Remembering John White, Jr., a Ballet Visionary

February 3, 2023

John White Jr., a former soloist with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and co-founder and director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet (PAB), passed away on December 28, 2022. Through his love and lifelong commitment to the art and technique of classical ballet, he had an enormous impact on generations of dancers and teachers around the world. Those who had the privilege of studying with him benefited immensely from his passion for teaching, the knowledge he selflessly shared, and the technical precision he encouraged his students to find within themselves.

For almost 50 years John and his wife, PAB co-founder/director Margarita de Saá, gave students a strong dance foundation, whether they took class purely for pleasure or in the serious pursuit of a professional dance career. This foundation enabled numerous students to join major dance companies.

“Mr. White taught me the details of excellence and the desire for it, no mediocrity,” says Mimi MacDonald Sitterly, one of his former students. “He was my teacher, mentor and, more recently, became one of my dearest friends.”

In this black and white photo, ballet dancers John White and Margarita De Saá perform onstage in costume. White stands on the left, upstage, with his legs in parallel and his arms out to the side. He wears white tights and shoes and a dark velvet tunic with loose white sleeves. To his right and down stage from him, De Saá poses in sus-sous on pointe with her arms in high fifth and her gaze looking up. She wears a dark tutu embellished with sequins on the bodice and short sleeves.
John White, Jr., with his wife, Margarita De Saá. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet.

Originally from California, John found his passion in dance early on. As a young dancer he was invited by the legendary Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso to join the newly formed Ballet Nacional de Cuba. He remained at the company for four years, during which he was promoted to soloist and ballet master. During his time in Cuba, John met and married Margarita, a Cuban prima ballerina at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. While living in Cuba they toured extensively, presenting ballet programs throughout the Soviet Union, China and South America. Due to the intense political upheavals involving the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, John, Margarita and their young son, John, left Cuba and came to the U.S.

After arriving stateside, John and Margarita were invited by Barbara Weisberger, founding director of Pennsylvania Ballet (now known as Philadelphia Ballet), to head her company-affiliated school, where they remained for five years. Eventually, in 1974, the couple opened their own school, the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, in Narberth, PA.

“Mr. White was a teacher who quietly led anyone who came his way—always directing them towards perfection,” says Tatyana Shargorodsky, an instructor and pianist at the school. “He lived a life of dedication to the art of ballet.”

IN this black and white photo, John White poses for the camera, standing casually with his right foot crossed in front and popped up onto full pointe. His left hand grazes his left hip, and his right arm rests gracefully at his side. He wears a dark, short-sleeved top with shiny embellishments near the neckline, dark tights and dark ballet slippers. He looks off into the distance with a peaceful countenance.
Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet.

John was one of the leading international authorities on the Vaganova teaching method, a ballet technique and training system which originated in Russia and is widely used by ballet schools around the world. He gave teacher-training seminars to hundreds of novice and experienced teachers on the Vaganova syllabus. He wrote two books on dance, Teaching Classical Ballet and Advanced Principles in Teaching Classical Ballet, which received enthusiastic acclaim as important books for serious ballet teachers.

 “Mr. White was a strong, wise, serious, but a good-humored mentor who conveyed life lessons through his teaching,” says Eve Keller, one of his students. “He taught us more than clean, precise, beautiful Vaganova technique, he taught us that we must always strive to improve [beyond] yesterday’s class or performance.”

Margarita and Margarita’s twin sister, Ramona de Saá, were the subject of the documentary Mirror Dance, by Frances McElroy and María Teresa Rodríguez, which premiered on PBS in 2005. The documentary explores the lives of Ramona and Margarita, both former prima ballerinas for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. After the Cuban Revolution, the twins became separated: Ramona remained in Cuba and eventually became the director of the National Ballet School of Cuba, while Margarita emigrated to the U.S., where she restarted her career.

John’s second passion was writing. He was a novelist whose book, titled Operation Venceremos: Undercover in Cuba, was published in 2022.

John’s legacy continues as his daughter, Melinda Pendleton, offers PAB students her passion, knowledge and technical precision as director of the school. He is also survived by his son-in-law Ernest Pendleton, son and daughter-in-law John and Laura White, and grandchildren Ernest, Dominique, Alexander and Anthony. His wife, Margarita, predeceased him in 2017.

There will be no public funeral, but a “Celebration of Life” gathering will be held at a future date yet to be determined.