HAVANA (AP) — Visitors to the elite feeder school for Cuba's renowned National Ballet might be forgiven for thinking they're suddenly seeing triple.
Identical triplets Angel, Cesar and Marcos Ramirez wear matching black leotards and white socks as they leap, prance and twirl across the linoleum floor of the mirrored studio. They share the same wiry build, olive complexion, mussed hairstyles and coffee-colored eyes. And they speak the same fast-paced Spanish in the high-pitched voice of children.
Even their instructors have trouble telling the Ramirez boys apart, but they say the 13-year-olds have already separated themselves from their peers technically and artistically, and all three have the talent to make a big splash in the ballet world when they grow up.
If they succeed, they will join a long line of celebrated dancers trained in Cuba, where fans from every social stratum follow the careers of ballet stars like Carlos Acosta and Rolando Sarabia as closely as those of baseball players or boxers.
"I want to be a dancer. The National Ballet of Cuba turns out great male dancers," said Marcos, sweat dripping from his face after a recent workout in the steamy studio as his brothers nodded in agreement. "And go on tour in many countries and travel the world by dancing."
Toward that end, the Ramirez brothers spend 12 hours a day at the National School of Ballet, housed in a graceful, cream-porticoed building that occupies a full half-block in colonial Old Havana. Classes include not only dance, but more mundane subjects like language, math and history.
A former social club with broad hallways and a majestic marble staircase, this is where the creme de la creme of young dancers from across the country train for a shot at stardom.
The school was founded seven decades ago by famed prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso, now age 92, who is probably the most recognized person in Cuba not named "Castro."
"This school means a lot to us," Angel said. "It gives us the training to graduate as ballet dancers, which is the thing we want most."
While the odds are tough, Mirlen Rodriguez, a 24-year-old teacher and former student at the school, says the brothers all have a chance of making their careers onstage.
"They are at a level that is beyond high," Rodriguez said.
The three have already beaten long odds simply by being born.
According to 2010 data compiled by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, only 0.14 percent of births that year were triplets or higher-order multiple births.
Naturally born identical triplets, involving a single egg separating into three fetuses rather than multiple eggs being fertilized, are much rarer.
Mothers of Supertwins, a U.S. nonprofit group that provides support, education and research on higher-order multiple births, says about one of every 62,500 pregnancies results in identical triplets — or 0.0016 percent.
The Ramirezes, born into a family that lives in the gritty neighborhood of Center Havana, say they are extremely close.
In conversation they often finish each other's thoughts. They also seem to have fun with their uniqueness, introducing themselves to a reporter as if their relationship wasn't apparent.
"My name is Angel Jesus Ramirez Castellanos, and I'm 13 years old," the first said with a sly smile, followed in turn by the others:
"My name is Marcos Abraham Ramirez Castellanos, and I'm 13 years old."
"My name is Cesar Josue Ramirez Castellanos, and I'm 13 years old."
While some identical siblings find it difficult to carve out their own identities, the Ramirezes say they relish their tripleness.
"For me it's a real stroke of luck being a triplet, being able to count on my brothers," Cesar said. "The disadvantage is that sometimes they scold you or correct you for something that another one did."
Instructors rely on tricks to tell them apart.
"There's one that has a little mark above the eyebrow. Another one gets dimples when he laughs," Rodriguez said.
"Then there's another that doesn't have dimples or a mole. During exams you have to put one of them there, another one here, the other way over there, and they have to stay in that formation."
She added, however, that while the boys share the same DNA and have been trained by the same instructors, they have unique personalities that show up in their dance. One is more mischievous, another more serious, the third the most talkative.
"They have the same physical form, the same configuration of legs and arms, but in their minds, each one is unique," Rodriguez said.
The triplets say they fell in love with dance in 2007 when their mother took them to a performance of "The Nutcracker," which is put on every Christmas season and costs just pennies to attend.
All three said it never occurred to them to worry about being teased for taking up dance. Ballet is broadly popular in Cuba, and the idea of a man donning a leotard has remarkably little stigma attached to it for a society that in other ways retains some macho attitudes.
The Ramirezes enrolled in the ballet school at age 10 after passing a rigorous exam and being selected over dozens of other children with similar dreams. More than 300 boys and girls train here in eight different grades, all hoping to make it to the National Ballet.
"It's a virus that can't be cured with antibiotics," said Ramona de Saa, the school's director. "And all that passion can be felt in the school."
The grueling day runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mornings are devoted to traditional school subjects, while afternoons are for perfecting demi plies and barre work.
"One, two, three, four!" an instructor's voice called out during a recent rehearsal as the Ramirezes twirled around and around on tiptoe. "Again!"
"It's a career that requires a lot of sacrifice. It takes away much of your childhood," Rodriguez said. "While others maybe are at home watching cartoon movies, they have to be at rehearsal."
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report.
Follow Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP