When Karina González was 7 years old, she and her sister were given the wrong directions on their way to a folk dancing class in their hometown of Caracas, Venezuela. Instead of upbeat tempos and full, ruffled skirts, González found herself walking into a ballet audition. Almost immediately, she was granted admission to the competitive school.
For nine years, González trained at the Gustavo Franklin Ballet School in Caracas, then joined the national ballet company upon graduation, where she danced professionally for two years. One day, when González was 17 years old, the director of the Tulsa Ballet in Oklahoma flew down to Venezuela to hold auditions.
She was offered a contract.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions because it was my first time leaving my family,” González, now 30, recalled. Her mother and two of her three siblings still live in Venezuela, which is currently suffering from a devastating economic crisis.
“We are a very close family—I have two brothers and one sister—and I’d never been away from my family at all,” González said. “I kind of knew that was my only opportunity to leave the country and dance in another place, and I remember going home and telling my parents that I had this opportunity to go to the States. I remember my mom and dad said, ‘Okay, well this is what you want to do.’”
At the time, González did not speak any English. She had never left Caracas or even been on an airplane. She remembers crying as soon as she boarded, but also the kindness of strangers who kept her from changing her mind before the flight took off.
“For me, in my mind, I didn’t know when I was going to get to come back and see my family,” González said. “But it was great, and six months later, I went home for Christmas.”
That was 12 years ago, and González is still living in the U.S.
Up close, she is a petite powerhouse—every muscle perfectly sculpted, her body lithe, her posture impeccable. But to execute routines the way she does, to command the stage, requires more than exquisite form.
“I remember when I came to this country, the first thing my mom said was, ‘Try your best every single day, and be happy and enjoy what you’re doing,’” González said. “And she said if I didn’t enjoy it, to just come back home and be with my family. So I feel like I have done that in my career. I take ballet very seriously and I try to work as hard as I can. The other thing, though, is to just believe in who you are. I think I struggle a little bit with that, but you should just believe in who you are because you have something special. That’s what people will see if you’re confident in yourself.”
Although González still misses her family and Venezuelan culture, she has, quite simply, watched all of her dreams come true. She is the first Hispanic woman to be named a principal dancer at the Houston Ballet. She has danced coveted roles for some of the world’s most sought-after choreographers, traveled the world, and headlined a national ad campaign for Honda. Recently, she even married her longtime love.
“It gives me motivation to keep working and dreaming, to get higher and higher, because now you are an example for the new generation,” she said. “I want to show that you can achieve your dreams. Even when I was little, I remember dreaming about all of this, and now that I have it, I just feel like I’ve been completely blessed.”
It hasn’t come without hard work— countless hours of it.
González’s workday begins at 10 a.m. with a prep conditioning class that lasts an hour and a half. It is followed by rehearsals—six solid hours of learning and practicing choreography—and usually ends around 7 p.m. The training schedule puts enormous pressure on the dancers’ bodies; add pointe to the equation and every square inch of their frames, all the way down to their toes, demands constant maintenance.
“I think not many people know that it is actually really hard,” González said. “When you come to a show you see a beautiful performance and we make the dancing look easy and smooth, but it takes a lot of training.”
Outside of her schedule at the Houston Ballet, González practices Pilates and yoga and stretches religiously.
“I feel like that’s my secret: stretching after. Even before I go to sleep, I have these little things next to my bed that help me stretch my calves, and I think that’s what keeps me out of injuries,” she said. “I always say that our body is our tool, so if it’s not in the right condition, it’s hard to perform your best.”
Balanced nutrition is crucial for elite athletes like González, who, thanks to recent tracking on an Apple Watch, learned that she can burn nearly 600 calories in just one class. González makes it a point to eat healthy, consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables, but she’ll also allow herself burgers and plates of pasta because, as she puts it, “We actually need to eat a lot.”
She and her fellow dancers love coconut water and peanuts, too. “We can’t have bigger plates while we’re rehearsing, so you always have to be snacking,” she said. “That’s our routine.”
It’s exactly that regimen, her days in the studio and the hours upon hours of training, that she cherishes most. Every new ballet begins with a clean slate and, soon enough, she’s learned a new dance by heart.
“I don’t know if it was destiny or if it was God, but I feel like there’s somewhere my life is supposed to go,” González said. “I don’t actually know what I would be doing if ballet didn’t happen—I can’t even imagine. I know I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am, but I also feel like there’s a plan for me.”