The Way We Were: Dulce Anaya

The Way We Were: Dulce Anaya
Dulce with Debra Rankin and Mark Spivak, co-directors of Community Nutcracker, with Mr. and Mrs. Claus after Community Nutcracker performance

For over 50 years, Dulce Anaya, prima ballerina, and St. Nicholas resident, has brought the magic of her craft and exacting technique to hundreds of dancers as founder/director of Jacksonville Ballet Theatre as well as a founder/director of The Jacksonville Community Nutcracker Ballet.

Many of her students have gone on to professional careers as dancers or dance educators around the world, and she has achieved local and international accolades including an international GEMS Award in 1998 for Woman of the Year in dance.

Dulce Anaya

Anaya first came to Jacksonville as guest artist in the 1960’s to set the ballet Giselle for Marta Jackson’s students. Instead, Anaya and dancers from Miami’s Ballet Concerto performed selections of Les Sylphides with Jackson’s dancers in supporting roles, and Anaya danced the role of Sugar Plum Fairy with Ivan Nagy, the famed Hungarian ballet dancer and one of the American Ballet Theatre’s most popular stars in the 1970s.

In 1969 she was invited to teach at local dance educator Gloria Vaughn’s studio before forming her own company and staging Jacksonville’s very first full-length Nutcracker Ballet at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Anaya remained in Jacksonville and has been teaching and staging full-length ballets each year with students and internationally known principal dancers.

Every little girl who dons a fluffy tutu and twirls around in her first recital calls herself a ballerina, but the designation of prima ballerina takes years of technical training, countless hours of learning choreography, endless rehearsals and mental preparation. The criteria include recognition by peers and critics and an understanding and level of performance in the classical roles which warrants recognition. One must defy fierce competition to grand jeté from the corps de ballet to prima – all to transform oneself into a doll, swan, snowflake, flower or firebird! Anaya achieved prima ballerina status in Europe after dancing the leading role in Sleeping Beauty with Stuttgart Ballet and was recognized in Italy and throughout Europe as a prima ballerina.

Dulce Anaya
Dulce Anaya

At the age of 12, Anaya, performed in her first full-length ballet as “one of Giselle’s little friends.” Her leap from little friend to prima ballerina, performing major roles all over the world, is a rollicking journey through dance history.

“In Cuba I was born Dulce Esperanza Wohner de Vega, but when I was dancing there at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, I was called Dolly Wohner. At American Ballet Theatre they changed my name back to Dulce. At the Munich Opera Ballet, they did not like Wohner and wanted me to change my name again, so I went into the phone book to the A’s and picked out Anaya. That is what I have been ever since! My father’s family was from Austria/ Hungary. My grandfather was a Romanian gypsy. My mother, Dulce Ventayol, was Cuban. I’m just a mutt,” she explained.

Listening to this extraordinarily ebullient woman recount her life story is a hodge podge of delightful yet sometimes exhausting timelessness. Her trip down memory lane is a circuitous jaunt intertwining more than 80 years – a whirlwind trip, in no order of place or time. One moment she describes dancing at the Stuttgart Ballet, the Hamburg Opera Ballet, Munich Opera Ballet or as a soloist with Nacional Ballet of Cuba. Later she segues into her former husband’s indiscretions by recalling many hilariously tangled tales before growing nostalgic about a little bird she had named Sputnik, which she pronounced “Spootnik,” who sat on her shoulder as she was having her portrait painted over 50 years ago. Later, she joyfully jumps into the present-day antics of her cat or the telephone conversation she had recently with her 90-something-year-old former teacher in Cuba, the world-famous Alicia Alonzo, who passed away in October.

For Anaya, all the world is a stage and her life has been a continuing soap opera. Each moment is filled with drama, intrigue, hilarity, chaos and confusion. Taking out the trash becomes an adventure worthy of a Stravinsky score. Exuding youthfulness, spontaneity, and energy, Anaya, 87, teaches 16 or more ballet classes a week at her studio, Dulce Anaya School of Ballet, in addition to choreographing and conducting rehearsals.

Dulce Anaya in her studio
Dulce Anaya in her studio

The cast of characters in her continuing life saga consists of revered world-renowned dancers who wander in and out of her conversations as casually as Fred and Ethel Mertz did with Lucy and Ricky. “One time I was dancing Don Quixote with Erik Bruhn and there was so much clapping. We had to repeat the pas de deux three times because the audience would not stop clapping,” she recalled. “Everyone said it was because of Erik – he was just a god – so elegant – but then I did the same pas with Flemming Flindt and it happened again! They applauded for 20 minutes. We just kept bowing and bowing. My first full-length ballet was Sleeping Beauty in Stuttgart. I wasn’t used to how the Germans applauded – they stamped and screamed – the curtain went up, the curtain went down, we bowed and bowed. It was incredible.

“Did I tell you about the time I danced for President [Juan] Peron in Argentina?” Anaya continued, and off she goes in her lilting and charming accent, her expressive green eyes snapping, waving her graceful hands in the air for emphasis as her audience hangs on every word.

“It’s Mr. Balanchine and Fernando [Bujones] this, and Alicia [Alonso], Margot [Fonteyn] that,” she said, mentioning the elite of the dance world as if they are folks, she bumped into at the grocery store yesterday afternoon. She has performed Corsair with [Rudolf] Nureyev and has been Sugar Plum with Ivan Nagy in Nutcracker. “I’ve had 37 partners, but 17 or more of them are dead now! I just out live them.” Each performance is as vivid and sparkling in her memory as the jewels that adorned her costumes.

Anaya’s father brought her to New York in 1948 at the age of 15 to audition for George Balanchine, one of the most influential 20th century American ballet choreographers. “Mr. Balanchine admired my technique and my extensions but thought I was too short, and my hips were too wide. I thought Balanchine’s dancers looked like ostriches and grasshoppers with their long legs. It was so funny. I was so surprised later when Mr. B cast me in Eurydice. The costume was nothing but a unitard with what looked like potholders, one for each breast and one for the tummy and on down! It was scandalous,” she said, gesturing dramatically. “Mr. B said not to worry, it would be fine—I would have long hair to cover things up, and it would be beautiful—so I did it.”

Her childlike delight and guileless expressions are accompanied by wide-eyed wonder and a little shoulder shrug. “I was discovered while performing in the pouring down rain with shoes like mush at the Munich Zoo by the man who later became heir to the throne of Albania. I think he was drunk. He was a balletomane and asked me to be in Ondine. Later, in the Munich Giselle Festival, around 1960, there were seven Giselles- all from different dance companies. There was Margot Fonteyn and Beryl Grey from The Royal, Galina Ulanova and Raisa Struchkova from The Bolshoi, Yvette Chauvire from Paris Opera Ballet and me. I loved performing Giselle because of the acting, but I love them all – each ballet you interpret. Giselle is very emotional – you have to be tip top, but Ondine made my reputation. Critics came from all over the world to my premier in Germany. It is a killer ballet, very technical,” she said. “I loved dancing Swan Lake, Don Quixote and Firebird. I tried to make myself big and tall; people would come backstage and say,” Oh, my, you are so tiny. I weighed 94 pounds. Mentally, I am very tall.”

Dulce Anaya and Heino Hallhuber dance the Black Swan in Munich, Germany in 1960

At 4-foot-11, the woman known as “Darling Dolly” has thrown a huge shadow in the international dance world and in the arts community of Jacksonville. Dr. Avis Chen Boulter, pediatric anesthesiologist and dancer, first performed in a Dulce production in 2002 and has danced in Community Nutcracker, Bayadare, Giselle, Swan Lake and other ballets staged by Anaya. “Dulce is ballet royalty. She has brought ballet classics to Jacksonville and enriched us all. That is her legacy! We are all so much richer for knowing and learning from her,” she said.

Edith Pillsbury, author of Lynne Golding: Australian Ballerina agreed. “Dulce Anaya is a ball of energy; a force of nature. Whether as a prima ballerina, teacher or raconteur – Dulce is sheer delight,” she said.

Like a ballerina in a jewelry box, timeless, ageless, Anaya continues to sparkle and twirl! With no intention of retiring, Anaya continues to train dancers throughout the community and influence dancers throughout the world. It is a standing joke with Anaya’s many adoring friends that when not teaching or choreographing she can be found shopping at TJ Maxx.

Anaya also enjoys lively luncheons where she regales her dance friends with story after story of hilarious episodes in her day-to-day life and stories of her former dance partners and performances. Several people have tried to pin her down to write her autobiography but organizing the volumes of photographs, performances, events and sagas in her incredible life is an overwhelming task, since there is no sequential order to thoughts or materials. Each piece of her life puzzle is as important and jumbled as the next. Each item of her vast collection of memorabilia in her St. Nicholas home prompts a whirlwind tour through time.

Anaya defies the standard notions of what a person in their older years can and should do, and her name is synonymous with professionalism in dance training. Very precise and exacting, she often uses amusing comparisons, such as frogs or turtles, to encourage her students to strive for technical excellence. “Dulce brings such levity to class and rehearsals,” said Geri Travis, a local Jacksonville dancer. “I am always amazed at her knowledge—she knows every step of every ballet, and her stories, I love her stories. She is a treasure.”

Often, Anaya has been seen backstage at the Florida Theatre during Community Nutcracker warm-ups kicking her leg almost over her head while demonstrating a grand battement in high-heeled shoes!

“Dulce Anaya is the epitome of a prima ballerina,” said Debra Rankin, co-artistic director of Community Nutcracker Ballet. “Her passion and skillful technique shine through her teaching and choreography. I’ve always dreamed of having her knowledge transferred to my head.”

Anaya continues to brighten the lives of Jacksonville dance students and theatre goers as she celebrates 28 years of tireless dedication to the Jacksonville Community Nutcracker Ballet and countless hours of setting choreography, rehearsals and training dancers in the community for personal achievement and professional dance careers.

When asked about retiring she looked stunned. “Retire?” she said, incredulously. “I wouldn’t know what to do! I have to dance.”

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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