Eduardo Vilaro

INTERVIEW: Ballet Hispánico CEO Eduardo Vilaro on How Dance Changed the Trajectory of His Life

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla. Photo credit: Rachel Neville

Dance liberated Eduardo Vilaro. 

The Artistic Director and CEO of Ballet Hispánico, the largest Latine cultural organization in the United States, carries on a legacy through dance that captures the Latin American experience. Today, Vilaro helps bring together a community of dancers of all ages through the principle created by founder Tina Ramirez in 1970: everyone deserves dance. As a mode of following their dreams and shattering glass ceilings while also holding onto cultural touchstones. And it all comes back to identity and how dance opens doors; not just creatively but also when it comes to who you are.

Born in Cuba, he was raised in New York from the age of six, with dance being the seismic shift he didn’t know he needed early on in life. When speaking to Remezcla for our Pride 2024 package, Vilaro first shared that, “Spanish was my first language. And you could start learning [English], but I was still terrified. We weren’t allowed to speak Spanish outside. So the trajectory to belonging and feeling like I belonged came to a head when I did my first musical theater where I had to dance.”

In his own words, dance released him. “The communication with the audience, the acceptance of the audience, in a broader way, and the demonstration of that released me and I said, ‘Okay, this is a communication tool that you could use to first fully realize who you are or start on a path of identity.” And it doesn’t have to be a huge dance production either to set you on a new path. Dance comes in all forms and when you’re a kid, even something like Charlie Brown can help you explore your identity.

Eduardo Vilaro
Credit: Paula Lobo
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You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the 1967 musical based on Charles M. Schulz’s beloved comic strip Peanuts was Vilaro’s first big dance role. He played Linus, Charlie Brown’s best friend who is often introverted but funny. And getting up there and performing to “My Blanket and Me” was big for him as a kid. It gave him autonomy and “the freedom to be creative” that led him to go, “Ok, I can explore this. I can explore who I am in my identity and what I bring.”

Flashforward years later and Vilaro was going through something most immigrants do when in the USA, reconnecting with his Latinidad after diving head first into dance. Oftentimes, people that look, sound, and speak like us aren’t in creative fields like dance. This interviewer herself has experienced that just like I know my siblings, parents, and cousins have. It takes finding each other within these spaces to realize that we don’t have to set aside who we are as we move forward in our lives. And this applies to Eduardo Vilaro.

Ballet Hispánico became that space where he connected with his Latinidad once more. “I came to [Ballet Hispánico] after going to get my bachelor’s in a mainly white space, learning mainly white dance, white modern dance, and what it thinks you should be and how you should be.” And it took hearing staff in the Upper West Side, where the studio is located, speak Spanish for him to find his way back to his roots but also understanding himself as a dancer within a space that had changed the trajectory of his life.

Vilaro proudly shared that “the pride starts trickling in again, and then you want to speak Spanish, you want to start. And that was for me, the identity cherry that I was now doing my art in a specifically Latino space, a Latina space led by a Latina woman.” 

In sharing about his journey and the power of dance in helping him learn who he is, Vilaro was also adamant that to be the best performer, you have to free and accept yourself. That’s how you create better art. And he came to understand that about himself as an LGBTQ+ individual through his love for dance. “I found myself a little more in dance. And it was this particular space where the doors were open. Because dance is a very queer space. And you learn to be free of corporal hate [and come to this realization that] I need to accept myself because I got to get on stage.”

As the Artistic Director & CEO of Ballet Hispánico, Vilaro has been unapologetic about bringing all parts of himself into the work he does. There’s the Latin American side to his work dedicated to demystifying ballet from its Eurocentric roots and blending it with familiar styles and forms from the Latine cultural landscape as a means of redefining what ballet “should be.” But Vilaro is part of the LGBTQ+ community and he brings that into the work he does at Ballet Hispánico. And he understands that not everyone from the Latine community might like it, as homophobia is still prevalent within our communities, but dance is a haven for LGBTQ+ artists, dancers, and creatives. So he’s going to push forward and let all parts of who is into the work that he does.

Eduardo Vilaro
Credit: Billy Pennant
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“I struggle with seeing how my community does not keep their arms open because they came here with their arms open, wanting to be accepted,” Vilaro explained, feeling there needs to be something done about the way our own people close up when we find ourselves, especially when if finding ourselves means we’re part of the LGBTQ+ community. So he’s going to do something about it. “I think art is exactly what that something is. If people can continue to see things and see things in a way that touches them and that also makes them think, then you have a vehicle for dialogue, conversation. And ultimately, I think acceptance.”

But don’t be fooled. It hasn’t been easy bringing these queer elements to his work at Ballet Hispánico and Vilaro has gotten push back. “I get hate mail. ‘How dare you use the ‘Ave Maria’ with a drag queen in it?’ It’s music. It’s sacred for you, but it doesn’t mean that it’s sacred for everyone.” And it’s not just infusing LGBTQ+ elements into ballet that has gotten some pushback. There’s been ignorance when he’s introduced Afro-Latine dance and culture into his ballet. The whole “this is sacred” gets thrown around by naysayers. But Vilaro persists because “this is part of our legacy” and he’s here to help guide the next generation of dancers and creatives into finding out who they are through dance, just like it did for him.

At the end of the day, “it’s certainly a task. But you know what? I’m a kid from the Bronx and like I said, when we opened, we’ve been chased, bullied, beaten, thrown up against cars. I’ve got a thick, thick skin, so I’m ready to go.”

To learn more about Ballet Hispánico, their mission, or their programs, please visit their official website here.

This post is part of Remezcla Pride 2024: Identity Edition. Read more here.