Tina Ramirez, who founded the famous Ballet Hispánico, dies at 92
After a long career as a performer, Ms. Ramirez turned in the 1960s to teaching and developing downtown cultural resources.
“We were all over New York,” she told the Los Angeles Times, speaking of people of Latino and Hispanic background, “but people thought we were dishwashers, people who mopped floors. We didn’t pay any attention. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, we have a great culture.’ ”
She named the company Ballet Hispánico to reflect maximum diversity, exploring performers and musical styles representing nearly two dozen Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries.
Today, the school has 800 students who train in many different techniques, from jazz to ballet to classic Spanish idioms.
The Ballet Hispánico was and still is a chamber company made up of 10 to 15 dancers, who perform works created especially for the troupe. The company’s repertoire encompasses a blend of classical ballet, modern dance, classical Spanish forms and infusions of indigenous dance vocabulary. The music and stories are almost always Hispanic in origin. However, the ranks of the troupe are also open to non-Hispanic performers.
“One of the things I’m interested in is taking risks,” Ms. Ramirez told The New York Times in 1994, explaining her decision to commission a new work from choreographer Amanda Miller. “I said to him, ‘Do you want to do a dark room? To Spanish music? ”
Ms Ramirez said she saw dance as a “painting in space”, in which “emotions should come from within and be revealed by the body in motion”.
Ernestina Ramirez was born in Caracas, Venezuela on November 7, 1929. Her father was a bullfighter from Mexico and her mother was from Puerto Rico. She accompanied her father all over Latin America for his work. She was mesmerized by him, later saying that his elegance of movement and flair for the dramatic as a bullfighter sowed her interest in dancing. He gave her her first dance lessons by balancing her on her feet.
Ms. Ramirez was 5 when her parents divorced, and she and her mother (who remarried) eventually moved into an apartment in Spanish Harlem. Her mother, from a family of educators, did not want her daughter to become a dancer. But Ms Ramirez’s sister Coco was prescribed dance lessons to improve her poor health.
After a year, their mother relented and allowed Ms Ramirez, now 12, to begin formal dance study. His main teacher was Lola Bravo, a doyenne of Spanish dance who also believed in the importance of classical ballet; Ms Ramirez went on to study with Ballets Russes ballerina Alexandra Danilova.
From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Ms. Ramirez danced on Broadway, in modern dance troupes and with a concert band led by Federico Rey. She lived in Spain for two years and continued to study there. She and Coco teamed up for a nightclub number that went around the world with bandleader Xavier Cugat.
Mrs. Ramirez returned to New York in 1963 to take over the studio of her former professor Bravo, who was retiring. She has seen with her own eyes what study after study has shown — that arts education also improves students’ self-esteem and performance throughout their standard school curriculum.
This concept inspired her to start Operation High Hopes, a vocational performance training program for underprivileged children in New York City’s five boroughs. The city’s Office for Economic Opportunity awarded him $18,000 to start the program in the summer of 1967, before the grant money quickly succumbed to budget cuts.
Some of her students from the program continued to work with her and had set their sights on professional careers. She wanted to provide them with professional opportunities, and Ms. Ramirez founded Ballet Hispánico with a $20,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.
“I wanted to give work to Hispanic dancers,” she told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “I wanted them not to have to dance in nightclubs. They were serious dancers and deserved to be treated as such.
It was an auspicious time for dancers of color. Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem had been established in 1969. Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater was now over ten years old. Yet, then as now, ensuring stability was an ongoing challenge for even the most acclaimed troops, let alone a pioneering start-up.
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Amid a New York real estate market that has significantly affected the vulnerability of arts organizations, Ballet Hispánico’s investment in purchasing its own building has been key to its longevity. When it looked like the company was in danger of losing its studios on West 89th Street, the local community council stepped in to defend its purchase of the building as well as a house next door. Ballet Hispánico raised the $1.3 million needed to buy and renovate the two buildings “dollar for dollar,” Ramirez recalled.
Ballet Hispánico began touring across the United States and abroad throughout its first decade of existence. Ms. Ramirez’s commitment to education has radiated beyond the confines of her own school, as she has sent the company’s dancers to schools in New York City and local communities on tour stops.
In 2005, Ms. Ramirez received the National Medal of Arts, the highest government honor for artists and patrons.
In 2009, at the age of 80, Ms Ramirez retired as director of the Ballet Hispánico, citing how the consumption of corporate responsibilities had overwhelmed her wider appreciation of the arts. “I don’t see enough dancing,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t see enough theatre, I don’t go to museums. This must change.
Survivors include her sister, Coco Ramirez Morris.
Fundamental to Ms. Ramirez’s vision was the continuum, the shared momentum between popular culture and conservatory disciplines — a recognition of the common roots of any movement toward music. “I believe all dance really comes from folk dancing, although I’m a trained dancer and love classical ballet,” she told The New York Times in 1994. “Even ballet comes from The dancers of today may have a clever and fabulous technique, but we have to come back to it.