Honoring Evelyn Cisneros: First Mexican-American Prima Ballerina in The U.S

An icon in the world of ballet, Evelyn Cisneros has long been considered a groundbreaking trailblazer and a great inspiration for women and Latinos everywhere. Dancing since childhood, Cisneros overcame insecurities and pushed through adversities throughout her career leading her to much success and recognition. Considered the first Mexican-American prima ballerina in the United States, we honor and celebrate Cisneros’s contribution to the arts, and for being a leader and positive role model for our Latino community. Currently, Cisneros is the director of all 4 campuses at the Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy in Utah, working alongside Artistic Director Adam Sklute. But before she initially started in education after her retirement as a dancer in 1999, she performed with the San Francisco Ballet for about 23 years, starting off as an apprentice in 1976.

Born in California, Cisneros grew up in Huntington Beach and reflects on her upbringing in a tight-knit Mexican-American family, “My grandparents came across the border during the Mexican Revolution. Both of my parents are children of 6 sibling families, and they met at church and married at 18. My parents also both loved physical activity such as being outside and body surfing” she said. Cisneros also had the fortune of coming from a large family with a total of over 40 cousins on both sides combined, with whom she was all close to, “Every Sunday we would go have dinner with one side of the family or the other, so my extended family was very important and instrumental in my growth,” Cisneros adds. As she grew up, Cisneros began to have difficulty navigating through her shyness which prompted her mother to enroll her in a local ballet school, “It became apparent it was a problem, and it was an obstacle in my development and confidence. So my mother thought something like ballet would help me, because I wasn’t necessarily required to speak and I would be participating with other individuals along with moving to music. My mom wisely had an agreement with me that I would do it for a year,” she said. Initially starting off as a hobby to combat her shyness would soon turn into a lifelong dream for the young dancer.

Photo Courtesy of The Robert J. McLeod Photography Collection

During Cisneros’ first year, she met teacher Phyllis Cyr, who was instrumental in encouraging her to continue with ballet, “She really inspired me with the challenge to work the technique to beautiful music, and had left that particular studio and started her own and I went with her. She then brought in other teachers and I continued to mature and grow in my technical development. Phyllis really inspired me with the music and striving for perfection in this art form which was hard, because this whole technique is not pedestrian. It’s the outward rotation of your hips, pointing your feet and having straight knees, it’s all unique and different and I was very challenged by that,” Cisneros adds. Also inspired by the likes of Audrey Hepburn, and Native-American dancer Maria Tallchief, ballet became the artistic outlet Cisneros needed to realize her potential and break through her timid personality. Recalling a classic musical, Cisneros elaborates further on her inspiration, “I also remember things like when I first saw Singin’ in the Rain, (featuring Gene Kelly). I remember going out into my driveway with an umbrella in the rain and dancing in the driveway. Nobody told me to do that, and I just loved it. I had spun my own hair into the umbrella, and my mother had to cut my hair free with scissors.  That sort of thing was very much who I was, and Phyllis certainly allowed me to discover that and inspired me to pursue my dream.”

Continuing on with her ballet studies, Cisneros was 14 when she auditioned for the summer intensive with the San Francisco Ballet School where she was offered a full scholarship for the summer semester which she also attended the following year. In her third summer of training with a professional ballet school, Cisneros was offered a scholarship to attend SAB (School of American Ballet) in New York, “It was a very difficult time for me, I just felt that I wasn’t good enough to be a ballet dancer and was put in a very low-level class and was restricted in the amount of technique I could do during that class. I had become very discouraged and came home from that summer intensive and told my parents I wanted to quit dancing,” Cisneros recalls. Persuaded by her parents, she would eventually finish out that summer semester with the San Francisco Ballet. The following year, Cisneros graduated high school early and relocated to San Francisco from Huntington Beach as she earned a spot as an apprentice with the company, “I was so happy, and started learning everything right away. I was just talking to my dad the other day, and he recalled letting me go at 16 years old to San Francisco where I lived by myself. It was very challenging for my parents because I was so young and moved far from home at such a young age.  I asked my dad how he was able to do that, and he told me he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t let me go. That he had to give me that chance to achieve my dream. I was very blessed that my parents were supportive and wise and able to see the potential I might have and being selfless in that. We are also a family of deep faith and I think that made it feasible,” she said.

In terms of Cisneros’s Mexican heritage, she endured some difficult challenges as a dancer in the 1970s with the San Francisco Ballet. As the lone Latina, Cisneros elaborates on the discrimination she faced in this particular era in her life, “In the 70s at that time when I started dancing with San Francisco, there was no other person of color in the company. And there was one ballet master that used to give me a really hard time and didn’t like me much, because the co-artistic director Michael Smuin did really like me and would give me opportunities to learn things. He gave me opportunities to be in his choreography, and to learn roles [on] someone that was ahead of me in the hierarchy in the company. I became his muse within the company and was the youngest dancer for a few years. He (Smuin) had started becoming inspired by my work, and this particular ballet master was really hard on me and loved to humiliate and criticize me harshly in front of everyone,” Cisneros recalls. “He would send me up to powder my skin so I would look white. I would be dancing 3 ballets and would be sweating, and sweat off the makeup, and he would send me back up 3 floors to repaint myself so that I looked like everyone else. After a while, I was very determined to do my best and to be as good as I could be. I remember one particular time I was tired for the Nutcracker show and would do 3 roles every performance. We would do 33 performances a year. Because I was young in the company, I would be on the 3rd floor dressing room, and the costumes were in the basement so there was a lot of running up and down the stairs. And at one point, I remember after a hard run of Nutcracker, this ballet master sent me back upstairs to repaint my skin. I remember running up and thinking to myself, I don’t look like everyone else, I don’t want to look like everyone else. I am me, so I need to get out of the corp, so I’m not in a group of people where I can’t be who I am. It was a very defining moment for me to make that decision and [come] to realization. I also felt as though no matter what he said to me and how mean he was to me, he would never make me cry in public. And then I would go back to my dressing room and burst down and cry to myself. I also told myself I wasn’t going to allow him to break me like that in public, and there was a time that got really hard, I decided to go to Michael Smuin and told him how this ballet master was so mean to me and asked him to talk to him for me. He told me, “This is your issue, you have to deal with it, and I thought okay……and I did, but it was worth being in the company to deal with that and find my way through it.”

Cisneros’ status as a prima ballerina (principal dancer) began during her prime years with the San Francisco Ballet. She earned the status as a principal ballerina due to her hard work, dedication, and overall mastery of necessary dance techniques. Explained further by Cisneros, she goes on to tell us more, “When I first started dancing with San Francisco Ballet, it was a company sort of structured under the kind of the premise the New York City Ballet had which was just a company. When Helgi Tomasson took over he started defining it into categories such as the corp de ballet which is the big group. Then there’s the soloists, the dancers that dance in twos, threes, and fours, and fives who are a little more advanced and gain a little more notoriety than the corp,” she said. “Then there’s the principal dancers. City Ballet and San Francisco started labeling the categories like that. Beyond that, I think the prima ballerina status would set you apart as being the first ballerina, the most recognized, and the most able to cross all choreographic boundaries. I danced everything from the Balanchine to the very classical to the contemporary to tap dancing. I did all genres, and I was named (First-Hispanic Prima Ballerina) by the press and by magazine articles.”

Throughout her accomplished career, Cisneros had the once-in-lifetime chance to meet dancer and film star Gene Kelly who had hosted a gala performance for the San Francisco Ballet, “He came out on stage and did a little bit of tap movement, and was the guest artist star for the gala, and I got to meet him because I was dancing at the event,” she said. Cisneros then met the legendary star a second time as she was invited to perform at the White House for President Ronald Regan and his wife Nancy Regan. Gene Kelly had been one of the hosts along with Beverly Sills. Both Kelly and Sills were in attendance to host and present young talent, as Cisneros was chosen along with 3 other dancers from the San Francisco Ballet, “I got to perform a classical quartet with my dear friend Kirk Peterson, which included a variation and a duet. I then did a tap dance that was inspired by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire that Micheal Smuin choreographed for Kirk Peterson and I. That was an incredible highlight of my life being able to perform for the President and meet Gene Kelly again. To be a part of that was so amazing. The President was so warm and generous, and years afterward I would get a Christmas card from the White House, and it was so special. As an American, it’s like dancing for the King and his Queen,” Cisneros said. This particular moment in Cisneros’ career was pivotal in her legacy as a dancer. 

Photo Courtesy of Evelyn Cisneros, The White House, Circa 1982

Other notable people Cisneros has met include musician Carlos Santana in which she had the chance to appear on his live Supernatural DVD concert. During the concert, she performs a dance with her husband Stephen Legate to the song “Love of My Life,” alongside Dave Matthews and Santana. Cisneros has also met famed filmmaker George Lucas, and other prominent figures in the ballet industry such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Margot Fonteyn.

Looking back at some of Cisneros’s prominent performances, she has taken on lead roles as principal ballerina in Swan Lake, along with Cinderella (1985), and The Tempest which were both televised nationally. Cisneros has loved all the characters she has been able to portray and recalls her portrayal in Romeo and Juliet, “The role of Juliet was one I looked up to when I joined the company in 1976. Dancing the role of Juliet was so rewarding as the emotional growth you go through as the character. Playing a young innocent girl to a woman who makes the final decision of taking her life, that kind of character development is extraordinary, but I loved all the roles I danced in,” she said. Cisneros also feels her big break initially came performing as a stand-in for a production of The Tempest, “That came to me because I was very diligent about being an understudy. The ballerina that was choreographed on had a terrible accident and couldn’t dance. Michael Smuin came into the rehearsals the next day and asked who knew it, and I said I know it. I got to do the lead which was filmed for national television at 20 years old. I tell my students often, You need to know not only your role, but everybody’s role because injury and sickness happens because we’re human beings and that’s how I got my first huge break. There’s nothing that can replace that, and you make yourself invaluable to a company.”

Cisneros has also appeared in other major ballet productions throughout her career and successfully transitioned from dancer into ballet education and director after her official retirement in 1999. Speaking on her career transition, Cisneros further elaborates, “It’s kind of a natural segway, and I want to make sure this art form which I’ve given my life and passion to never goes away. Educating our youth and making it a part of our culture is so important, so I started doing ballet education in libraries and in schools,” she said. Cisneros also developed a program called “Ballet Education On Tour” where she would go with a ballet company before their tour and go into the community and create study guide materials for young students to educate them on the history and significance of the art form. Cisneros has also directed staged productions, and taught courses at various ballet schools around the country. Around 2003, her book with co-author Scott Speck was released, titled “Ballet For Dummies”, which teaches the basics of the art form. “There’s a sense of humor that’s done with the book,” Cisneros said. For those interested in purchasing the book, it’s available on Amazon here.  

Reflecting on her career, Cisneros feels blessed and grateful for the support of her family and keeping with confidence which allowed her to reach the heights of success. Experiencing extraordinary moments throughout her profession, including the unforgettable time choreographer Michael Smuin presented her with two dozen purple sterling roses on stage, she credits God for carving a path for her destiny, “God allowed things to unfold, my career was one I couldn’t even dream that could happen for me. I also believe that being a Mexican-American gave me another platform that others around me didn’t have. I had the strength of my family and my culture. I also had faith and believed God had a plan for me as long as I kept focused and true to those foundational thing’s doors would open up for me and they really did. We can’t go through life in fear. If anything has been so negatively impacted it’s been our society and youth especially during the pandemic fear was rampant. I try to instill in my students not to be afraid, but to move forward in confidence, hard work, and respect which is the key to success.”

Visit Ballet Academy West’s website here.

Click here to read more on Cisnero’s visit to the White House in 1982.

Cover Photo Credit: www.chrishardyphoto.com







  • Jenny Castro

    Jenny Castro is a part of the editorial team for Latinitas Magazine. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and Justice from Central Washington University, and also holds a certificate in women’s entrepreneurial studies from the University of Washington. Jenny has a passion for storytelling, and loves highlighting diverse topics such as historical events, pop-culture, music, film, and leaders in the Latino community. She strives to provoke thoughtful and factual genuine storytelling in her pieces and takes pride in researching truth and authenticity. In her free time, she spends time reading her favorite books, and watching classic Hollywood films. In 2020, Jenny also appeared on the Turner Classic Movies Network where she provided commentary on classic film. She is excited to be a part of the Latinitas team.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *