Three years ago, Omar Z. Robles began photographing ballerinas, asking professional dancers to leave the confines of their performance halls and step out onto the streets of their cities. His series from Cuba, in particular, caught the attention of the internet in 2016, showcasing an aspect of the country’s creative culture that has long been celebrated by locals but rarely given its due reverence abroad.
“Cuba has one of the top-ranked ballet companies, thus why I dreamt of visiting the island for a long time,” Robles told The Huffington Post last year. “Their dancers are just some of the best dancers in the world.”
In that same interview, Robles noted the connection between Cuba and his own home, Puerto Rico, explaining that his decision to shoot in and around Havana had to do with his own connection to Latin America. Robles only makes it back to Puerto Rico once a year, most often to visit family. This year was no different, save for the fact that he managed to recruit a few ballerinas from Puerto Rico’s dance scene to take part in a street photography project in San Juan.
Before and after his series in Cuba, Robles has staged similar ballet-focused shoots in urban areas of Mexico, Guatemala, Hong Kong and other parts of the U.S. He focused on Latin America, primarily because, he explained, he is Latino. He also feels the dance scenes across South and Central America deserve more attention.
“When you think of dance, you hardly think of Latin America,” Robles explained in a recent phone conversation with The Huffington Post. “You always think of Europe, Asia and the U.S. After I went to Mexico and Cuba, I saw that there’s a lot of potential there that should be rewarded. So I kind want to set myself that goal.”
That goal, of course, is to shine a spotlight on the ballet dancers who reflect the beauty of Latin America’s dance scene. “Latin America is rich in music and dance ― culture in general,” Robles said. “It’s within our roots. I think Latinos, we are very dramatic; we always express in very dramatic forms.”
Unfortunately, Robles pointed out, ballet is an art form that requires a lot of money ― training and equipment can be very expensive for aspiring dancers. As a result, dancers in less wealthy regions of Latin America don’t always have access to the kinds of instructors and facilities that ballerinas in, say, New York City do.
“When I was in Guatemala and Cuba, where there’s not the same amount of resources, I saw a different [dance] technique,” he told HuffPost. “Whereas in Mexico, there’s much more money, in Cuba, there’s probably less money than even in Guatemala. But the quality of dancers [in Cuba] is outstanding ― that’s because it’s prioritized.”
Robles sees his work, in part, as a means of underscoring the spirit of dance that’s worth prioritizing. While in Puerto Rico, he met with Vianca E. Palacios, Laura Valentín, Camila M. Rosado and Courtney Stohlton, and photographed the women en pointe at familiar spots across San Juan.
He also, as he outlined in a blog post online, sees his work as a way of reclaiming a home he’s left behind in many ways. Sadly, his rare visits to Puerto Rico frequently revolve around a death or illness in the family. His San Juan photos will allow him to “bring home back with me,” in a joyful way.
Attempting to deal with his own homesickness, Robles says he was reminded of the hardships so many families separated by distance grapple with around the world. “I can’t even imagine the struggles felt recently by families threatened [by] the unmentionable ‘ban,’” he wrote on his blog, referencing President Donald Trump’s executive order that temporarily blocked people from a handful of countries from entering the U.S.
Before the travel ban, Robles, who was born Omar Zaid, experienced the effects of discriminatory vetting processes at airports firsthand. “I was detained once for three hours just because of my name. Not in the U.S., but it did happen,” he explained. “To be honest, I started fearing [after Trump signed the executive order]. Last year I went to a gallery show of my work in Canada, and when I went though the border on the train, both coming in and out of the country, I was questioned for half an hour. It’s very embarrassing and unnerving. At this point I know it’s coming every time, but it gets me nervous. I know I have to nothing to fear, but just the fact that I’m going to get discriminated against each time is unnerving.”
Despite these experiences, Robles admits he feels lucky, because “even though most americans don’t know it,” Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. “That is not the case for many people.”
Check out more from Robles’ Puerto Rico photo series below. To see more of his work, head to his Instagram.