With gorgeous dark features and a razor-sharp wit, principal dancer Dores André is a study in contrast. She has the charm and grace of Audrey Hepburn but swears like a sailor. Initially, she gives off the air of a laid-back Spaniard. But when it comes to her dancing career, Dores brings forth a palpable resolve. It’s a trait fired in her upbringing spent in the cutthroat world of ballet, where an inkling of doubt could mean the downfall of a budding career.
Dores is the daughter of a professor and a doctor. Both parents pushed her and her siblings to constantly develop new skills in order to learn the importance of discipline and personal growth. They played chess and piano, took swimming lessons, and tried competitive diving. When her mother asked if she wanted to try ballet, Dores agreed, thinking it was just another activity to check off the list.
Dores started dancing later in life than most ballerinas; she was 11 years old when she took her first class in her hometown of Vigo, Spain. She took to it immediately. Ballet was social, yet still physically demanding — a perfect combination for charismatic young Dores.
Just two years after she started dancing, Dores entered a small competition where she caught the eye of Maria de Avila, a renowned Spanish ballerina. De Avila invited Dores to attend her prestigious ballet academy in Zaragoza, a town eight hours from Vigo. She was only 13 when she first left home, but she knew she had to take the opportunity.
Upon her arrival, Dores quickly realized her new training was at a different level than the recreational classes she’d taken back home. De Avila saw raw talent in Dores, but technically speaking, she was the worst in her class.
That uphill battle only ended up fueling Dores’s aspirations and dedication to the craft. “The more I knew about ballet, the more I liked it,” she says. “It became not just a fun thing, but something that forms you, and shapes you.”
Ballet gave Dores a sense of responsibility and self-awareness.“[As a dancer], you have to be very careful with your words and with your actions,” she says.
When she tells us how nervous she was about her initial move to the US from Europe 12 years ago, it comes as a surprise; she seems to be so confident all the time. To that, she gives a sly smile and responds, “You kind of have to be, no?” In her world, you do. After all, self-assurance is as much a survival instinct as an admirable character trait.
Throughout our time together, it was difficult to separate Dores from her ballerina persona — but then it became obvious that they are one in the same. “Being a ballerina has shaped who I am as a woman,” she explains. “I think I understand myself and what I want better, because I have this experience.”
The performances might one day fade to black, but the discipline, collectiveness, and drive required to make it as a dancer has to be a natural instinct.
By the time she was 17, Dores had pirouetted into a professional ballerina at a dance company in Italy. Shortly after that, she was given the opportunity to audition at the San Francisco ballet. She got the gig and immediately packed her bags.
“I was nervous [to move to America], but I think that’s when you know you have to do things. You just do them; you don’t really let emotions get in the way,” she explains. “I was compartmentalizing doubt and fear and just going for it.”
When she initially made the move from Florence to San Francisco in 2005, Dores expected to find a culture that was ambitious and cutthroat. Instead, she found herself identifying with the country’s strong work ethic almost immediately, and she also came to appreciate the positive and straightforward demeanor of Americans.
Dores describes her transition to life in the US as a relatively seamless one. The European-inspired architecture and the water surrounding San Francisco reminded her of Spain. Professionally, the San Francisco Ballet provided her not only with a steady job, but also an immediate sense of community, which many immigrants often go a long time without.
But as many a Hollywood movie has shown, the life of a ballerina isn’t all backstage hangouts and glamorous evening performances. Dores is in the dance studio six days a week, from 9AM to 7PM.
She’s managed to keep the rigorous schedule all these years mainly because she doesn’t see it as work, but as a way of life. The physical strain of dancing as much as she does is part of the package.
“What I understand as pain is different from what other people understand as pain,” she explains. “My feet hurt. My hips hurt. It’s not the most natural thing to do, to be moving your legs back and forth for 12 hours a day. You’re going to hurt.”
She knows the role of a ballerina is not something she can play forever. But right now she’s too focused on her responsibilities as a principal dancer to worry about what comes next.
“I’m very happy and very proud of where I am,” she admits. “But there are thousands of people who could be doing what I’m doing. You can never stop; you have to continue. You have to work harder.”
That’s pure Dores. While her competitors are collecting their roses on stage, she’s already back in the studio rehearsing for the next show.
When asked if she identifies as an American, Dores furrows her brow in concentration. “It’s complicated,” she says. When she’s in America, she views herself as an immigrant. But at the same time, when she’s back in Spain, she doesn’t feel entirely Spanish either.
“Having this no-identity identity is interesting because you choose to pick the right things about each culture,” she says.”I choose to be optimistic and I choose to be like Americans are in many ways. I choose not to be in other ways.”
Dores believes her international upbringing provides a unique perspective on some of the troubling issues the US faces in 2017. However, she’s also found that her outsider position sometimes prohibits her from chiming in on current affairs.
“I’ve sometimes found that if I have an opinion about something like racism in this country, my opinion doesn’t count because [people believe] I don’t understand the United States because I didn’t grow up here or I wasn’t born here,” she says. “But I don’t think that’s correct. ”
Overall, Dores loves life in the United States. She considers San Francisco home. But with her Spanish perspective, she says she would like to see the government and US citizens reflect on their collective past more often.
“By being a pioneer, sometimes you forget to look back and [check] on your own history,” she points out. “I think that learning from its past could be a really good thing.”
As a ballerina, Dores is used to acting as a role model for young girls who idolize her profession. But when it comes to dishing out advice to future immigrants who may also want to pursue a new life in America, she’s hesitant. She worked hard to get the visa needed to come here, but she’s well aware of how fortunate her situation in the States is. Still, she has a few words of wisdom that could apply to anyone looking to make a new home here, no matter the circumstance.
“As an immigrant, you will encounter difficult moments,” she explains. “It’s very important to not let those moments define you. Understand that most people are not [against you], most people want to help you. Find those people and be around them. Move on and be the best you can be.”