GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - When Phyllis Papa started the Atlantic City Ballet in 1982, the company featured 12 dancers, including Papa. All of them were American born.
The company's size has increased to 27 dancers after 31 years. The company's makeup also has changed.
Now, only six dancers with this regional company were born in this country. The rest hail from Europe and Asia.
"Today, we have dancers from all over the world because the competition has changed now. The world has gotten smaller. People travel more. They let their children out to travel more and audition in different countries," Papa said.
While scouring the globe for dancers has improved the quality of performances at the company, it also has meant more work for its founder.
Because they have no one else to turn to, whenever the foreign dancers need help, Papa steps in to offer assistance.
This may be as complicated as helping the dancers navigate America's work rules or as mundane as making sure they have the skills for day-to-day life here.
"We teach them how to shop and get their own food and that kind of thing. Our grocery stores are a whole lot different than theirs, so we work, the ballet company, pretty much like a family. We help the ones that are just coming. Whatever we can do, we try to help them," said Papa. "Sometimes, we get dancers who don't have any English when they come here, and we teach them English."
The dancers who do have cars will drive the dancers that don't, Papa said.
Rina Yamaguchi, 23, of Osaka, Japan, lived in Canada from age 16 to 19, before she arrived at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. She stayed there for three years before coming to the Atlantic City Ballet last year.
When Yamaguchi was in Canada, she tried out for American ballet companies, but most ballet companies do not help with obtaining a visa, so she could not enter the country.
Yamaguchi obtained a student visa to attend the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. During Yamaguchi's first year at Atlantic City Ballet, she was an apprentice. She knew if she stayed with the Atlantic City Ballet, she could obtain a working visa. Now in her second year as a company member, she has that visa.
In Europe, ballet dancing is more about the look and the perfect body type, Yamaguchi said. She wanted to come to America where she would at least have a chance.
"Here, many Asian people are dancing and short people and even taller people, and then, it's more like technique stuff, like jumping higher. I like that way more," said Yamaguchi, who hopes her time with the Atlantic City Ballet will lead to a main role in a big ballet company in this country. "For me, it is easy to turn and jump, but flexibility is difficult."
Because the world is smaller and the company has dancers from all over the world, the competition is higher, Papa said. Years ago, YouTube didn't exist. Videotapes didn't circulate to enable dancers to look at other artists and learn from them, like they do today, Papa said.
"I have auditions in New York. I have auditions here, and they can also audition through videotape. So they can send a video. If I like them, then, I will have them come and take a class and see them live, so it helps a lot of the foreign dancers to do that," said Papa. "The funny thing is that when I have my auditions in New York almost everyone in that room is not American."
Dancer Joel Kolmenero is from Barcelona, Spain. Being only 5-feet 7-inches tall would have been held against him in Spain as he tried to be a ballet dancer. It is hard to land a ballet dancing job in his native country anyway, and here in America, there are more opportunities because there are many companies.
"I thought it was impossible to get here. It was a really big step to come," said Kolmenero, 24.
When Kolmenero first came to this country at age 15 to study at the American Ballet Theatre, he lived with friends of his parents in Hudson County. Now, he lives in southern New Jersey, but admits to feeling a little homesick.
"At the moment, I'm would like my career to stay here in the U.S., but I would like to move back to Europe and be closer to my family and friends. It's hard to go home," Kolmenero said.
Papa said there is a lack of classically trained ballet dancers in this country as many dancers are modern-dance trained. The dancers who come from other countries attend academies in their native countries where they dance all day long.
"Our kids go to school.(Dancing is) not like their main focus. It starts out like a hobby, or it starts out like, 'Oh, let me have something for my child to do to keep them in really good shape. In that fact, that's where U.S. dancers are lagging behind," Papa said. " A lot of people go: Monday night is Girl Scouts, and Tuesday night is ballet, and Wednesday night is piano, and Thursday night is sports. It's really difficult to train dancers that only do it once a week."
Aldeir Monteiro, 23, of Rio de Janeiro, was playing volleyball badly when his first dance teacher pulled him aside and introduced him to the after school ballet club instead. Monteiro first came to this country to attend the Miami City Ballet School at age 17.
"Here, they receive us better than in other countries. The technique is different (in the U.S). I come from the Miami City Ballet School where they have a different technique, the Balanchine technique," said Monteiro, who added the U.S. has more dance companies that use the Balanchine technique than others. "It's hard in Brazil... The good companies, it's contemporary. It's not classical. We have a lot of good companies, but contemporary companies."
Monteiro seems to have acclimated to this country well over the past six years. In his free time, he makes trips to Wawa, sleeps, does laundry, shops and heads to movies and restaurants.
Monteiro still misses his family.
"In Brazil, it's really hard to get a job as a classical ballet dancer, and because of my dream, I came here," said Monteiro, who added he would ideally like to dance a main role in a bigger company. "It's hard because I needed to leave my family there, but it's my dream. I want to be a ballet dancer. That's the best choice for me now," Monteiro said.
The southern New Jersey community has welcomed the foreign-born dancers over the years with open arms. Papa said she has never heard of one of her dancers having a problem with discrimination or prejudice in the area. Papa said her diverse company is not something she went out of her way to create. Her focus is not so much on where they are from, but who are the best dancers she can convince to join her and how she can make her company top-notch while being based in Atlantic County.
Papa's international dance troupe and colorblind casting leads to unexpected opportunities, said Alexandria Pieroni, the Atlantic City Ballet's marketing manager.
"There might be a little Asian girl who in her lifetime may never see an Asian sugarplum fairy until she comes to see ours," Pieroni said. "It's an opportunity for children of other races and cultures to see dancers dance not just in the corps de ballet, but solo parts."
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Atlantic City Ballet performances
• "It's A Shore Holiday" - 8 p.m. Dec. 7 in the arena at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, Atlantic City. Free tickets are available. Visit trumptaj.com
• "Nutcracker" - 7 p.m. Dec. 13 and 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Stockton Performing Arts Center, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Pomona. Tickets are priced at $32 for adults and $12 for children, Tickets can be ordered at
stocktonpac.org or by calling the box office at 609-652-9000. The box office is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 90 minutes before the performance.