Serrano, Lupe: 1930—: Ballerina

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Lupe Serrano: 1930: Ballerina

In a career that has spanned more than half a century, ballerina Lupe Serrano has enjoyed a life studded with moments worthy of red rose-showered standing ovations. By the sheer power of her will, she rose from a second-rate dance school in Chile to become the first Hispanic principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. She has toured with Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso and danced with superstar Rudolf Nureyev. On stages world-wideEurope, the Soviet Union, South Americashe moved audiences to near-frenzies with her glowing stage presence and flawless technique. Mexico's Noticias del día recalled how at one performance at London's Covent Gardens, Serra-no's interpretation of Combat melted the audience's usually restrained composure into a chorus of "foot stamping, applause, and shouts." When Serrano retired from performing to teach, she lost none of her passion for ballet. She told Noticias del día that her happiest moments are when she is sharing her knowledge of dance with students. "I continue to be in love with this art and still haven't lost my pleasure for the dance."

Born With Desire to Dance

Lupe Serrano was born on December 7, 1930, in Santiago, Chile. At the time her father, Luis Martinez Serranoa Spanish-born, Argentine-raised musicianwas leading an orchestra on a tour through South America. With him was his French-Mexican wife, Luciana Desfassiaux, whom he had met during an earlier tour through Mexico. Following Serrano's birth, her father fell ill and the young family decided to remain in Chile during his recovery. Nearly from the time she could walk Serrano wanted to dance. She recalled in an interview with the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography that at her third birthday party she insisted on dancing for all the guests. Not long after that impromptu performance, her parents decided to channel their daughter's incessant house-twirling into formal training by enrolling her in a dance school. However, the Chilean educational system was quite poor in the 1930s and it took a while to find a school. The one they finally settled on was not ideal but it offered the four year-old her first structured training in ballet.

At a Glance . . .

Born on December 7, 1930 in Santiago, Chile; daughter of Luis Martinez Serrano and Luciana Desfassiaux; married Kenneth Schermehorn, 1957, (divorced early 1970s); children: Erica and Veronica. Education: Studied with the Mexico City Ballet, mid-1940s; also trained in New York, NY and Santiago, Chile.

Career: American Ballet Theater, principal dancer, prima ballerina, 1953-71; National Academy of Arts in Illinois, assistant director, 1971-74; Pennsylvania Ballet School, director and teacher, 1974-88; Washington (DC) Ballet, artistic associate, 1988; Juilliard School, New York, NY, teacher, 1997; also danced with: Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, New York, NY; Ballet Folklorico de Mexico; the Mexico City Ballet; has also taught at American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Cleveland Ballet, Washington Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Rome Opera Ballet, and Ballet Nacional de Mexico.

Address: Office Public Relations, American Ballet Theatre, 890 Broadway, New York, NY, 10003. Phone: (212) 477-3030.

In 1943 Serrano and her family moved back to her mother's native Mexico City. The move was instrumental for Serrano's dance education. She immediately began training with the Mexico City Ballet. It was difficult at first. "I had terrible habits by then," she told the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. "But I had been in so many recitals that I had a sense of how to fill the stage." She was also completely in love with dancing and had a burning desire to be the best. Her commitment earned her a place in the company's ballet corps within a year and at 14 she debuted in the company's production of Les Sylphides. She continued dancing with the company while maintaining a heavy schedule of dance lessons and high school classes. Undaunted, she doubled her load at high school in order to finish a year early and thus be free to tour. Meanwhile, her rank in the Mexico City Ballet continued to rise and according to her official biography from the American Ballet Theatre, she eventually "established herself as Mexico's leading ballerina."

At the age of eighteen, Serrano embarked upon a Central American tour with Alicia Alonso, a Cuban prima ballerina and founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Alonso is widely considered one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century and it was a great honor for Serrano to tour with her. When she returned to Mexico City, she joined a brand new ballet company founded by one of her teachers. However, the company was forced by bankruptcy to hang up its pointe shoes and close shop. It upset Serrano but also taught her the realities of dance beyond the bright lights of the stage. "Ballet is not a self-supporting art anywhere in the world," she told the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. "It has to be sponsored. A person like my ballet teacher, who was devoted to the art of ballet, of course would not have the ability to raise funds."

Leapt from Mexico to New York

Serrano soon joined the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, a Mexican-government sponsored troupe that celebrated the varied cultures of Mexico through their ethnic dances. With this company her fame in Mexico continued to rise. However, by 1950, 20-year-old Serrano yearned for more. Just like the little girl who couldn't help dancing through the rooms of her childhood home, the young woman that Serrano had become longed to dance across the stages of the world. She also wanted to return to ballet. The most natural jumping off point for her was New York City and in 1951 she moved there. The Mexican choreographer Sylvia Ramirez recalled Serrano's departure for New York to Noticias del día, "She went full of enthusiasm, fervor, and love for dance. She had no contract, nor the security that she'd be accepted in a ballet company, but she had talent and faith in herself, as well as solid technical training. These qualities opened the doors to the Metropolitan Opera House and the American Ballet Theatre where she soon became one of the most famous principal ballerinas of her era."

Upon her arrival in New York, Serrano auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and landed a position with the company. With the troupe she traveled throughout North and South America and made her solo debut. However, the company soon folded under financial strain and Serrano dejectedly returned to Mexico City. She promptly landed a starring role on a television show dedicated to the classical arts and danced regularly on the program. It required some changes in her performance technique. "We had to rearrange the way we covered space on the floor, because the cameras were not very mobile," she told the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. "And you had to be much more subtle in expression, because the camera brings you much closer to the audience. On the stage, you have to think of projecting yourself a block away. Television is much more intimate."

Not long after returning to Mexico City, she was summoned back to New York by the former road manager of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He was now working for the American Ballet Theatre and suggested that Serrano audition. There was no question about it; Serrano had immense respect for the company and longed to dance with it. She left for New York where she immediately enrolled in dance classes and prepared her audition. In 1953 she was accepted into the American Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer, one of the highest ranks within a ballet company. It was the culmination of a lifetime of dreams and dancing. She recalled to the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography her feelings the first time she led the company in a grand finale. "[I thought] 'Well, look at you now, leading this group of wonderful dancers.' I felt a great sense of pride." She wasn't the only one filled with pride. By joining the American Ballet Theatre, she became the company's first Hispanic principal dancer and a role model for young Hispanic dancers worldwide.

Danced With Nureyev

Serrano went on to perform with the American Ballet Theatre for almost two decades, eventually rising to the top position of prima ballerina. She danced more than 50 different roles including ballet classics such as Swan Lake, Giselle, La Fille Mal Gardée, and Aurora's Wedding. She also performed contemporary ballets by famed choreographers such as George Balanchine, William Dollar, Antony Tudor, and Jerome Robbins. With the company she embarked on several worldwide tours, dazzling audiences from the Soviet Union to Greece, England to Venezuela. At one memorable performance in Leningrad, the audience was so moved by her solo performance that they insisted she repeat it when she returned to the stage for the customary bow. In 1962 Serrano's experience dancing for television was called upon when she was asked to perform a duet from Le Corsaire with Rudolf Nureyev. The performance was telecast as part of the Bell Telephone Hour, a television program that brought the classical arts to the public. At the time Nureyev was already a legend in the dance world and had become the first true ballet superstar. To dance with him in such a high-profile performance was a great achievement for Serrano. A few years later Serrano gave another high-profile performance for President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. She also continued performing with the American Ballet Theatre, both in the United States and abroad and becoming, according to the Rocky Mountain News, "one of its main attractions."

In 1957 Serrano married Kenneth Schermerhorn, then conductor for the American Ballet Theatre. When Schermerhorn took a position with the New Jersey Symphony, Serrano began a busy schedule of commuting to New York for rehearsals and classes. In 1963 they had their first daughter, Erica and in 1967, their second, Veronica. Under her mother's tutelage, Veronica would go on to become a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre as well. Soon after the birth of her second child, Serrano took a year-long sabbatical from dance. When she returned to the American Ballet Theatre it was as a permanent guest artist, meaning she would have the freedom to choose her own performances and could devote more time to her family. Eventually Serrano moved to Wisconsin where Schermerhorn had been hired as a conductor with the Milwaukee Orchestra. There she began to teach dance at the Conservatory of Milwaukee and the University of Milwaukee. She proved a natural at teaching and enjoyed sharing her love of ballet with young dancers.

Turned Talent Toward Teaching

In 1971, after nearly three decades onstage, Serrano decided to take her final bow and retire as a dancer. She was 40. At about the same time Serrano and Schermerhorn divorced. Though her family in Mexico begged her to return home, Serrano remained in the United States where she turned her formidable talents to teaching full time. Her first position was with the National Academy of Arts in Illinois. When the company closed in 1974, she joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania Ballet School where she also oversaw the apprenticeship program. From 1974 to 1983 Serrano also served as director of the school. Meanwhile she kept up a busy schedule of master classes for dance companies across the world including the San Francisco Ballet, the Minnesota Dance Theatre, the Cleveland Ballet, the Washington Ballet, the Cincinnati Ballet, the Rome Opera Ballet, and the National Ballet of Mexico. She also became a sought-after judge on the international ballet competition circuit. In 1988 Serrano became the artistic associate for the Washington Ballet. Her duties included coaching the company, the apprentices, and the advanced students. In 1997 she began to give classes at Juilliard, the famed New York City school for the arts. By 2003, inching into her seventies, she was still giving classes worldwide, including a series of studio workshops with her beloved American Ballet Theatre.

Serrano's fifty-year love affair with ballet has left an unforgettable mark on the artfrom the hundreds of dancers who have learned to jump higher, twirl more gracefully, and dance better under her watchful eye to the thousands of fans who have swooned to her own graceful moves across the stage. As Linda Urdapilleta, a Mexican ballerina told Noticias del día, "Only a person like Serrano could scale the steps she's had to face and arrive at a company like the American Ballet Theater. Those that had the privilege of seeing her dance will never forget it. We will always be proud of her."



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.


Rocky Mountain News, Denver, CO, September 20, 1997, p. 65A.


"Clase Magistral con Lupe Serrano en el Teatro de la Danza," Noticias del día, (May 23, 2003).

"Los Bailarines de Hoy Mantienen una Técnica Más Depurada," Noticias del día, www.conaculta.gob. mx/saladeprensa/2002/25mar/serrano.htm (May 23, 2003).

"Lupe Serrano," Biography Resource Center, www. (July 7, 2003).

Candace LaBalle