Street Knowledge

27th Avenue in Little Havana

  • Although the flavor of the street is mom-and-pop, there are also a number of small medical offices. For every place you can get a cup of Cuban coffee, there are three places you can get medical treatment.
  • Ask any group of people and you're sure to get different answers about where Little Havana begins and ends. Typically, though, it includes the area between Flagler Street and US-1.
  • Only 56 percent of residents living in census tracts touching 27th Avenue between Flagler and U.S. 1 are Cuban, according to 2006 market research. That is a 36‚percent decrease from 1990 census statistics, which calculated the area as being 88‚percent Cuban.
  • Population: Non-Hispanic white: 10 percent; Hispanic: 88 percent.
  • Median household income: $44,006.

Work of Art

A ballet teacher in Little Havana has struggled to boost her clientele amid economic hard times. But she's not letting go of her dream.

The ballet teacher arches her arms and floats them into the air for little girls in pink tutus. A scratchy CD of Verdi's Triumphant March echoes from a small boombox onto the studio's practically barren hardwood floor. Only three girls are in the class.

"Are you ready?" the teacher asks. "SÍ!" they respond.

Teacher Daysi Cepeda tilts her head; the girls tilt theirs. Her short auburn hair catches an afternoon sunbeam from the window, the room's only light. Last month's electric bill was too high.

It's a subtle sign of 41-year-old Cepeda's difficulty learning a new dance, a delicate tango between passion and stress. These are the steps a first-time business owner must take to establish herself in Little Havana, the most established entrepreneurial enclave on Unity Boulevard.

Beginning in the 1950s, newer residents, typically Cuban, settled here and started businesses. The older residents, usually non-Hispanic whites, moved away.

Now, the established Cubans have moved to the suburbs, and Central Americans and Spanish-speaking Caribbean people are replacing them. About 45 percent of the people living in the census tracts touching 27th Avenue between Flagler Street and U.S. 1 are no longer Cuban, statistics show.

"There used to be stores like KFC on this street. Now, no more," noted Orestes Lleonhart, owner of the Ayestaran Restaurant. His family has owned the restaurant for 32 years. "Twenty-seventh Avenue is all mom-and-pop," he says. "Mom-and-pops who've been here for years."

Cepeda, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, has owned the dance studio for just 16 months. She's struggling to recruit and retain customers. She's learning to compromise with her artistic impulses to make money.

And she's trying to maintain composure, like a true ballerina.

"This, I think, is the last hope for my dream," she says.

Artists have dreamed in this studio before. One of them was Rosario "Charín" Suarez, once called "the last worthy survivor of an era of Cuban ballet."

She bought the studio in the mid-1990s to cultivate a new generation of Cuban ballet dancers. The international superstar decided to move on in 2006, selling the studio to Cepeda -- from ballerina to ballerina.

Far from the concert halls of Paris and Moscow, Cepeda's most memorable venue for dancing was the Dominican sand. She owes her love of dance to a man named Armando Villamil, founder of Panama's national ballet, who came to the Dominican Republic in the 1980s. He taught a troupe in Santiago, then had the group perform for the poor in the countryside.

In 1985, dance took Cepeda to New York, where she said she studied with the Dance Theater of Harlem.

She quit after two years. The scholarship covered classes, she said, but she hardly had enough money to eat or pay rent. Vowing never to dance again, she moved to Miami.

But she hated office work. So, when she graduated from Florida International University in 2001, she had degrees in liberal arts and dance.


When she took over Suarez's studio, she got a binder with all of the students' names and phone numbers.

"I called them and asked them to give me a chance," she said. "But they wanted an established dancer, and I'm no Rosario Suarez."

Starting from scratch, she handed out 7,000 fliers outside local schools. Soon, she had 70 students, nine different classes -- including hip-hop and belly dancing -- and a fledgling studio.

But after her first showcase last March, 25 children dropped out. Their parents thanked Cepeda but said $30 a month was too expensive.

So she made more fliers, and started to teach salsa classes at Miami Dade College to make extra money. One student suggested that she turn the studio into a teenage club on Friday nights.

She agreed, putting aside her fears that sneakers and sodas would besmirch her dance floor. On Fridays, she pulled down the blinds in the large windows facing Unity Boulevard. She hoisted a bright strobe light to the ceiling.

Then she waited outside, taking teenagers' admission money in a green plastic folder. On one recent Friday, she opened the door and looked inside.

Thirty people were dancing to reggaeton. Three T-shirted guys with gelled hair danced in a circle, salsaing around one another. Occasionally, they stared at the girls -- all wearing hooped earrings -- at the other end of the studio. Cepeda laughed.

"You gotta do what you need to do to make money," she said.

As her winter show approached, attendance boomed: Twelve ballet students, and dozens of others in hip-hop and belly dancing.

The parents brought Cepeda extra beads and thread to decorate the costumes she designed.

"Do you like them, Daysi?" Mayelin Rojas asked.

"Oh, yes," Cepeda replied, a white thread dangling from her lip.

"Well, why don't you say anything?"

"Ay, que linda," Cepeda said, smiling. "Thank you. You know, sometimes I complain that you don't say anything. But you know, I know you do this because your kids love it. And sometimes, I forget."

The 60 students put on a performance of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, with some hip-hop and belly-dancing performances thrown in from the teenagers.

The children, though, were the main attraction. The toddlers who had rehearsed to the Triumphant March -- now replaced by Tchaikovsky's holiday suite -- were dressed in brown unitards with whiskers drawn on their cheeks. Black tails made of felt were wrapped around their waists.

The show was a hit, albeit with some mishaps. One little girl lost her tail onstage, stopped dancing and looked for her mother. Cepeda ran another tail out to her. The crowd applauded.

Midway, Cepeda gave a message to the audience: "Recuerda, el baile no es un entretenimiento. Es una arte. In English, 'Remember, dance is not entertainment. It's an art.'"

That was in December. By January, Cepeda was back in the studio, teaching the girls the fifth position. Mozart played on the boombox.

The legs are crossed, one foot in front of the other. The left heel brushes the right toe.

"It's hard, but you can get it," she told them.

At lesson's end, she gave each girl a star. One asked: "Daysi, where is everyone?"

The class is back down to three.

Cepeda just shook her head. She walked to her office and thumbed through her attendance roster. Overall, 24 children have dropped out. After neighbors complained, she stopped hosting the club nights.

"I am going to do this," she said. "I'm going to be successful if I just try my best."

Behind her was a stack of 700 orange fliers.

Copyright 2008 The Miami Herald Media Company