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12/02/13 - Napa Valley Register - In Cuba, dancers perform in a once forbidden world 

On 20 tours in 39 years, Shirley Ray's Silverado Ballet students have
visited eight countries. When these dance ambassadors traveled to Cuba
recently, they found, once again, that dance is an international language.

"Joy" is a word Shirley Ray uses frequently when she describes these trips,
which have spanned generations of dancers.

"It was a joy to see the natural talent," she said, describing one of the
young Cuban dancers they met. "She was too young to know how very talented
she is. She just glowed." Ray said she hoped the young dancer would have
opportunities with the Cuban National Ballet, which has trained some of the
world's greatest dancers.

It was a joy, she added, to see the Napa dancers interact with the Cuban
dancers and to see the Napa youths learn about a different culture.

They found Cuba welcoming and the people friendly. At a museum in old
Havana where the troupe danced, Ray said they saw young members of the
audience immediately trying steps from the ballet. "The group was very
eager to have our troupe members dance with them," she said.

In addition to friendly people, Ray said they found good food and very
pleasant weather. "We even enjoyed the occasional thunderstorm as they are
so rare around Napa," Ray said. The tour went very smoothly, she said,
despite all they had heard about the restrictions and bureaucracy in Cuba.

The delegation traveled by bus but also did a lot of walking and had a
spirited ride in pedicabs. They strolled along the Malecon, a broad
esplanade in Havana, at sunset; they looked out over Havana from a rooftop
and visited Hemingway's estate.

They ate meals in "paladares," family-run restaurants in people's homes.
The hosts, Ray said, made do with what they had. They were warm and
welcoming and the setting comfortable. She was impressed that the tables
were well-set even if the china was mismatched. She enjoyed watching her
dancers try new foods.

They also saw public art, learned about Cuba's history and watched a
military re-enactment at a fort, complete with bayonets and a cannon. They
visited beautiful gardens yet also saw evidence of poverty, including
buildings in Havana that were in disrepair.

During the week they were in Cuba, the Napa dancers performed in four
different venues for audiences that ranged from very young children to the
disabled and senior citizens. They presented several forms of ballet from
classical to Americana. Since Cubans can see excellent classical ballet,
Ray said, it seemed wise to display American diversity, playfulness and

In addition to Ray and her husband, Charlie Ray, the delegation included
Rochelle Mink, who has been studying with Shirley since she was 12. She has
been on tours to Japan, the Dominican Republic and New Zealand with the
ballet troupe. "I enjoyed dancing both for and with the Museum Dancers who
keep the stories passed from Africa alive in Cuba," she said.

Alan Atkinson, Mink's husband, started taking classes so he wouldn't miss
out on the various tours. He said he told Ray that he wanted to go on the
"next" tour several years ago, and she responded, "OK, but you will have to
dance," so he started taking classes.

"One of the high points was dancing with the poor children who were making
their happiness obvious while dancing with our group," he said.

Other dancers included Sally Mink, Alan and Rochelle's daughter, who is a
university student in Philadelphia. She studied at Silverado Ballet during
her junior and senior years in high school.

Quinton Barnett, the Rays' grandson, is a student at Arizona State, and
Juliana and Cricket Anderson, two home-schooled students, were also on the
tour, along with Carolyn Morey, a senior at Napa High School who hopes to
continue her study of dance when she moves on to a university.

"It was so rewarding to see the enjoyment and pleasure on the faces of the
Cuban dancers as they watched our troupe perform," Juliana said. "And
dancing together with them later was such fun."

Cricket said she enjoyed "eating in restaurants set in private homes" and
also dancing with the young children.

Carolyn added: "I enjoyed seeing the cultural differences in Cuba such as
the people just sitting in their doorways up and down the streets. I also
enjoyed the wonderful Cuban food."

The troupe brought school, medical and office supplies as gifts. There were
also some spontaneous "trading" between the Cuban and American dancers. A
football "prop" used in one dance stayed in Cuba; hats were exchanged.

Among their tours, Silverado Ballet dancers have visited Japan nine times
since 1974, where they have a close relationship with Napa's sister city,
Iwanuma. Charlie Ray, a retired Napa Valley College mathematics professor,
is instrumental in maintaining the sister-city relationship.

Before coming to Napa, Shirley Ray taught for San Francisco Ballet. She was
a dancer at San Francisco Ballet beginning in 1952 and began teaching there
in 1956. She moved to Napa with her husband in 1961 and opened her own
studio on Wilson Street in 1965, where she still teaches. She recently
celebrated her 80th birthday with a large reunion of former students.

"It was a joyous occasion," she said.

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