Iowa City dancer, 13, earns spot in prestigious summer programs

Orlando Barragan, 13, of Iowa City, strikes ballet's fourth arabesque. Studying with his mother, Sarah Barragan, since h
Orlando Barragan, 13, of Iowa City, strikes ballet’s fourth arabesque. Studying with his mother, Sarah Barragan, since he was 8, Orlando has received scholarships for summer study programs with American Ballet Theatre online and in-person with the School of American Ballet in New York City, a program his mother also attended. His father is Eloy Barragan, an international choreographer and associate professor of dance at the University of Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Barragan)

If Orlando Barragan of Iowa City hadn’t wanted to study ballet, his parents — instructors Sarah and Eloy Barragan — would have been fine with that. He still would have grown up around dance and gained an appreciation for it, his mother said.

But Orlando loves to dance, and he shows such promise that he’s received scholarships for summer study programs with American Ballet Theatre online for two weeks and in-person for five weeks at the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet.

This will be his fourth study session with School of American Ballet, where he landed a full merit scholarship for tuition and the cost of living in the school’s on-site residence hall in New York City.

Mother Sarah, who also studied at the School of American Ballet, will travel with him in mid-June and stay with him during the mandatory preprogram quarantine. They will be tested for COVID-19 before they fly, when they land in New York and before Orlando moves into the dorm.

“There’s just constant testing and quarantining to put them in a bubble,” Sarah said during a recent Zoom interview with her son and The Gazette.

When Orlando moves into the residence hall, Sarah will return to Iowa City.

“The professionals that they have in charge of the housing are incredible,” she said. “Between the resident assistants and the counselors and the programming and the physical therapists and the dining services that they have, everything is really, really good. ... I feel really comfortable and confident in knowing that he will be supported and taken care of when he arrives. I have no worries.”

With the instruction and training, Orlando said he hopes to improve his technique and get stronger so he can go further in ballet. “And then with SAB, since it’s five weeks all alone, then maybe I’ll become a little bit independent,” he added.

Family Ties

His talent springs from nature and nurture.


Sarah has been his primary teacher since he began studying ballet at age 8, and they have a dance studio attached behind their home. Especially during the pandemic, Mom and Dad have been teaching him like a “tag team,” Sarah said. Orlando also studies dance online through the North Carolina School for the Arts Preparatory Dance Program, and with other instructors as the opportunities arise.

For academics, he’s an eighth-grader with Iowa Connections Academy’s virtual program. He especially loves science — and in his downtime, gaming with his friends.

Sarah also began studying dance at age 8, in Dayton, Ohio, just east of her hometown of Richmond, Ind. She entered the School of American Ballet in the fall of 1995; danced with the Colorado Ballet; earned degrees from Indiana University and the University of California, Irvine; taught in southern California; and has taught master classes in the United States and Mexico. Locally, she served as artistic director for the University of Iowa Youth Ballet from 2007 to 2008, and now teaches at the Nolte Academy in Coralville.

Eloy Barragan and two of his siblings became dancers after being accepted into the national school of dance in their native Mexico City. He furthered his training with the Royal Academy of Dance in London, the Boston Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet in New York, then embarked on a career as a dancer, international choreographer, and an associate professor of dance at the University of Iowa.

Going back another two generations, Sarah’s father and his mother were world champion roller skaters, who both studied ballet to help their roller skating, Sarah said.

While traveling the country to hand out scholarships to promising dancers, George Balanchine offered Sarah’s dad a scholarship in 1968 to train at his New York school, but her dad chose skating. He’s still at it, and Orlando enjoys skating with his grandfather during family visits to Richmond, Ind.

Growing Into Dance

Exercise has been a passion since Orlando was little, and he gets plenty of that these days, with 12 classes per week in such areas as ballet technique, men’s ballet, and character dance, with additional work in weight training/conditioning and Pilates.

From an early age, Mom and Dad knew they had to keep him in motion.

“He’s really wiggly and loves to exercise,” Sarah said. “When he was a baby and a child, he wasn’t content if he wasn’t worn out, so we had to wear him out.”

They figured dance would be the way to do that, and physically, dance seemed like a good fit, as well.


“When he was little, just naturally, we looked at his physique to see if he had the things that you need to have for dance, whether it’s the turn out, the flexibility, the range of motion, natural coordination, the proportions — just all of those things you see,” Sarah said, adding that he has “a really good sense of rhythm. He’s just constantly tapping on things all day long.”

So little by little, they started him in some dance classes early on.

“He enjoyed it and he was always happy after he finished dancing,” Sarah said, “and so I knew that it would probably be a really good fit for him as he grew up.”

And now, the aspects that make him the most happy and excited are the jumps, turns and moving around the center of the studio.

“It’s just really fun to get to jump really high and do what the teacher asks of you, and to get to travel around the space,” he said.

But there’s more to ballet than the beautiful barre and floor work in the 14-minute video he submitted to the School of American Ballet; for American Ballet Theatre, he did a live Zoom audition.

“In fostering Orlando as a person and as a dancer, we wanted him to know and respect the art form and all of the arts, because there’s so much that goes into dance, whether it’s the costumes, the music, the lighting, the stage production, all the crew that helps to make a production possible.”

They also wanted him to know dance so he would know them, Sarah said, “because it’s our life — but dance goes into even my dad’s life, and so it’s a family heritage thing. It’s kind of like if you’re a part of the family, you have to learn piano and you have to learn ballet. You have to learn music and you have to learn dance.”

Orlando isn’t taking piano lessons, but little brother Apolo, 8, is studying with Sarah’s mom, who is a professional musician. And one of these days, Apolo will be taking dance classes, as well.


“He likes to point his feet and pick his legs up and do all those things,” Sarah said. “He’s like, ‘Mommy, watch.’ So we’ll probably start with him soon.”

Eyeing the future, Orlando said he’d like to study science in college, with ballet paving the way for scholarships and further training.

Sarah takes a special pride in seeing his growth as a dancer.

“It’s incredible that he’s being recognized for his work, because he has to do it — it’s not me anymore, it’s him. So all I can do is try to provide him with the information and the education that will take him to the places that he wants to go,” she said.

“He always says he wants to travel and go see the world. And so dance is a really beautiful way to do it. I’m super thrilled for him and just excited that maybe this is starting.”

At a Glance

• What: To see ballet student Orlando Barragan in action, go to

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