Off Beneva Road, hidden in a strip mall that’s anchored by Kmart and a handful of unoccupied parcels, is Sarasota Cuban Ballet School. Opened in 2012, the school is as unassuming as its location; In February, within a year of opening, the school received the designation of “Outstanding School” at the 2013 Atlanta semifinals of the national youth scholarship dance competition, Youth America Grand Prix.
On June 28, inside the powder-blue studio with a mirrored front wall are the teenaged Summer Intensive students taking class with Ariel Serrano, co-founder of the school and former principal dancer with Sarasota Ballet.
Serrano demonstrates the footwork as he says the French terminology associated with each step, before the two boys in the class mimic the movements.
“Panchi,” he says, using a nickname to single out the 16-year-old slender dancer to his right, and then he rattles off a few directions in Spanish. Panchi repeats the footwork a second time, incorporating the new directives to perfection.
“Eso es (that’s it),” Serrano says. “Eso es, son!”
The dancer to whom Serrano is speaking is actually his son, Francisco. The younger Serrano recently took eighth in the Youth America Grand Prix New York finals and was overall best dancer in the Atlanta semi-finals. His dancing left such an impression that representatives of The Royal Ballet School offered him a two-year scholarship to study in London.
Following class, Francisco puts on leg warmers and sits down to talk about his career. Even though he has just earned his driver’s license, “career” is not a premature thought — he has his sights set on becoming a professional ballet dancer.
Francisco explains that he traded traditional schooling for home schooling in the ninth grade so he could practice six hours a day, year-round. He has learned from whom he calls “the best teachers in the area,” his parents. Leading up to the semi-finals in Atlanta, Francisco prepared three variations daily for four months, his parents sitting in the corner at every practice. His mother, Wilmian Hernandez, is the other co-owner of the ballet school and is also a former professional dancer.
He likes it when it’s just his parents and him, because it’s private and he feels more comfortable — but that doesn’t mean they don’t pick apart his movements, he says.
“There were always funny moments with my parents,” Francisco says of his parents’ interactions with the three students preparing for the competition (Allie Burman, Adriana Baez-Hitchcock and Francisco). “My dad would tell jokes from time to time, or if someone’s steps didn’t come out right and he or she would get frustrated — my dad and mom would always pick us up.”
Francisco says there were talented male dancers at the February semi-finals in Atlanta.
“I wasn’t expecting anything at all, maybe top 12, but once I got best overall dancer,” Francisco pauses and his face lights up. His jaw drops, demonstrating the reaction he had. “I didn’t believe it — I was stunned for a good half-hour.”
In April, Francisco performed in the finals. Before the show, he found out he’d be getting a scholarship to the Royal Ballet school: “That was my dream come true,” he says. “I really envy that place, and Carlos Acosta — he was the principal there — he’s one of the people I look up to.”
Francisco’s parents were both in disbelief regarding their son’s accomplishments. He says his dad, “who is really talkative,” didn’t know what to say.
“Yeah, I cried,” Serrano says. “There was a little tear down my cheek and inside me, lots of tears Â… As a parent, I’m watching him in whatever he does, whether he’s beautiful or not — I support him.”
Francisco hopes to postpone his attendance to The Royal Ballet School until 2014 — he hasn’t been to London and has some things to wrap up first. He’ll finish the summer intensive at Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, participate in the summer intensive with Carreño Dance Festival and says he’ll hopefully enter in a few more competitions.
He has other goals, too.
“I’m going to try to do a lot of things on my own,” he says. “I’m going to do my own laundry, cook for myself and try and wake up at 7:30 a.m.”
When does he plan to start doing this? He rolls his eyes and gives a big sigh. “Soon — I tried one day and it didn’t work out. It’s hard waking up at 7:30 a.m. and I’m not the best cook!”
But, according to his father, Francisco is destined for a great career — even if he can’t cook yet.
“When I was 16,” Serrano says, “there’s no comparing them — he’s so far ahead (of where I was).”
Serrano has been dancing since age 10; Francisco has only learned to dance in the past three years.
Although, when Francisco was an infant, Serrano and his wife used to dress him up in ballet costumes and shoes.
“He would take the shoes off,” Serrano says with a laugh. “I wanted him to dance! I was working his feet when he was little.”
But Serrano was still supportive of Francisco when he showed no interest in the art and, instead, opted to play competitive baseball. He was one of his son’s coaches.
After seven years, Francisco had played enough baseball to make him fall out of love with the sport.
Around the same time, his little sister, Camilla, was taking a ballet class that needed a couple of boys — and, as a good older brother would do, Francisco volunteered.
Ballet became his game; and he set his sights on the major league.
“I’m not really sure what London will be like,” Francisco says. “I’ve heard how (great) it is, and what people say about it sounds amazing — it’ll be really great.”
IF YOU GO
See Francisco Serrano perform in Carreño Dance Festival’s Festival of the Stars
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17
Cost: $20 to $75
Info: Call 328-1300