Cuban dancer keeps dream alive after rehab from rare immune disorder

HAVANA – Cuban dancer Yankiel Vázquez thought his dream of dancing with Cuba’s National Ballet was finished when a rare neurological disorder nearly crippled him several years ago.

The 29-year-old man, a native of the town of Mantua, in rural western Cuba, had joined the ballet in 2011. Shortly after, he was stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare but often debilitating condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves, sometimes paralyzing one’s extremities.

“It took me several months to learn to walk again,” he said, calling it an “intense physical and mental rehabilitation process.”

He returned to the ballet and this year he became a “first dancer,” an elite distinction within the ballet made even more impressive by his battle against the disorder.

“Reaching ‘first dancer’ is what one dreams of as a child,” he told Reuters.

Cuba’s National Ballet, founded in 1948 in Havana and later supported by Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, is among the world’s most renowned ballet companies. An associated school has graduated thousands of dancers onto the world stage over several decades.

The company’s 70 dancers have long benefited from a team of physiotherapists who keep performers healthy, according to Viengsay Valdés, director of the National Ballet of Cuba, including those who helped nurse Vazquez back to health.

A team of physiotherapists arrived recently from Chile to compare notes with their expert counterparts from Cuba and to help condition Cuban dancers for upcoming performances.

“A dancer is like an athlete. The importance of having physical preparation is essential,” Valdes said.

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