DURHAM — The 16-year-old girl leaps into the air, landing with a dull THUMP! on the hard rehearsal-room floor.
In a chair against the mirrors, Miguel Campaneria leans forward, left arm pointing, vein popping on bicep.
Bigger, he says. The dancer must fill the small studio space as if it were the stage. And she must roll through the foot, making contact with the floor for a softer and safer landing.
Campaneria is training a small group of girls this afternoon, two for competitions that could put them into professional dance companies, the only way he says most aspiring ballerinas can hope to have careers.
A few days later, the wiry 62-year-old leans back against the couch at Legacy Studios off North Duke Street, an e-cigarette in his hands.
“I’m from Cuba, you go with cigars and coffee,” he says, a puff escaping his lips. “I used to steal the butts of cigarettes from my father. It’s bad, but I was very strong, thank God. I had more stamina than guys who smoked.”
He’s been smoking since he was 12, the same year Fernando Alonso, a founder of Ballet Nacional de Cuba, picked him to study with his company. At 16, he was performing, and at 17, on his third tour outside the communist island country, he asked the Canadian government for political asylum.
He was locked up, held with sailors who had jumped from Cuban ships into the sea. He was there a month, when he pleaded with an interpreter in Spanish to contact Les Grands Ballets Canadien in Montreal.
“I told her, ‘You have to help me, call the ballet company,’” he recalls. “They remembered me. They had seen me dance. So right away they signed my papers and took me out of there.”
Campaneria danced through the 1990s, until he was nearly 40 years old. But by 1998, his performing days ending, and he was looking at a new career.
“I didn’t know how I was going to feel, because I loved dancing,” he says.” Now my life would be teaching. I was worried.”
Jeen Wong says she and her husband were initially suspicious when Campaneria said their daughter Victoria, then 13, needed advanced lessons after seeing her in an audition class.
“For us, ... we just thought it was just something she loved doing,” Wong says. “We thought why does he want Victoria? In my mind, I was thinking it’s got to be financially motivated.”
But after a year of classes, Victoria started competing, and a year after that, she started placing among the top dancers. Last year, she won first place in pas de deux (couple dancing) in the Youth Grand Prix Competition in Tampa, Fla.
In June, Victoria, now 16, will compete in the USA International Ballet Competition, held every four years like the Olympics, in Jackson, Miss. She was one of 100 girls ages 15 to 26 invited to the two week-event.
Campaneria pauses when asked what he saw in Victoria three years ago.
“Amazing,” he says. “You have to have very flexible feet. Your back has to be very flexible. I teach these things, but you have to have some (to begin with) if you want to be up there.”
Victoria trains six days a week. In the studio, rehearsing a contemporary piece, she holds a smartphone in one hand, watching a video to get the movements – the arch of her back, the position of her hands and fingers – just right.
“I feel like he sees all the parts of me,” she says of Campaneria. “On stage you can’t wiggle around on point. You can’t have extra steps. You have to perform flawlessly while staying in character.”
The piece she is rehearsing is called “Matrix.” She stands on one leg and raises the other in a straight line over her head. She crouches down, her face a mask, as she moves in precise, ninja steps.
“I am a strong woman, an independent woman, and I don’t need anyone else,” she says of the character, then adds, “I think.”
But later, looking at rehearsal photographs, Campaneria spots an error. On a cambre, where Victoria arches her torso and tilts her head back, her left foot hangs in the air instead of touching her right.
“It should be glued to the supporting leg,” the teacher says.
There is more work to do.
Campaneria says even as a dancer he would sit on the floor and watch others rehearse.
“I had a fascination for learning,” he says. “Little by little, I could tell what was wrong. I could tell how to fix it.”
Stop, he tells 13-year-old Sydney Dolan as she stands on one leg and bends the other back in attitude position.
The foot on the floor should be “turned out,” facing 3 or 9 o’clock, but it’s somewhere in between. That costs points in competition. Plus she needs to get into position sooner, hold it longer and lean into it more.
Campaneria demonstrates, then turns and holds Sydney’s hands for support as she lifts herself up.
“With Miguel, every day he says something new,” Sydney says later. “It’s like, wow, I didn’t even know that was possible.”
And his instruction is specific to each girl’s anatomy, so just because one student can bend or rotate a certain way does not mean the next one can, or should.
“Of course it’s not all about points,” Sydney continues. “It’s about (the joy of) performing. You want to impress the judges, but at the same time you want to do something that you love.”
And like a ballerina in a music box, Sydney loves to pirouette, sometimes six or seven times in a row. When the teenager needs a break in a difficult routine, Campaneria remembers that.
“Sometimes he just tells me ‘Stop! I want to see Sydney turn.’ ”
Dancing, Campaneria says, was his life.
On stage the small boy from Cuba could be a prince, a Romeo. He learned how to act, how to die, how to be happy.
“I did love when I was a dancer,” he says. “But now it’s my life; it’s my life teaching them.”
He exults in his students’ achievements.
With Sydney, for example, he says, he saw at 10 years old she already had the drive to excel. Three years later, “not many girls at 13 can do the things she can do.”
But not all the girls will make it. “That’s the most difficult thing,” he says.
“Most of them, they understand naturally. They reach 17, 18, they see others are getting the best roles; they can tell,” he says. “Sometimes I tell a girl, ‘I think you’re going to be a great teacher,’ if I know she has an eye to teach. ... Most of the time, they know.”
Campaneria has no plans to retire and says he has more to learn and to contribute, still.
The applause comes from another place now.
“There are teachers who come to my class,” he says. “Afterward, they say, ‘Oh, your girls are so good.’ That, for me, is food for my soul.”