I will always remember dancing in Cossitt Hall. It was an energetic world of high ceilings, hours of technique classes with fellow dancers, and moments of airborne joy leaping across the floor.
It was in the Cossitt Hall Gymnasium that I taught my first dance class. One day my dance professor, Peggy Berg, called me unexpectedly. She was barely able to speak because of laryngitis and asked, “Could you assist me in my beginning technique class?” When I stood in front of my classmates and shared my love of dance, I knew I had found my future path.
In 1983, I was one of the first graduates to receive a B.A. in Dance from Colorado College. After completing an M.A. in Dance Education at Stanford University, the call of the wild beckoned, enticing me to spend 15 years teaching dance in Fairbanks, Alaska.
In many ways, the education I received at CC gave me the confidence to pursue these life experiences by providing the knowledge and ability to complete work commitments, and the encouragement to explore new ideas and follow my dreams. This openness to novel experiences, along with a personal desire to better understand another culture, were stepping stones in my journey toward a whole new world — the island of Cuba.
Before moving to Alaska in 1996, I attended an Afro-Cuban dance workshop at The Colorado Dance Festival in Boulder. I fell in love with this style of music and dance. Wanting to study this dance form at its source, I took my first trip to Cuba in 2000. I had grown up hearing about Cuba because my mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, and her family had found refuge there from the Holocaust during World War II. This family history inspired me to ask my parents to join me on this trip.
At that time, Fidel Castro was president and travel to Cuba was restricted for U.S. citizens. However, my parents and I traveled with an American group that was permitted to organize dance and music study trips to Cuba.
My days were spent dancing Rumba and Afro–Cuban folkloric styles with master teachers and drummers. My parents visited the University of Havana and met with professors in the field of solar energy, my father’s expertise. Most of the conversations were in Spanish and my mother translated for us. The Cuban Spanish she learned as a teen came back to her with ease.
Since that first trip, I have been back to Cuba more than 20 times to continue my studies in Afro-Cuban folkloric and popular dance styles. I’ve shared my knowledge and experiences with many students in classes and performances in Alaska and Colorado.
In recent years, my mother’s story has become ever more poignant. Many of the Jewish refugees who found a safe haven in Cuba during World War II are no longer living. I have made it a priority to learn all I can about this little-known part of Cuban/Jewish history, and to share it with others.
My mother was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1927. The stories of her childhood are often filled with fear and loneliness. She told me of being pelted with stones while walking to school because she was Jewish. In 1938, she and her family fled their home to escape the horrors of the Nazi regime.
They spent three harrowing years on an overland journey across Europe. While in Belgium — one of their places of temporary refuge — they learned that Cuba was accepting Jewish refugees. Cuba was their last hope for escape, as most countries had shut their doors to refugees. On Nov. 11, 1941, my mother and her family boarded the SS Colonial in Lisbon, Portugal, and headed for Havana.
Upon arrival in Cuba the refugees were taken to Tiscornia, a temporary holding camp, before being officially allowed into the country. Most thought their stay would be just a few weeks while they awaited their American visas. But on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Both the United States and Cuba entered the war and the refugees realized they would remain in Cuba for an indefinite period of time. They had been admitted with the agreement that they would not work in Cuba, and most of them were dependent on the Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide organization helping Jews, whose funds were severely stretched because of the war.
Among those arriving in Cuba were diamond merchants and skilled workers from Belgium and Holland. Forced to flee after Hitler invaded the Low Countries in May 1940, these merchants worked together with Cuban President Batista and other officials to create a diamond-polishing industry in Havana.
One of the main stipulations was a law stating that 50 percent of the workforce would be Cubans and 50 percent would be refugees. Thus, Cubans and refugees, men and women, learned the trade from skilled workers and went to work side by side in the newly established industry.
At the age of 15 my mother joined the diamond-polishing workforce to support her family. Her job was girdling the stones, which meant she would round them off in preparation for polishing. The women were mostly employed as girdlers while the men were cutters and polishers. She worked in different factories for three years until the family was allowed to enter the U.S. in 1946. She always told me that the diamond industry was a win-win situation as it sustained both Cubans and refugees in Havana during the War.
Who could have imagined that my mother’s story about polishing diamonds and my passion for Cuban dance would become intertwined? The trips to Cuba have greatly enriched my life and have been integral to the success of my career — a career that was shaped by my time at Colorado College, dancing in Cossitt Hall.
Judy Kreith ’83 taught ballroom, jazz, and modern dance at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Currently, she teaches a variety of dance classes to people of all ages in Boulder. During the summer, she returns to Alaska as a guest artist and coordinator of the World Music and Dance Program at The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, where her focus is on teaching, creating choreography, and organizing concerts that include dances from Cuba, the Caribbean, and West Africa.