Angel, César, and Marcos Ramirez danced with the Cuban National Ballet, in their home country, last year.
But even as professionals at one of the world's finest companies, their dream was to move to Philadelphia and study at the Rock School for Dance Education "because we saw the movie," Angel said.
Not Rocky, in this case.
Philadelphia's renowned Rock School had been featured in First Position, a documentary about Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious student ballet competition. And so this summer, after one frustrating delay, they came.
The identical triplets, 18, will be dancing as a trio Thursday night at the Come Together Dance Festival at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. They also have featured roles in the Rock's Nutcracker 1776, which will be performed Nov. 23 and 24 at the Merriam Theater.
The three young men look so much alike that their friends and teachers at the Rock School are still trying to tell them apart. Angel's hair swoops to the right, Marcos' hair swoops to the left, and César's is brushed straight back. Rock School directors Bojan Spassoff and Stephanie Wolf Spassoff say they fear the day the Ramirez brothers opt for new haircuts.
Another hint is in their spectacular dancing: Angel turns to the right. César and Marcos to the left.
"Technically, we are almost the same," Angel said, "but Marcos is more power, I'm more prince, and César is in between."
The three had joined the Cuban National Ballet as a backup to their Philadelphia dream after the American embassy in Havana withdrew most of its personnel following mysterious sonic attacks last September. The American diplomats left two days before the triplets were scheduled for visa interviews to come here.
The opportunity came up again this year, and they leapt.
There are more options to dance professionally here than in Cuba, and the pay is better. And despite being good enough to have danced professionally with a world-class company, the triplets chose to go back to ballet school because they thought it would set them up to one day become principal dancers at a top company in the United States or Europe.
The Rock School teaches a variety of techniques that most companies want.
But none of that was the driving incentive.
First Position showed the three brothers that they could learn to dance like Michaela DePrince and brothers Isaac and Esteban Hernandez, established ballet stars who trained at the Rock School.
DePrince and Esteban Hernandez were both in the film. DePrince is a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet. Madonna is making a movie about her life.
The Ramirez brothers actually have a movie of their own. They have enjoyed some level of fame since they were 11, when a documentary, To Dance Like a Man, was made about them.
Even before that, the three boys seemed destined for careers in the arts. "My parents are artists, so they were always are trying to introduce us in the arts – in the ballet, opera, or painting, something like that," Marcos said.
When they were about 8 or 9, "we went to a performance of Nutcracker, and we were like in love. We spent all the day, all week dancing," he said.
"My mom, she talked to my dad. 'I think the kids want ballet.' And he was like a little sad … because he's a painter."
Cuban dancers no longer need to defect to work abroad. But the Ramirez brothers can't go home for five years without putting aside ballet to serve in the Cuban military.
After two years away from Cuba, they will lose their national status, meaning they likely would not be able to buy a house or a car there.
"I miss so much my home, my family," Marcos said. "But I feel, here, like this is my other family."
"These guys take care of each other," Stephanie Wolf Spassoff said before their interview with the Inquirer and Daily News, as the triplets tucked in tags on each other's T-shirts.
So what have they been doing in Philly besides dancing?
"We tried the famous cheesesteak," César said, "and we like like travel." They've also gone to a Phillies game, to museums, and to Terror Behind the Walls.
This year is dedicated to refining their technique. They will compete in Youth America Grand Prix. (The Philadelphia semifinal is Feb. 28 to March 3, 2019, at the Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts at William Penn Charter School).
But the goal for the year, César said, is not to win a gold medal. It is to continuously improve.
In 2019, they will audition for companies. They have a list of dream troupes – English National Ballet, Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, or San Francisco Ballet. But mostly they would like to stick together.
"Three contracts for men can be so hard for companies," Angel said, "but it's our dream. If not, we'll have to [accept other jobs], but we want to fight for it."
"We'll fight for you" to stay together, Stephanie Wolf Spassoff said, noting that the Rock School had contacts at ballet companies all over the world. "No really, we will."
Ayaooluwa Ariyo contributed to this report.