When Portland Ballet students Lauren Kness and Henry Winslow landed in the Dominican Republic with instructor Nancy Davis last December, all of the passengers on their plane broke into applause.
"You could just tell this entire plane of people were just happy to be there," Winslow says. "There was definitely an attitude shift of how people were thinking about life."
That warm, welcoming feeling seemed to surround the students' time participating in a cultural-exchange with the Ballet Concierto Dominicano. Kness, a senior at Wilson High School, and Winslow performed a pas-de-deux in the Dominican ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," which was held the weekend of Dec. 16.
"Everybody went the extra mile to make sure we had a good time and felt appreciated and welcomed," Davis says. "That was very touching."
The exchange came after months of planning and coordination between Davis, the director of the Southwest Portland-based Portland Ballet, and Carlos Veitia, artistic director at the Ballet Concierto's academy. Veitia and his wife had come to Portland in the spring of 2015 to visit his wife's niece, who attends Lewis & Clark College.
While in the area, they stopped by the Portland Ballet studio on Southwest Capitol Highway to meet Davis and watch a class. The two instructors instantly connected and decided to stay in touch.
After emailing back and forth, Veitia and Davis decided to send two students to Santo Domingo, the Caribbean country's capital.
"We both almost simultaneously thought, 'Let's try to do a cultural exchange,'" Davis says. "My hope is to bring Carlos and a couple of dancers here within the next year."
The American dancers performed the Arabian Dance — a short scene within "The Nutcracker" that's an aside to the main plot — choreographed specially for them by John Clifford.
Once the Portland dancers reached Santo Domingo, they had only a few days to rehearse with the company. Kness and Winslow say they cherished getting to know the Dominican ballerinas and how they worked.
"Just being able to watch them perform and take what they were working on in class or rehearsal and put it on stage," Kness says. "It was really, really amazing to watch."
The two were impressed with their counterparts, and noted how their differing backgrounds — and, possibly, economic obstacles — made their passion for dance all the more impactful.
"I felt like part of the dedication came from a knowledge of how many resources you need to even begin to have this sort of career and this sort of art form as a possibility," Winslow says. "I didn't really comprehend that this is very difficult to have this sort of thing in society, where you can just do this as a living."
Kness and Winslow are both in The Portland Ballet's Career Track program, which prepares higher-tier students to pursue ballet as a profession.
"Just to be in this program, you have to have reached a certain level technically — they're smart, they're good dancers and quick learners," Davis says of Kness and Winslow. "They have, in my opinion, what it takes to be professional dancers — because you can have all the facility in the world and not have the head for it."
After graduation this spring, Kness plans to send out audition tapes across the country with the hope of securing a spot in a company. Winslow will be going to college to study dance and will pursue ballet upon graduation.
For two students who have their sights set on a career in ballet, the exchange proved an invaluable experience. Both say they appreciated being treated like professionals.
"We were with Nancy, but we were more on our own," Kness says. "It was just more of an independent experience."
"I think this was such a wonderful eye opener for them," Davis adds. "They're never going to forget this, and that's a pretty big deal for me to have helped enrich their lives and given them a good experience like this."