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Not Too Tall For Seattle: Cuban Dancer Soars To Top Spot

Seattle ballet dancer Karel Cruz remembers exactly how he felt when President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would begin to mend its relations with Cuba.

"It’s one of those things you don't think is ever going to happen," he says. He shakes his head, still a little overwhelmed. "You look to the sun and say, ‘Is this happening right now?’"

Cruz, 36, lives in Seattle now, but he was born in Holguin, Cuba.  His family moved across the island to the town of Pinar del Rio when he was 8-years-old.

Cruz never knew a time when his small island nation wasn't at odds with its huge neighbor to the north.

For many Americans, the Cuban embargo meant no tourism, and no access to the island's famed cigars. For Cruz, the embargo often meant he didn't get enough to eat.

"If I show you a picture at the time, you won't recognize me, I'm so, so skinny!" he says.

All growing boys need to eat enough, but for Cruz, it was crucial: He had started to study ballet and needed to fuel the intense, daily physical activity.

Cruz's aunt ran an art school in Pinar del Rio. When the Cruz family relocated there, she asked her nephew if he wanted to enroll in her school. Maybe he'd like to study music? Cruz chose ballet on a whim.

"I don't know nothing, absolutely nothing," he says chuckling. "I was in the studio barefoot and running around. All of a sudden there's a piano ... it's very, very bizarre."

Cruz straightens his lanky body and spreads his long arms, fingers pointed gracefully. He's a picture-perfect ballet dancer. Cruz has danced with Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet since 2002. He now holds the top rank of principal dancer. But his journey to both his ballet career, and to the U.S., wasn't easy.

At 14, Cruz left Pinar del Rio to audition for the Cuban National Ballet, the country's most esteemed arts institution. He got a job, but Cruz was let go in fewer than two years. At 6-feet-4 inches, Cruz was taller than any other dancers in the company. He didn't fit in. The dismissal devastated the 19-year-old.

Cruz's aunt got him a job with a famous ballerina in Venezuela. She had a small ballet company that rehearsed in her house.

Cruz was used to Cuba, with its strong state support for the arts; by contrast, Venezuelan arts groups struggled.

"Most of those, we're there because we love to do what we do," Cruz recalls. "When we put on a performance, each dancer has to do three ballets a night, sometime run the curtain. It was insane!"

Eventually, Cruz moved to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, to join a larger company. But money continued to be a problem. When the Venezuelans embarked on a month-long U.S. tour, Cruz took the opportunity to audition for the Pennsylvania Ballet. He didn't get in, but somebody from the ballet company's school offered him a spot there. They promised to help him find a job after a year of study.

Cruz was lucky. "What saved me was being an artist," he says.

But it was more than that.

In 1995, the U.S. revised its policy for Cuban émigrés. In what's called the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, any Cuban who flees the island and is caught in the water must return to Cuba. But a Cuban national who makes it to shore can stay. The policy usually applies to people who flee Cuba by boat, but Cruz benefitted by his presence in the U.S.

His story is a little ironic.

"I never wanted to come here," he says. "I think because in Cuba, it was all about Miami. Miami, Miami, Miami, the best place in the world!"

Cruz says all that enthusiasm made him want to be any place BUT the United States.

But he longed to dance, and when the opportunity arose in the U.S., he took it.

The Philadelphia dance school, the Rock School for Dance Education, arranged his student visa and helped him start the green card application process. The school also helped set up an audition at Pacific Northwest Ballet, a company well known for its tall dancers. After the heartbreak of his dismissal from the Cuban National Ballet, Cruz says, "I don't want to come anywhere where I'm the tallest one."

Cruz arrived in the U.S. in early 2001; it was more than six years before he could return to visit his family in Cuba. Even after his green card came through, it was time consuming to arrange the travel plans. His parents weren't able to travel here to attend his 2009 wedding to fellow PNB dancer Lindsi Dec.

Obama's announcement last month that he wants to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba has Cruz optimistic.

"The majority of Cuban citizens are very happy," he says. "In Cuba, they always say because of the embargo, we have this problem and that. We don't talk about this over the phone, but I think everybody is pretty happy, this is something positive."

Despite that, Cruz doesn't have any plans to return to his native country.

"When I first came here it was very, very hard," he says simply. "Now I'm starting to feel a little better about, not just Seattle, but Washington state in general."

He pauses.

"This country saved me. I leave Cuba because I couldn't be there. I left Venezuela because I couldn't be there. All of a sudden, I'm here. And I get to be where I am today."