Tina Ramirez, founder of a leading Hispanic dance troupe, dies at 92

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Tina Ramirez, founder of a leading Hispanic dance troupe, dies at 92
Tina Ramirez, artistic director of Ballet Hispánico, with students in New York, Oct. 1, 2008. Ramirez, who founded Ballet Hispánico more than 50 years ago and built it into the country’s leading Hispanic dance performance and education troupe, died on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was 92. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Tina Ramirez, who founded Ballet Hispánico in New York on a shoestring more than 50 years ago and built it into the country’s leading Hispanic dance performance and education troupe, died on Tuesday at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was 92.

Verdery Roosevelt, Ballet Hispánico’s longtime executive director, announced the death.

Ramirez, who came to New York from Venezuela when she was a child, was a dancer herself when she took over the studio of one of her instructors, flamenco dancer Lola Bravo, in 1963 and turned to teaching. A lot of her students were from low-income Latino households, and she saw how dancing changed them.

“The kids began to concentrate better, to work better with other people,” she told The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York, in 1981. “They just got to feel better about themselves.”

Hoping to reach more students, she wrangled a bit of funding from the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity and in 1967 started a summer program called Operation High Hopes to introduce children to dance and other arts. The program’s dance performances proved popular and in 1970, when some of those youngsters were teenagers, Ramirez established Ballet Hispánico with a $20,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.

“I wanted to give employment to Hispanic dancers,” she told The Democrat and Chronicle. “I wanted to keep them from having to dance in nightclubs. They were serious dancers and deserved the opportunity to be treated as such.”

She also wanted to bring the cultural influences she was familiar with to a broader public.

“In the early days I just wanted Hispanics to have a voice in dance and for people to get to know us as people,” she told The New York Times in 2008 for an article occasioned by her retirement. “Because, you know, you went to see a ballet, and there was somebody crouched with a sombrero, and that’s not who we are.”

The “ballet” in the troupe’s name sometimes threw people who expected classical ballet. Her company mixed styles and influences, leaning more toward Latin folk and modern dance.

“Ballet means anything with a story line and music,” she once said. “It doesn’t mean pointe shoes and tutus.”

In the beginning, the troupe had limited means and performed wherever it could — prisons, hospitals and frequently outdoors, in parks and on the street.

“Those were the days when the streets were burning,” Ramirez said. “It was so bad that if you looked the wrong way, you could start a riot. But we toured everywhere.”

The company grew in prestige and reach, eventually touring across the country and in Europe and South America.

Ramirez “was fiercely proud of her heritage and her community,” Roosevelt, the company’s longtime executive director, said by email. “She had such a great eye for choreographers who could marry the dance forms, music and aesthetics of the Spanish-speaking world to contemporary dance techniques. There was nothing like it when she started.”

Just as important as the company’s performances were its educational efforts. It had its own school, and also sent its dancers into the schools of New York City or wherever it stopped while on tour. Joan Finkelstein, the former director of dance education for the New York City Department of Education, saw Ramirez’s impact firsthand.

“Tina understood that beyond uplifting general audiences, Ballet Hispánico could instill pride in and appreciation of Latinx dance and cultural heritage, empowering all our children for future success,” Finkelstein said by email.

Ernestina Ramirez was born on Nov. 7, 1929, in Caracas, Venezuela. Her father, José Ramirez, was a well-known Mexican bullfighter under the name Gaonita. Her mother, Gloria, who was from Puerto Rico, was a homemaker and community leader.

Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother brought the family to New York, where she remarried and, under the name Gloria Cestero Diaz, became well known for her advocacy on behalf of the city’s Puerto Rican population.

For several years beginning in 1947, Ramirez toured with dancers Federico Rey and Lolita Gomez, their show often billed as “Rhythms of Spain.” From 1949 to 1951, she lived and studied in Spain.

Returning to the United States, she began performing with her sister Coco. In 1954, the two were on the bill at a St. Louis club with comic Joey Bishop and singer Dorothy Dandridge, performing a flamenco routine. In 1956, a headline in The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, about a touring theatrical production proclaimed, “2 Daughters of Famous Matador Will Play Princesses in ‘Kismet,’” and they continued to do so for years.

When that show played the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, in 1960, Carole Cleaver, reviewing for The Wyckoff News, wrote, “Tiny Tina and Coco Ramirez dance themselves to exhaustion as the difficult Ababu princesses and bring down the house.”

Ramirez is survived by her sister Coco Ramirez Morris.

In addition to studying with Bravo, Ramirez studied under classical ballerina Alexandra Danilova and modern dance pioneer Anna Sokolow. She was able to bring those influences to Ballet Hispánico, which presented new works and interpreted older ones through the lens of Latin culture. At the beginning, it was an identity that still needed shaping.

“When I first started Ballet Hispánico in 1970, there wasn’t a dance company that represented the Hispanic people,” she told the Times in 1984. “At that time, people didn’t know what Hispanic meant — not even the Hispanics.

“I was criticized for calling the company Ballet Hispánico,” she continued. “People felt I should name it after a country or a city or a town. But I said no, because we’re 21 nations that all speak Spanish — and we should all be included.”

Among the countless dancers who studied under Ramirez early in their careers was Nelida Tirado, who has gone on to an acclaimed career as a flamenco dancer.

“Tina Ramirez taught us have pride and commit to excellence regardless of our line of work,” Tirado said by email. “She taught us the importance of preparation, discipline, hard work and living boldly from the mundane to the stage. For opportunities wouldn’t come to us readily — but when they did, they were to be seized.”

Ramirez’s company garnered good notices right from the start.

“Tina Ramirez’s Ballet Hispánico of New York is a company of 13 dancers from the city’s barrios,” Jennifer Dunning wrote in the Times in a 1974 review, “and Saturday night they made Clark Center for the Performing Arts pulse with their very youthful energy and charm.”

Ramirez was an energetic woman who, after a day of working with dancers and dealing with administrative matters, would often spend her evenings in the audience at dance shows, scouting new choreographic talent.

“Making a connection with what’s going on right now is very important to me,” she told the Times in 1999. “I think that’s why audiences everywhere are so drawn to us. We reflect what they know of life — the difficulties and the joys.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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