since day one. We saw the roster of fees and so, my mom offered, “Do you need a cleaning person?” They’re like, we have one but…. “I’d like to know if there’s an opportunity to clean your studio or your house, you know, to help pay for classes?” So Phip and Chip offered a cleaning exchange, and that’s how I started taking more classes on a regular basis. Eventually I landed a scholarship at Le Studio as well, and they paid my mom for her service. It was kind of fun to clean Phip and Chip’s house because they had classical music playing and photographs of famous ballet dancers. Cleaning the homes and lunch trucks of Americans was my American education. Naturally, I started assimilating to America. I learned how America works, the language, what people eat, how they speak, how they dress, what to do, what to say. It is a different culture from East LA. It was an education for me: blue Doritos, Trader Joe’s, wraps, birkenstocks, clogs. It was educational and fun to see the Latin presence and influence in the American culture. So that’s Martha Baldwin, and she ended up being my real godmother, my biggest fan, and the person I call my real fairy godmother who transformed my life.

Apuntes: Oh Wow.

Erica: She changed so many people’s lives and she’s forever in my heart, in my dance, every time I go on stage. She was an angel in my neighborhood. She understood the power of art. She understood the power of community. She advocated for education. And she made me feel proud to be a Mexican American woman. “Señora De La O, la educación primero.” And she was an advocate of bi-lingualism. “No, Eriquita, tienes que ser bilingue.” She advocated just like she taught my mom everything from having a bank account, buying a house, the importance of getting a tutor if needed, going to school, just striving to be the best. Yeah, she was our fairy godmother.

Apuntes: Sounds like it. Incredible.

Erica: She didn’t give us money, she gave us art.

Apuntes: A lifelong gift.

Erica: A blessing.

Apuntes: Is she still with us?

Erica: No, she died my senior year, of cancer. Yeah, I remember the funeral. I inherited her business suits and her furs. To this day, I wear her clothes, which is funny.

Apuntes: No, it’s part of her.

Erica: Yeah, it’s great. She’s always with me, always.

Apuntes: What a special relationship.

Erica: Yeah, it was, and I guess we all have that woman in our lives. I am grateful I’ve had many, I mean, I had Cynthia Young and Gilma Bustillos as role models. Cynthia, she was a force for the better. She was just brilliant in the way she raised us.

Apuntes: She raised us.

Erica: She raised us and no excuses, ladies, mind your own business, work ethic.

Apuntes: And that carries over into all parts of life.

Erica: Oh yeah. She was so tough. She would give us notes in the most beautiful dress, she treated us like professionals, you know what I mean? She was so poised; her elegance . . . she was a professional. She is one of the toughest females I have ever been in front of.

Apuntes: (Laughing)

Erica: Between my mother and Cynthia Young, I’m good. I can handle a lot.

Apuntes: Yes.

Erica: Because my goodness! But she was still warm. She just raised us to be tough kids.

Apuntes: Right, yeah.

Erica: And fair.

Apuntes: She demanded a certain level of respect, but it was a healthy respect.

Erica: I think it was . . . I always go back . . . that studio had a level of respect that may be unusual in other places.Professor Judith Hamera analyzed the socio-economic reasons why people put their children in ballet. She states in her book they didn’t take offerings from parents during Nutcracker. They wanted us to learn what it is to earn something or to get something through merit and build a dancer through hard work, work ethic, respect, tolerance, inclusiveness, being a good buddy, everyone was expected to be respectful to one another and supportive of one another and there was no, “Why did she get this part?” You knew why someone got a part.

Apuntes: Never. That’s very true.

Erica: You know what I mean? I know why I wasn’t Clara because I wasn’t good. It didn’t bother me, it made me, well . . . if I want to be Clara, I have to work harder.

Apuntes: Exactly.

Erica: You know? They made you earn things. I guess that stuck with me. Yeah, it was such a great atmosphere. Cool stuff. We’re lucky.

Apuntes: You already touched on it a little bit: in terms of your day-to-day life as a professional dancer, can you illustrate that for us?

Erica in white leotard (Photo by Eddie Dant)

Erica: I have my own Pilates and Gyrotonic gym in my home. I work out before class or sometimes between rehearsals. I have a 7 or 7:30 am class with Daylena, my private teacher, and then I take ballet class with the company. That is kind of my main schedule. Then I rehearse every day with stagers and choreographers on the production that we are working on. I dance full time with the Louisville Ballet for about 8 months a year, then I guest with different artists. My daily routine is basically training, which is ballet class, cross-training, and rehearsals 3-4 weeks before we perform a handful of shows. And we repeat that cycle for about 8 months; and the other 4 months I turn into a guest artist.

Apuntes: Okay.

Erica: We’re like a basketball season. At the beginning of my career I would just book a flight and go back home to LA immediately after season because that’s where my teachers were and I would go back to Gilma, Phip, Chip, and Roberto. I would perform with them in Spring Gala or what not, or do Pilates workshops, Gyrotonic certifications, work on my post-modern preparing for competitions, anything to improve myself as a dancer, to go back to Louisville Ballet better as an artist. LA has so many resources, museums, shows, it’s just endless. But now looking back after a twenty-year career, I think it is East LA: the people, my family, that has always filled my dance with “ganas.” I love the shops, I love the food, I love the noise, I love the tacos. And I also work with companies in LA. I always reminded my director that I have two seasons – Louisville Ballet season and my off season, and both are important to me. The goal was to come back the next season stronger and with a better understanding of the methodology so I could grasp the coaching, be collaborative and creative with choreographers. I would work with Alicia, my Pilates/Gyro teacher who is still in LA. I would say, “We have a new choreographer, and oh goodness, I feel like I’m in the washing machine. I have to move more efficiently, I have to understand this.” We would work on central core, how Pilates and Gyrotonics could help me be more agile and athletic to dance the choreography better. Or I would say “My arabesque sucks,” and so we would work on arabesque and what muscle groups would improve it. So, I’ve always had that place. When Le Studio closed, Daylena Ruiz Garcia walked into my life, and that was great. Then it was on to learning Cuban training and pedagogy. I asked her if she would train me from level one and she said “Yes,” and she revamped me, awakened me. She poured her soul into me and made me a better dancer and a stronger woman. She gave me the gift of generosity and the power of knowledge.

Apuntes: Wow.

Erica: The last years have been about school – my master’s. I’ve been off-season working on my master’s and projecting what I am going to be as an independent artist. What moves me? What interests me? Who do I want to be as a professor? What is my philosophy as a teacher? And continue to develop movement that is all of me, fine tune, pedagogy.

Apuntes: Amazing. Well you’re constantly in the pursuit of growth, it sounds like.

Erica: We have to do that. As first-generation American children of two immigrant workers, my brother Pablo and I were forced to learn quickly that we have certain responsibilities, that it is not only about us. We were exposed in our childhood to responsibilities most people never even face in their adult years. There are going to be moments when I won’t have as much time to myself as I would like, to be an artist. So, my theory is that when that energy comes, I act. I used to believe that I had to give up on my dreams and my aspirations. I wasted too much time believing that dreams were for others, not for people of my generation, class, race, skin color, or gender. Now I believe in finding a way for what is important. I will never stop growing. It is what makes me fall in love with life over and over again, and what makes me understand this world. I want to stop the cycle of poverty and marginalization. Only when you have been in it do you understand that it is a tough line to cross for Hispanics. I say this with a lump in my throat, but we’ve got to find a way to believe that we can, that what’s on the other side of the line is also for us.

Apuntes: And appreciating each season for what it brings.

Erica: Yeah, I guess. That’s really nice. Appreciating each season in our life. I like that. I’m going to write that down.

Erica performing with the Louisville Ballet (Photo by Wade Bell, courtesy of Louisville Ballet)

Apuntes: (Laughs) You’re the articulate one. So, you’ve been with Louisville Ballet for 16 years, looking back, what were the most meaningful times in your professional journey?

Erica: A lot of moments. I never thought I could be a ballerina. It was like something that was unattainable. You remember Stella Abrera in our studio?

Apuntes: Absolutely.

Erica: Her life, I clearly remember thinking “Nah, don’t even think of dreaming it, Erica, it is not for you.” I guess just because of my background. She went to dance programs. I never even got into summer programs, I was the underdog. I didn’t get into a summer program until my senior year when I was Music Center Award.

Apuntes: I remember that.

Erica: Yeah, I was the underdog. I was a good dancer, but I just wasn’t as advanced as they were. I was kind of just the underdog so I never – I was afraid to dream. I was afraid to believe. It always felt like it was for someone else, not for me.

Apuntes: Yes, I get that.

Erica: The nice house, the nice car, you know, the nice ballet career. I didn’t even know what that meant or what that could be. I didn’t even want to learn about it because it would just hurt even more. When something is so big you don’t even want to bother, you can’t even learn about it because you don’t even know where to begin. It feels like a closed gate, and you have no key to open it. Luckily, it was a gate with bars and I could see through it enough to catch a glimpse of what needs to be done here and there.

Apuntes: Right.

Erica: You ask a question and someone answers, “Duh, like don’t you know?”  And you just get humbled because you don’t. And my household does not know these things either. We do know where food comes from, how to make soap, milk a cow, and cut your hair. I always say if I had Google back then, my goodness! I can see why the internet is so limited in some areas. I was in an environment that was so inclusive, and I was so happy, but when this conversation of future happened, I didn’t have one because where I’m from, you don’t have talks about strategy. You grow up in this marginalized, divided sector of Los Angeles, it is what it is, and you deal with it. The smart ones or the famous ones make it or get out. Little do you know that it’s all skill, it’s all work, it’s all connections and network. You know what I mean? Realizing that when you hear a “No” it means you have to find a better “How.” The Music Center was a real sign of hope for me.

Apuntes: Hmm.

Erica: I got second place and when you’re young, you want first place. I remember my mother being like, “You need to be grateful that you danced in the same place that your godmother took you for the first time in your life.”

Apuntes: Wow, that’s powerful.

Erica: Yeah, and it’s true. I was facing the same chandelier that I saw when I was 6 years old with Martha Baldwin.

Apuntes: I just got the chills.

Erica: Yeah. You don’t see those things when you’re in the struggle or trying to make it or become. But now looking back, it’s like my dance keeps doing this whole circle. And for me, that was a real sign of hope. Even though after that there was no future for me. I didn’t have a contract; I didn’t have a college application in. My parents didn’t know what that was. I was sailing without navigation. Then I got in a car accident.

Apuntes: I didn’t know that.

Erica: I was 19 and I was devastated but then, you know, I had a community. I had Phip, Chip and Gilma. My mom still made me volunteer to help with costumes and so forth. Your community doesn’t break because you can’t dance, right? And so, I started hanging out at the Pilates studio. Eventually, I figured out what Pasadena City College was, and I thought my life with ballet was over. The answer to whether I could or could not had been answered, does that make sense? I couldn’t because I just screwed it up and my foot is all messed up. I could barely walk on campus. It was almost like, my excuse to give up was given to me, or I handed it to myself. Does that make sense?

Apuntes: Yes.

Erica: Then Phip and Chip were like, “We want to see you in class. Just try, just try. If it’s too much, try less the next day. Just try.” They would see me going, I was working at their Pilates studio and then I said, “Do you think I should get certified?” They were like, “Hell yeah, Erica.” So, I started getting certified, and I asked my dad if he would pay for it. He said yes, of course, “Un oficio para que no te mueras de hambre.” My dad opened his shop 7-9 every day including holidays. Sometimes we were at the shop until 11 pm. And he did it so that he could support us as best he could, one haircut at a time. Well, I started learning about anatomy at Pasadena City College and at the campus library I started opening books about the body and started learning about how the body works and started healing.

Apuntes: Wow.

Erica: I started getting a grasp on things. I remember this, I felt good this morning and I went to the Columbia City Ballet audition and I nailed a corps contract.

Apuntes: Oh, my goodness!

Erica: Yeah, and it was Roberto and Gilma that got me back in shape. They gave me strong classes. I remember this. It was Gilma’s classes, it was the Adult Division’s support, it was the Pilates studio. It was my community in Pasadena that lifted me up. Susan, a Pilates client, found me a host in Columbia because she knew I was going to make $250 a week. I got a job teaching, so I knew I could make it. In the past, I turned down training contracts with Colorado Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. Why? Because they didn’t offer any pay. I couldn’t take those offers because my parents weren’t going to be like “Yes honey, we’ll support your apartment, your car.” First, I felt I would fail, and second, how would I get there? Failure was not an option.

Apuntes: Yeah, it’s not realistic.

Erica: Yeah, so unrealistic. A whole other household, right? And so, I didn’t even tell them. When Columbia City offered this, I knew it was possible. I was certified and teaching, I was offered a teaching position at Columbia, and their studio was walking distance from my home. The Pilates studio found me a host and I went. For me that was a huge, a huge leap of learning, of intuition and figuring out how to get places, that feeling you have when you know you can. I remember that morning, I got a coffee, went to the studio, and they had a coffee machine that did it by itself – you push a button and the coffee would get made for you. I remember, I stopped by and got a coffee and was like, “I’m going to do this.” I said to Phip, “See ya.” They were like, “Good luck.” I’m like, “Okay.” They were the last people I saw before the audition. It was the beginning of understanding the importance of strategy, determination, and people’s generosity.  

Apuntes: It was very clear to you.

Erica: Yeah, it was that feeling, and I’ve kept that feeling. When I wanted to leave Columbia City Ballet for a company that had a larger repertoire, I had that feeling again and I knew that I needed to do something, so I entered the New York International Ballet Competition and I got it in. And I had that feeling at Louisville Ballet when I got that contract. I guess when you’re down, when you want change, you need change, or you have to change . . . I guess I’ve slowly been learning to follow that feeling. The “Claro que se puede,” as my mom would say, “No que no!”

Erica in classical tutu (Photo by David Toczko)

Apuntes: Yes, well said.

Erica: It’s so hard to follow, because it’s a risk. Change is so hard.

Apuntes: It’s growing pain.

Erica: You have to be courageous and be that young, spirited person all over again.

Apuntes: I agree.

Erica: I was in Columbia City Ballet and we were doing Rodeo, Paul Sutherland was our stager, and he said, “Erica, I can’t have you do both. Either you can be the understudy for Cowgirl, or you go in the Corps.” And I said, I want to understudy Cowgirl,” and he goes, “Alright.” Well, it was very hard to put me in the rehearsals and so forth, so he gave me a tape to take home and I learned that thing inside out. I even learned to tap.

Apuntes: Wow.

Erica: Yeah, I even learned to tap – I wanted that part so bad. And finally, the first cast, she missed rehearsal – she had to go teach somewhere. She was the prima ballerina and director of the school, and I went for it. He was like, “Wow! This was great work, Erica. I don’t even know how you learned it.” I said, “Well, you gave me the tape.” Then he goes up to me and goes, “Erica, I know you know it. I know you can do it well. I would love to cast you in it and put you on stage, but I can’t. I have no control over this, and I cannot put you on the stage and give you a show, but I promise you this, it’s going to pay off one day. What you did, you know, on your own, is going to pay off one day – you just keep at it.” Well, seven years later, literally, I’m in Louisville Ballet and I’m the understudy – I had been an understudy for seven years already. I entered Louisville Ballet and I’m literally in the back, you know, learning choreography, which is normal when you’re a rookie. Well, the principal gets injured and I’m on stage reviewing my soloist role and choreography. The staff comes up to me and they say, “Erica, the principal is injured, can you go in for the dress rehearsal now?” And I said, “Now?” They said, “Yes, in fact we don’t have time to change – you can stay in your sweats.” “Now?” They’re like, “Yes, do you know it?” I said, “Yes, every note.” So, I did the whole show.

Apuntes: Of course you did.

Erica: They were impressed – they were so impressed they gave me a show the next day. They were like . . . no rehearsal with a partner, no nothing, like, on my own, no run through. This is the best part, I had never even performed a full-length ballet before in my life . . . no stamina, just like, all adrenaline. I’ve never danced for two hours straight in any ballet.

Apuntes: Incredible.

Erica: It was Paul Sutherland. He said it and I did it. Every time I understudied, I did it as if I was performing. I was rehearsing to the last show, in my mind I knew that I had to wait for that opportunity.

Apuntes: And you were ready.

Erica: There was going to be a moment and I was going to be ready for it and I’ve made a career out of it. I’ve always . . . if I’ve been given the role to understudy, I make sure I know it and I pretty much have always gotten a show because of it.

Apuntes: That’s inspiring. I remember that about you. I mean I always gravitated towards you because of that – I just saw your passion and your work ethic and you took that understudy as your own – you were performing it. I learned so much from you. 

Erica: It’s a Phip, Chip, Cindy thing. And I learned it from the girls at my upper level at Le Studio. The guys would always say: talent is only hard work. Cynthia would say: if you are in a holding position in the Corps, you give it all you have. And Gilma: you have to decide what you want to do inside this room. And if we understudied, we had to know it and that, yeah, that stuck with me. We would be given pieces and they expected us to be a good buddy, help one another and go in and do it. And yeah, they made you responsible and they advocated that. They always wanted you to be a smart dancer. Yeah, that was definitely a Le Studio thing. I think for me that was a pivotal moment in my career and as a person. It felt like the innocence of pure work ethic that my parents taught me payed off, and for a person of my background, that is hope.

Apuntes: Were your parents born . . .

Erica: In Mexico.

Apuntes: What part of Mexico?

Erica: My dad is from Chimaltitán, Jalisco, and my mom is from Santa María del Oro, Nayarit. My dad was a bracero in the late 1940s, before Cesar Chavez. My dad was born in 1933. They had me when they were older. The United States used to hire braceros to do field work like cotton picking and strawberries, he’s traveled to different states in America doing field work. He was a kid when he started working as a bracero with his dad. They would hire them, bus them in, contract them. When they were done with the 2- to 18-month stay, they would bus them back to Mexico. It was not until the 1960s when he saw the cities in America. Then he met my mom. Yeah, they did the immigration life which is a story on its own.

Apuntes: And you were born here.

Erica: Yeah, my brother and I were born here. Proud to be born in East LA.

Apuntes: So how would you say ethnicity and race play out in the world of ballet?

Erica: Well, ballet is a European dance form and it’s spanned a lot of diversity because of migration over hundreds of years. It has also resisted talent because of ethnicity and race. I would say ballet is an art form that is constantly evolving through the dynamics of migration. Today, it also depends on the director’s vision. I want to believe that talent trumps ethnicity and race. What I ask is how does social class play in the world of ballet?

In a ballet company I have felt in a bubble full of different people from different places, different backgrounds, and different orientations. I am accustomed to being among a diverse group of people. However, a city can have different forces. I moved to Columbia, South Carolina in the year 2000. One of the first images I saw was the Confederate flag. And as I looked closely, I recognized division. Ballet has been a vehicle in my life to see different parts of the world. It is one of the elements I am most grateful for.

I passed by this area that still had separate drinking fountains for whites and for people of color. I couldn’t believe I was seeing one, right? And I said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that happened, I can’t believe that’s still there.” My date responded “Oh Erica, that’s history. That has to stay there. We can’t erase history.” In my mind then why don’t we have the other part of the story in this historical site? If you are comfortable showing that, what is wrong with showing the other side of the story? Does this enrich a neighborhood? There was no second date.

Apuntes: That was the turning point, huh?

Erica: In the ballet company I did not feel challenged. Outside, I was confronted with public reality for the first time in my life. Or maybe it was the first time I paid attention to it. We toured a lot, Charleston, Savannah, Charlotte, Greenville, and so on. We traveled extensively. I would see the markets, the slave markets. Now they’re swap meets where you can buy copies of magazines as souvenirs that say “How to beat your slave.” It was all coming to life for me. We were in Savannah, Georgia, and I felt so sad by then. Gosh, everything I’ve read is in front of my face right now. And a colleague said, “Erica, you have to remember these people were happy and they were lucky to be a part of these families.” Oh my goodness, I can’t believe she said this! How could slavery, oppression, lynching, separating families, branding, you know what I mean . . . all of these things, whipping someone, owning someone be okay. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that someone my age, with a college education, said these words. It hurt me so much. It hurt me so much to hear that . . . that . . . talk so reminiscent of Holocaust, Trail of Tears, Mexican Repatriation, all forms of genocide. We have to face it; talk about it so it doesn’t happen again. It was just different. So, those were the kind of things I experienced in the South. At the same time, I was around beautiful people that were in the arts and loved that I was Hispanic, spoke Spanish and that I brought another color and flavor to the company and to a city. So, in the ballet world you just, you get exposed to all of it.

Apuntes: Would you say there are opportunities for Hispanic and Latinos?

Erica: Oh yeah. Ballet has a presence in Latin and Hispanic countries, and those countries contribute to ballet at a high level. There are many famous ballet dancers of Latino and Hispanic descent. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for everyone in dance. I would say the challenges would be, I would say . . . how can I say this? There is opportunity because look, I had the opportunity. Why? Because Phip, Chip and Cindy, who are American, literally opened their doors to me, and there’s a lot of people like that. I do believe there’s more opportunity than closed doors. Now, is ballet available or attainable to you know . . . is there a ballet school in East LA that is creating and making dancers to go to San Francisco Ballet?

Apuntes: Great question. Is there access?

Erica: Is there access? And is it a socio-economic access or an art form? I would say there is definitely more access to ballet in higher socio-economic circles because of money, because it’s so expensive. In the US the government does not pay for ballet education. In Cuba, Mexico, and other countries in Europe they do. Does that make sense? The government auditions the talented kids and pays for their entire education. It’s not so in America. There are private schools, maybe someone can get a scholarship if they’re very talented. Misty Copeland, you know, she was very talented, the right person saw her, and the rest is history. I think there’s less access to this art form because of socio-economic reasons, of course it reduces the number of Latino/Hispanics or members of minority groups that can become ballet dancers. The only reason I found Le Studio was because of fate, plus having a mom willing to drive us 40 minutes to an hour every day. We lived in East LA, Montebello, and by the time I reached high school, in Pico Rivera. Dad’s shop in East LA was my hub. It was part bus, part car logistics to get me to Le Studio in Pasadena almost every day. When I was at La Merced, I would literally take the bus to East LA and then from East LA to Cal State LA to where my brother was, and from there I carpooled with him to Le Studio. Or I would meet my mom, she would pick me up at school in Montebello and I would eat at my dad’s barber shop in East LA and drive to Le Studio. Or I would meet my dad in East LA and drive up Atlantic on the bus to Le Studio. It was literally an effort, a logistical effort every day to get to Le Studio and it was to save gas, save time, save money. You know what I mean? That’s why my mom cleaned houses on the weekend so she could do that for us. Not everyone is going to have that opportunity, if you don’t have the economy to back it up. Programs like Cal State LA, government schools that offer art classes for kids, do open up opportunities for dancers. Ms. Baldwin opened up opportunities for Frank and I – we became dancers. Everyone at Le Studio were from the area – not many people, you know, were from the other side of town. Would they be included? Yes, but . . . how would they get there? There are so many amazing dancers that are Latino/Hispanic. Cubans, my gosh! They’re just amazing dancers. People from Spain, Argentina. There are dancers from all over the world that are brilliant. In fact, there are a lot of them. But in my company right now, in Louisville Ballet, right now and in the past four years, I am the only Spanish-speaking person. Well, the marketing directors for the last three years, they were both Cuban, they speak Spanish. Wait, I don’t even know if both speak Spanish. But like, does that make sense? I don’t know if that has anything to do with access or talent or space or contracts available but that just shows that there are 52 million Latinos/Hispanics in America and I’m the only one among 24 paid dancers and about 20 trainees. So, you’re looking at 40-45 dancers and there’s one Spanish-speaker and she is from East LA.

Apuntes: And you recently posted about Alicia Alonso.

Erica: Yeah, Alicia Alonso named Viengsay Valdés as her successor as artistic director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba . . . I would be sitting down, crying, on the floor after probably the 6th hour of training with Daylena and I’m like, I don’t know if I can, and blah blah blah, and she would always give me the best inspirational stories. “Erica, there was this girl, in Cuba. There you get tested every three months and if you don’t pass, your life moves on because there are many talented kids. And since the government is paying for everything, they will only keep the best to make dancers in Cuba the best of the best. And this girl, Viengsay, she did not have it easy, she was pure work. She wanted to succeed so badly that she pushed herself everyday to the limit. She never gave up, and on exam day she made believe she was a star. Sometimes we didn’t know how she passed.” Daylena would remind me that some people are born with the star on their foreheads, and others have to draw the star on their foreheads with a lot of effort. Daylena: “Viengsay would really turn it on in the exams. Most dancers have heard the story of when the orchestra stopped playing when she danced Don Quixote at the Music Center. They had to stop because she was on balance for so long.”

Apuntes: No. No.

Erica: They stopped. The orchestra stopped.

Apuntes: Oh, my goodness.

Erica: And people stood up and gave a standing ovation while she is balancing.

Apuntes: Wow. Amazing.

Erica: She is amazing. She carries that spirit of determination. The National Ballet company in Cuba is incredible, yet many defect. I have colleagues who did not take their bow, they just left. They get in a taxicab and leave. Viengsay is really phenomenal. She is an amazing dancer. Amazing. Yeah, and Daylena would always share with me her story. She’s like, “Erica, I’ve seen it. Anything is possible. When the brain knows what it wants and it is determined, the brain empowers the body. The brain is everything.” She’s like, “Until your brain admits this, you will not get rid of these tears.” She knew . . . they study psychology, like sports psychology, and the first thing they do is they break you down so that you start thinking differently, think heathier, and listen to your heart. There are teachers who make dancers, athletes, and artists strong, inside and out. The main part is to understand how the students work mentally and build them to be resilient. But, Viengsay is literally a phenomenon of Ballet Nacional de Cuba and an example to artists everywhere. I was literally happy to see that she was taking the position, specially knowing that she had been Daylena’s student. I also loved the way that Alicia Alonso and her ex-husband made something, created something with very limited resources. They learned . . . this is what I love . . . they understood that they had a Caribbean gene, that the European technique would never fully work on the Caribbean body because it was too “mestizado,” you know? And so, they built a methodology based on the Caribbean body. They learned to access certain muscle groups because las caderas, you know, the hips, are different, and the women have different muscle characteristics than Europeans, so that’s probably why it was effective on me because I carry those characteristics. They work the body differently. The characteristic of their methodology is based on the anatomy of a body that has Caribbean, that has Spaniard, that has African, that has indigenous, and I think that’s so intelligent. They reworked it to adapt to their qualities and I think that’s brilliant . . . I think that’s why, another reason I’m fascinated, and the fact that Alicia was blind and she was a dancer. She decided to be one of the most famous ballerinas in the world when they told her she was going to be legally blind. I’m like, wow. They told Alicia Alonso “you’re going to be blind,” and she goes, okay, I have to go to ballet class.

Apuntes: (Laughs)

Erica: She only sees light, like blurred light supposedly. Stage wings are black, so that’s hard for her to see. That’s why she is always escorted off by her partner.

Apuntes: Oh, my goodness.

Erica: I know.

Apuntes: Incredible.   

Erica: That’s Alicia Alonso for you.

Apuntes: And you were saying you’re excited about Cuba and the next generation of dancers. You feel like there’s a lot of change taking place.

Erica and husband Kristopher Wojter (Photo by Julius Friedman)

Erica: Yes. I have visited Cuba with my husband, who is also a dancer.  Dancers like Carlos Acosta will plant a seed with their artistic experience. Cuba and Mexico have a ballet connection: many teachers from Cuba teach in Mexico. And Mexico has many ballet techniques that are influential. There are amazing Mexican ballet dancers in our time, like Isaac Hernandez. I think that the combination of our heritages and the multiplicity of methods we share create beautiful art. Ballet connects people, just like music or soccer.

So, yeah, I’m really excited about our people’s progress. And I’m excited about women in general . . . all women. I’m really excited about groups that have been oppressed or invisible for so long. I’m really excited about Latinos/ Hispanics, dance, and art. We have so much culture in our blood and in our DNA and it’s finally being celebrated. Like there’s this door open to visibility, you know? The artists in Cuba. My gosh! You know what I mean?  Art in Cuba, like wow. Art in Mexico, my gosh! I think we have many stories to share, it is time to share them and talk about them. To move forward. Like with murals . . . my gosh, I grew up with murals my whole life, tagging and graffiti, and now it’s like . . . on every business’ side wall. My thesis included graffiti, and murals. I said, okay if I’m going to retell or redo Giselle, what would I do? And the first thing I said: graffiti. The first thing I need is the colors of graffiti, the murals on the wall, because that’s what my influence was. That’s what my art exposure was. That’s what I saw every day. That’s what I loved. I interpreted it every day, that is what sends me messages like “You are not a minority” on Olympic Boulevard. I may not have known it then, but I was absorbing this stuff. And that is art. Today I do not feel like a minority.

Apuntes: Well said.

Erica: Graffiti in East LA. Now, murals, this is amazing. Now it’s like, the division of fine art, or the definition of fine art is re-shaping. Or the, “eliteness” of an art form is being recategorized. A ballet company identity is in shift because it’s working contemporary and classical. You know, murals were being made in the 1800s in the Romantic Period of Giselle because artists were fed up with painting kings and queens. Artists wanted to have a voice of their own. And yet, East LA has had murals for, how long, right? For the same purpose, and now it’s Americans who are trying to get out of the gallery and into the space of people. So, there’s just so much being redefined and reshaped. Like women studies are being redefined and it’s great, and it’s important. It’s important to think about how is dance going to work in the 21st century. Is it going to have the same faces, same colors, or is it going to be a reflection of what this country is, or what the world is? So, yeah, I think it’s naturally going to change. And I think there’s going to be a lot of need for support. I do feel there is a lot of support . . . I always feel there’s more support than forces that don’t want to allow it to happen.

Apuntes: Forces of oppression?

Erica: They do . . . the forces exist for certain, art does something to hearts. Art moves hearts. Art changes hearts or allows for a conversation to happen, a possibility, or a re-imagining of something or accepting someone that doesn’t look like you, or just accepting . . . I am aware that every inch of me and every part of my dance is directly shaped by my Mexican-ness, my American-ness, my Chicana-ness, and by my heritage, my language, my dual lenses, my dual citizenship, my “Folklorico,” my “Matachines,” my indigenous being my mestizaje, my dad’s stories from the fields, and my girlfriends in Pasadena.

A lot of us . . . that’s fine. I’m not there to correct them. I feel I’ve been supported by the City of Louisville for the dancer and artist that I have become. I have been a vessel for stories of Kings and Queens and supernatural beings. It is what I do, even if I have my own story within, my own libretto. A story of a girl living in a castle who falls asleep and wakes up in another castle, same age, and the rich prince wakes her up. I have to create my own story to believe it because that’s not my life. But it gives me the opportunity to put myself in somebody else’s shoes and I think that’s what art does.

Apuntes: Yes.

Erica: It gives you an opportunity, for a second, to think about someone else or think about yourself from a different angle. I think it is natural and expected to see more Latinos and Hispanics writing stories or re-telling ballet stories. There’s going to be a lot more artists willing to have a voice and I’m really excited for that. We have endured much with very little and I believe many of us are passionate about lifting the veil.

Apuntes: Wonderful.

Erica: Yeah, I think there’s a big movement coming with artists and it will be more inclusive, and it will be more global. The stories will be told, or retold, by the people who have been invisible, and will be heard as the people who have been writing and telling stories for others for many, many years.

Apuntes: Right.

Erica: Like we were talking about history.

Apuntes: Yes.

Erica: I am now seeing that these scholars that I’ve met – I do expect scholars of different backgrounds to write the next history books in the next few years for the curriculum in LA County. You know what I mean? I do. I want to see them hands-on in the curriculum. Does that make sense?

Apuntes: Yes.

Erica: That table needs to have Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, African Americans, Gringos, Koreans, Chinese, Armenians, Iranians, Muslims, plus all others, that’s what I think. I’m obsessed with this thing called intersectionality. I had this amazing women’s studies teacher, she was so inspiring, and I follow the readings that she brings into the classroom. We started class with this intersectionality wheel. A circle where basically you draw these lines. You start with an X or a cross, right, and you just keep adding, you know, one side, the binary of you know, boy/girl, the binary of you know, hot/cold and you keep doing that in whatever subject and you end up just seeing how we all intersect.

Apuntes: Yes.

Erica: It kind of looks like, you know, the Mac computer spin wheel, it kind of looks like that and I’m obsessed with this image and it always comes up in my research and my creation, in my choreography, in everything. I just can’t help that we’re all intersected and for so long, we’ve been this horizontal line by itself, you know. These books have been written by one type of person or one type of voice. So yeah, I’m ready for the table to be diversified.

Apuntes: That’s a powerful image.

Erica: I think it’s the same thing with gallery curation – the different stories that are being told in ballet companies and by whom. The same thing with film, Broadway shows . . . you know, how are women being depicted on stage and how are spectators looking at the image of a woman? What are these stories conveying about women, about minorities? In what light are they being displayed? What narrative?

Apuntes: Right.

Erica: What narrative is being displayed on the stage, in the gallery? What’s the narrative that the spectator is absorbing and learning because that is literally changing their brain; it’s changing the image. That’s why I’m excited. The narrative is changing. Because at least in my world, all the females get killed or get put in the middle of a circle to receive punishment. You know, like what is this depiction of woman on the stage and this victimization or fragility.

Apuntes: Right.

Erica: Why? I’m not saying change Giselle. In fact, interrogate it even further and bring back the full story. I’m like, no, no, no, I’m not changing the libretto; I’m seeing the libretto from a female point of view, that of a girl from East LA.  This is what I see. Somehow, someway, we have to give the man a certain image or protect the male image and give the female this fragility, weakness, or sickness and be forgiving – having to forgive and die, pass on and be erased quietly, you know?

Apuntes: Yes.

I do. More than ever I see how art can shape society, politics, capitalism, economy. Wow, economy. Yeah, I see it now. I never saw it that way; I was just trying to work on my turnout. Now, I understand art has purpose.

Apuntes: There’s so much more to it.

Erica: Oh my gosh. Now I see other things.

Apuntes: And you’ve articulated it so well. I love your passion. Well, I want to thank you. You have provided so much rich information, and insight and I feel honored that I had this opportunity with you. I think in closing, we’ll just ask you, what is next for you?

Erica: What is next . . . a lot of grant writing, a lot of art making, a lot of sharing my story. I definitely want to be more involved with young people in East LA and in Louisville, in marginalized areas, sharing my story or creating work for them because I want to advocate for education. I want to advocate for the importance and the value of their presence as being Latino/ Hispanic, or Black or Asian or any other group being challenged. I want them to feel what Ms. Baldwin made me feel, which is a community with an advocate. . . There’s this place called the Garage. How funny is that?

Apuntes: Yeah.

Erica:  Yeah. There’s this place called the Garage Skateboard Shop – literally, when I was looking for graffiti artists for my thesis, I found this place down the street from my dad’s barber shop. It’s a skateboard park, a food bank, with graffiti artwork, and they lure kids in with skateboards but first  they have to do their homework, write essays and read, and they get free skateboards, they get to compete, visit theme parks and museums, eat out at places they would not ordinarily have the opportunity to visit, a chance to occupy your time with a community that wants you to find a purpose.

Apuntes: That’s incredible.

 Erica: They sell chocolates to pay for trips to Disneyland, museums, skating events . . . They become entrepreneurs and learn how they can pay for things their parents may not be able to afford. They learn how to have a community, and they are placed on a college route.

Apuntes: Wow!

Erica De La O (Photo by Carlos Gamez de Francisco)

Erica: Yes, I’m obsessed with them. My goal is to help with their tutoring in art and education. They are in need of support, because education needs to be a bigger part of our culture. My people need to really understand the value of education. I’ll never forget what Ms. Baldwin said, “La educación es todo, Señora De La O, es tan importante.” And it’s so true. Education, art, science, math, they just open up the world. Reading, you know? And it needs to become a habit, and it needs to become a way of life and it’s not to geek you out or anything but it’s to open your brain, your horizons, your mind, to unlock your potential and see the possibilities. I didn’t have that education in my early years that would stabilize me for my future learning. My parents barely read and write. I didn’t have that foundation. Returning to school was a challenge, to hone the skills that I needed and tap into critical thinking, reading, writing, to understand my own profession from an academic point of view. I always suspected that I wanted to live a scholarly life, because education opened up my life. I definitely want to continue studying. I’m looking at an MBA program and I’m looking for a position in academia, or in a school to teach ballet, to teach dance, to teach art. I’m looking for an opportunity to pay it forward, as it were, like Ms. Baldwin, and put kids on college paths and live a life in art.

From now on, everyone in my family goes to college. A college education is expected. My cousin Brian is at UCLA. Cassandra, my niece, is beginning at East LA College. It’s a fight to get my family to consider college because they fear it or feel working is better; they want you to sell tacos, you know what I mean? I don’t mind the fight for education, I won’t give up on them ever, I believe in them. And I might end up making an honest living selling tacos, but as an educated woman who knows her history.

We need to de-colonize our way of thinking. A well-rounded education can help you think critically and objectively, and help you stand tall and proud. Many of our people do not understand what a reading habit can do for them. But if someone teaches them or shows them that education can help your skateboarding, your taco-selling, your graffiti art, or help them develop their entrepreneurial skills, or simply understand the space they live in and why it is the way it is. That is freedom, that is gold.

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