Ballet Diplomacy: Americans Dance in Cuba for First Time in Half a Century

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Call it ballet diplomacy. Last night, 35 American dancers performed pirouettes and leaped across a stage in a theater in Cuba named for Karl Marx, bridging a political divide that hadn't been crossed in half a century.

Members from the American Ballet Theatre company are performing at the International Ballet Festival of Havana. The last time they performed there was at the inauguration of the festival in 1960.

VIDEO: American Ballet Theater performs in Havana for the first time since 1960.Play
American Ballet Theater Dances in Cuba

The American ballet dancers, two of them Cuban-Americans, have been treated like rock stars. Wherever they go, half of Cuba seems to turn out to welcome them, asking for autographs and cheering them with applause.

Ballet dancers are household names in Cuba, but perhaps no star is as big as Alicia Alonso. She wowed audiences from the 1940s until the 1980s. Now, nearly blind, she is still known for her special, fiery way of grooming the country's youngest dancers.

Alonso is the reason American dancers returned to the country, performing a tribute to celebrate her impending 90th birthday.

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The ballet phenom called the event a giant birthday gift.

"It's the largest cake I ever had in my life!" Alonso said. "It's so beautiful to see that we all speak the same language when we are on stage."

U.S. Artists Become Cultural Ambassadors

The tribute was never a certainty. Until last year, the flight from the U.S. to Cuba would have been illegal. Now, it's part of a wider cultural opening between the United States and Cuba.

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis performed here two weeks ago with the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra.

VIDEO: American artists in CubaPlay

A Cuban singer was allowed to attend this year's Grammy Awards.

Cuba's love of ballet is rivaled only by their love of baseball and jazz. A mutual appreciation for the arts is bringing two Cold War enemies closer.

"A lot of dancers say that they feel like ambassadors," Julia Kent, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre said. "There is no greater ambassador for humanity than music and dance. They speak to the soul of mankind and cross any boundary."

Cuba's Poverty Still Apparent

Despite the glamour of ballerinas on stage, the poverty plaguing Cuba is still evident -- blackouts during rehearsal and the tickets, just 80 cents apiece, are still too expensive for many Cubans.

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Still, a live broadcast let the whole island watch, including, it's said, Fidel and Raul Castro, both fans of the ballet and Alonso.

Despite the thaw in the U.S. government's frosty relations with Cuba, the 48-year-lomg trade embargo between the countries continues. Still, Alonso said that she hopes these cultural exchanges continue to help relations between the two countries.

"They [relations] have to become normal," Alonso said. "How can you understand people if you don't meet each other?"

For one night, Cuba's most famous prima ballerina, and so many other people here, had reason to hope.

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