TAMPA — They have heard about the teen's ballet skills, but most have never seen Cristel Alvarado rise on her toes or twirl across a dance floor.
That will change this month when Cristel, 15, a lifelong resident of Panama, performs here for her American relatives and friends. She plans to dedicate her dance to one of them.
The teen is training this summer at the Patel Conservatory in Tampa, not far from where her father, Pete Garcia, grew up.
Garcia, formerly of Ruskin and a 1984 graduate of East Bay High School in Gibsonton, moved to Panama in Central America in the late 1990s. Some of his best memories are linked to his wrestling years with former East Bay coach Tom Lota.
Lota treated Garcia like his own son. The relationship deepened when Garcia's father, Francisco, died in 1980.
"Tom took care of me," Garcia, 47, said. "He was a man who became more than a mentor. He was a father figure."
After serving for four years with the Navy, where he was a member of the wrestling team, Garcia became Lota's assistant wrestling coach at East Bay and later took the head wrestling coach job at Jesuit High School in Tampa.
Garcia kept in touch with Lota as his career changed from wrestling coach to businessman. Garcia owns Panama Pete Adventures in Panama, a travel company specializing in jungle trips and helicopter rides.
In November, Garcia rushed to Tampa after learning that Lota, who has colon and liver cancer, was gravely ill. Garcia begged his dear friend to fight the cancer. He wanted Lota to see his daughter dance one day.
"He said, 'I will, Pete,' " Garcia said.
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Lota's health improved. A few months later, Garcia learned about Patel's summer program for advanced preprofessional ballet students. He was thrilled when his daughter was accepted. His only child was going to meet Lota. And Lota was going to see her dance.
Both Garcia and Lota were struck by Cristel's words to Lota when they met a few weeks ago during what is her first trip to the United States.
"With her little bit of English, she said, 'I am going to dedicate my dance to you,' " Garcia said.
Cristel, who has heard Lota stories since she was a little girl, said she is grateful to him for supporting her dad all those years ago. She speaks Spanish and is learning English.
"One of the things I like is that he dedicated so much time to my father," she said. "All I want to do is dance so very well for Coach Lota."
Cristel and the other students in the Patel Conservatory's Next Generation Ballet will perform Friday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
Lota, who retired from East Bay in 2000, said he and his wife, Lynnette, are looking forward to the Patel show. He continues to battle the cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. Lota is stunned but thrilled that Garcia's daughter is dedicating her performance to him.
"He has a very lovely daughter. She's a wonderful girl," said Lota, 62, who lives in Riverview.
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Cristel, who began dancing at 7, has trained under Maruja Herrera, a prima ballerina with the National Ballet of Panama, and Amparo Brito, a Cuban ballerina who moved to Panama. The teen has also trained in Cuba.
Cristel says she is enjoying her summer training at Patel. She adores and respects her instructors.
"Their way of teaching is very, very good," said Cristel, who wants to be a professional ballerina. "They correct even the most minimal aspect of what you're doing."
Peter Stark, dance department chairman at the Patel Conservatory and one of the girl's teachers, said students train six to seven hours a day, six days a week, during the five-week intensive summer program at Patel, which offers classes for all ages and abilities in dance, theater and music.
Stark, who has danced with the New York City Ballet and Boston Ballet, travels the country every year to audition students for Patel's Next Generation Ballet. About 200 students between the ages of 11 and 18 are selected out of about 600 to participate in the summer program. About 40 of them will be asked to train year-round at Patel.
"The improvement over the five weeks can sometimes equal the improvement over the whole school year," Stark said of the summer experience. "It is intense. You're really upping what you're doing."
Cristel missed the auditions. Stark saw her dance through a YouTube link. She has the right stuff, he said.
"She's a bright, cheery student," he said. "She's a hard worker."
Stark said he and his staff are teaching Cristel the American style of ballet, which is to be faster and lighter on the feet and to show more upper body movement. These improvements will make her more marketable in the dance world.
"We are polishing the silver," Stark said, "but the silver is there."
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Lota is one of about 50 of Garcia's friends, relatives and former teammates who will see his daughter dance. Garcia said his mother, Carmen, who lives in Ruskin, last saw Cristel dance seven years ago.
"I'll be crying," Garcia said. "It's going to be very emotional. Being next to Tom, Lynn (Lota), my mom, family members, friends. It's going to be very emotional."
The family is enjoying Tampa so much that they may stay and buy a home. If that happens, Garcia would split his time between Tampa and Panama. His Panamanian wife, Nelly de Garcia, would stay here full time with their daughter.
"We feel (Patel) is a school for Cristel," Garcia said. "We are going to be exploring the options."