Tina Ramirez, who founded Ballet Hispánico in New York on a small budget more than 50 years ago and grew it into the nation’s premier Hispanic dance performance and education troupe, died Tuesday at her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She was 92.
Verdery Roosevelt, longtime executive director of the Ballet Hispánico, announced the death.
Ms. Ramirez, who came to New York from Venezuela as a child, was a dancer herself when, in 1963, she took over the studio of one of her teachers, flamenco dancer Lola Bravo, and turned to teaching. Many of her students came from low-income Latino households, and she saw dance transform them.
“The kids started concentrating better and collaborating better with other people,” she told The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY in 1981. “You just need to feel better.”
Hoping to reach more students, she arranged some money 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 these youth were in their teens, Ms. Ramirez founded Ballet Hispánico with a $20,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.
“I wanted to give Hispanic dancers employment,” she told The Democrat and Chronicle. “I didn’t want them to have to dance in nightclubs. They were serious dancers and deserved the opportunity to be treated as such.”
She also wanted to make the cultural influences she was familiar with accessible to a broader public.
“In the early days, I just wanted Hispanics to have a voice in the dance and for people to get to know us as people,” she told The New York Times in a 2008 article marking her retirement. “Because, you know, you went to a ballet and there was someone squatting in a sombrero, and that’s not us.”
The “ballet” in the troupe’s name sometimes threw off people expecting classical ballet. Mixing styles and influences, her company leaned more towards Latin folk and modern dance.
“Ballet means everything with action and music,” she once said. “That doesn’t mean pointe shoes and tutus.”
In the beginning, the troupe had limited resources and performed wherever they could – in prisons, hospitals and often outdoors, in parks and on the streets.
“Those were the days when the streets were burning,” Ms. 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 the country and Europe and South America.
Ms. Ramirez “was very proud of her heritage and her community,” Ms. Roosevelt, the company’s longtime executive director, said via email. “She had a great eye for choreographers who could combine dance forms, music and aesthetics from the Spanish-speaking world with contemporary dance techniques. When she started, there was nothing like it.”
Just as important as the company’s achievements were its educational efforts. It had its own school and also sent its dancers to schools in New York City or wherever it stopped on tour. Joan Finkelstein, former director of dance education for the New York City Department of Education, witnessed the impact of Ms. Ramirez firsthand.
“Tina understood that Ballet Hispánico could not only edify general audiences, but also instill pride and appreciation for Latin dance and cultural heritage, and empower all of our children for future success,” Ms. Finkelstein said via email.
Ernestina Ramirez was born on November 7, 1929 in Caracas, Venezuela. Her father, José Ramirez, was a well-known Mexican bullfighter by the name of 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 took the family to New York, where she remarried and became known as Gloria Cestero Diaz for her advocacy for the city’s Puerto Rican people.
Beginning in 1947, Ms. Ramirez toured for several years with dancers Federico Rey and Lolita Gomez, whose show was often dubbed the “Rhythms of Spain.” From 1949 to 1951 she lived and studied in Spain.
When she returned to the United States, she began performing with her sister, Coco. In 1954, the pair took the stage at a St. Louis club with comedian Joey Bishop and singer Dorothy Dandridge and performed a flamenco routine. In 1956, a headline in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier Journal of a touring theatrical production proclaimed, “Two Daughters of Famous Matador Will Play Princesses in ‘Kismet,'” and they did so for years.
When that show was playing at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, NJ, in 1960, Carole Cleaver wrote in a review for The Wyckoff News, “Tiny Tina and Coco Ramirez dance themselves to exhaustion as the difficult Ababu princesses and bring the house down.”
Mrs. Ramirez is survived by her sister, Coco Ramirez Morris.
Alongside her studies with Ms. Bravo, Ms. Ramirez studied with classical ballerina Alexandra Danilova and modern dance pioneer Anna Sokolow. She was able to bring these influences to the Ballet Hispánico, which presented new works and interpreted older ones through the lens of Latin American culture. In the beginning it was an identity yet to be formed.
“When I started Ballet Hispánico in 1970, there was no dance company that represented the Hispanic people,” she told the Times in 1984. “Back then, people didn’t know what Hispanic meant — not even Hispanics.
“I’ve been criticized for naming the company Ballet Hispánico,” she continued. “People said I should name it after a country or a city or a place. But I said no because we are 21 nations, all Spanish speaking – and we should all belong.”
Among the myriad of dancers who studied with Ms. Ramirez early in her career was Nelida Tirado, who has enjoyed an acclaimed career as a flamenco dancer.
“Tina Ramirez taught us to be proud and to commit to excellence regardless of our line of work,” Ms. Tirado said via email. “She taught us the importance of preparation, discipline, hard work and living bravely from the mundane to the stage. Because opportunities don’t come easily to us – but if they do, they should be seized.”
Ms. Ramirez’s company has garnered good attention 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 a 1974 Times review, “and on Saturday night they brought the Clark Center for the Performing Arts their very youthful Vibrant energy and charm.”
Ms. Ramirez was an energetic woman who, after a day working with dancers and taking care of administrative matters, often spent her evenings in the audience of dance shows scouting new choreographic talent.
“It’s very important to me to connect to what’s happening right now,” she told the Times in 1999. “I think that’s why audiences everywhere are so drawn to us. We reflect on what they know about life – the difficulties and the joys.”