When Alicia Alonso began ballet lessons as a 9-year-old, her only goal was charm and poise. "It was unthinkable," she smiles, "for a woman to show her legs onstage." Yet those same legs—long, elegant and once insured for $300,000—carried Alonso to fame. For almost three decades the "languid spitfire"—so named for her controlled, dramatic movements—was one of the reigning queens of American classic ballet.

Alonso was also a fervently patriotic Cuban. In 1948 she founded a ballet troupe in her island homeland and nurtured it until 1956 when she closed down in protest over the Batista dictatorship. When Castro's rebel army entered Havana in January 1959, a tearful Alonso welcomed him with a special performance. For her loyalty to the Cuban leader, Alonso was prohibited from entering the U.S. to dance for 15 years.

Last month, Alonso, now 55, received a special visa for a nostalgic reunion in Chicago with her favorite U.S. company, the American Ballet Theatre. Anti-Castro protesters picketed outside the Lyric Opera of Chicago, but inside the audience was on its feet in tribute. Alonso and her 25-year-old partner, Jorge Esquivel, had wrung every ounce of dramatic power from their pas de deux. Wrote one critic, "She doesn't dance, she burns."

Unknown to most of the public, Alonso's long career has been a triumph over near blindness. In 1942, Alonso underwent the first of four operations for detached retinas. "There was a long time when she could only see light," says daughter Laura, 38, herself a dancer. "When she danced, people had to tell her to stop and go. One performance there was a bright light at the rear of the stage and she turned around and started to dance backwards." After a fifth operation for removal of cataracts, Alonso thought for two years she would never dance again. But in 1974 she resumed her career—against doctors' advice—and began to train under Laura's supervision. "Such trust is the greatest compliment a mother could give a daughter," says Laura.

Now that the ban on travel to Cuba has been lifted, Alonso hopes to bring her 94-member Ballet Nacional de Cuba—lavishly supported by Castro—to the U.S. (Among its members is Alonso's teenage grandson, Ivan.) "Most artists have to have roots," she says. "But the fruit of their art is for everyone to enjoy."