Ramirez, Tina: 19(?)(?)—: Dancer, Choreographer, Educator
Tina Ramirez: 19(?)(?)—: Dancer, choreographer, educator
Tina Ramirez has managed to bring Hispanic culture to the forefront of mainstream dance through the creation of Ballet Hispanico, a renowned Hispanic-American dance company and school. After years of training as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, Ramirez realized her dream of blending contemporary American dance and Hispanic culture to create an outlet for arts education and cultural unity. The result has been a phenomenally successful organization that has allowed her to represent the Hispanic community through dance.
Tina Ramirez, whose birth year is unknown, was born on November 7 in Caracas, Venezuela, to José, a prominent Mexican bullfighter, and Cestero, a Puerto Rican who came from a family of educators. They had two other daughters: Katty and Coco. Ramirez's parents divorced when she was five years old and her mother sent the girls to stay with relatives in Puerto Rico and then on to New York City with their grandmother. Ramirez's mother would soon follow—laboring jobs were plentiful in New York and she needed to find work to support her three daughters. Ramirez moved in with a great aunt in the Bronx when she first arrived at age six because her grandmother could not take care of all the girls, but once her mother arrived, the family moved into an apartment at 114th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, an area commonly known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem.
Dreamed of Becoming a Performer
Ramirez was educated in the New York Public School system and attended Julia Rich-man High School, an all-girls school at the time. Although her mother dreamed that she would become a teacher, following in the footsteps of her relatives in Puerto Rico, Ramirez had different plans. "Ever since I was little I always wanted to be in the theater," she said to Contemporary Hispanic Biography (CHB). In fact, it was her mother, who was enamored by the arts, who introduced her to the theater. Ramirez recalled one of the first productions her mother brought her to see as a young girl, a performance of The Corn is Green with Ethel Barrymore. She also liked to attend popular films of the day, and remembered admiring Eleanor Powell, a Hollywood musical star who was known for her tap-dance numbers. "Whatever I would see, I would come home and do. And I had very strong feet so I could walk on my toes without toe shoes," she told CHB.
At a Glance . . .
Born on November 7, (birth year unknown), in Caracas, Venezuela; daughter of José and Cestero. Education: Studied with Lola Bravo.
Career: Frederico Rey Dance Company, principal dancer, 1940s; toured Spain with a Gypsy group, 1940s; teamed with her sister Coco to perform in supper clubs in New York City and around the United States and Cuba, 1940s; toured the United States with Xavier Cugat, 1950s; appeared in Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds with John Butler, 1950s; appeared in Broadway productions of Copper and Brass, Kismet, and Lute Song, 1950s; Lola Bravo's dance studio, owner and educator, 1963-70; Operation High Hopes, founder and educator, 1967; Ballet Hispanico, founder and artistic director, 1970–.
Memberships: The New 42nd Street; Dance USA.
Awards: New York City Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, 1983; Mayor's Ethnic New Yorker Award, 1986; New York Governor's Arts Award, 1987; Manhattan Borough President Award, 1988; Citation of Honor, Capezio Dance Awards, 1992; Citation of Honor, New York Dance and Performance Awards, 1995; GEMS Woman of the Year Award, 1997; Hispanic Heritage Award, 1999; Dance Magazine Award, 2002.
Address: Office— Ballet Hispanico, 167 West 89th Street, New York, NY 10024.
She was also inspired by her father's performances in the bullfighting ring, which she recalled seeing from the age of two. "Bullfighting is like ballet," she told Scott Iwasaki of Salt Lake City's Deseret News. "Although it is more turned in; you have to move with elegance and strike the poses." Still, as she approached her adolescence Ramirez had not yet discovered the art form. Her sister Coco was very sickly as a child and was prescribed exercise by her doctor, so her mother decided to enroll her in dance lessons. It became Ramirez's responsibility to take her, and when she saw the dancers in action she knew that this was what she wanted to do. Her mother, however, was still adamant that she was to be the teacher of the family. But after a year she gave in and let Ramirez take lessons along with her sister.
Unlike most dancers who begin their studies at a very young age, Ramirez started her first lessons at around age 12. Her dance education was of high quality, however, having received instruction from Lola Bravo, New York's grande dame of Spanish dance. She started in the base class, but Bravo quickly moved her to the next levels. "I just took whatever I could learn, but she moved me fast from one class to the other," Ramirez told CHB. "She also believed in taking ballet because that's the way she was trained in Spain, so she always pushed ballet. So that's how I also became interested in ballet." Ramirez also studied other styles of Spanish dance, including Spanish folklore, flamenco, semi-classical Spanish, Mexican folklore, and Peruvian dance, getting a little taste of everything very early on. After studying with Bravo for a few years, Ramirez, still a teenager, moved on to professional work.
Joined a Professional Company
Ramirez's dream to make a career out of performing became a reality when she took on her first professional experience with the Federico Rey Dance Company. World War II was raging and there were not many Spanish dancers available at the time, so Rey toured the studios looking for talent. He saw Ramirez perform and liked her, so he asked her to join his concert group, which included three dancers, a guitar-ist, and a pianist. Ramirez spent two years with the group, touring the United States, Canada, and Cuba, and quickly established her reputation as a Spanish dancer.
She went on to study with Luisa Pericet in Spain, staying with a friend's family in Madrid. She also spent much of her time there touring the country with a gypsy group. Upon her return to the United States, after two years in Spain, her professional contacts had virtually forgotten her, so she had to effectively start over again performing at supper clubs. She teamed with her sister, Coco, doing an act at El Chico, a very exclusive supper club in New York's Greenwich Village, where she was discovered by Xavier Cugat. A very famous Spanish bandleader, Cugat went there to check out another dance team, but he liked the Ramirez sisters and invited them to audition. They joined Cugat and toured the United States for about two years. He invited them to accompany him on tour in Asia, but they were establishing a name for themselves by that point and Ramirez wasn't ready to leave that behind. So they started working on their own as "Tina and Coco" at supper clubs all over the United States and Cuba.
Around this time Ramirez also made an appearance in the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds with John Butler. On Broadway, she performed in the short-lived 1957 production of Copper and Brass, and productions of Kismet and Lute Song. She also appeared in the first television adaptation of Man of La Mancha.
Moved Into Dance Education
Ramirez stopped touring and returned to New York for good in 1963 to take over Lola Bravo's studio. Her former teacher and mentor was retiring and remembered that Ramirez had mentioned a desire to teach dance when she was 13, so she called her out of the blue and asked her to take over the studio. Ramirez agreed and promised to teach for a year because she didn't know if she would like it. Conservative by nature, Ramirez hated waste—especially human talent—so a passion for teaching came naturally to her. She told CHB, "I believe in discipline and a stick-to-itiveness … I taught (my students) that a profession has laws. If you wanted to be a dancer this is what you do. Not in so many words I would say 'I've never heard of such a thing. How can you be talking before you go on stage? It's never done!' So that's the way I taught the kids."
Ramirez also recognized the power of praising children and the positive benefits that talented kids brought to their families. It was this that inspired her to start Operation High Hopes, a professional dance and performance training program for underprivileged children from all five boroughs of New York City. The local Office of Economic Opportunity gave her $18,000 to start the program in the summer of 1967, and though it received high ratings from the OEO, Operation High Hopes was cut the following September. Some of the kids from the program continued to work with Ramirez in her studio, and because they wanted to be professional dancers and she wanted to stress professionalism by giving them employment, Ramirez decided to start a professional company.
In 1970 Ramirez founded Ballet Hispanico of New York to provide employment for Hispanics in the arts and to inspire understanding of the diversity of Hispanic culture through a blend of classical ballet, modern dance, and traditional Spanish dance with Hispanic music and literary themes. "I wanted people to know who Hispanics were, how we look, how we felt about music," she said to CHB. "I didn't want to be 'the other' because if people don't know you as a human being they treat you as 'the other.'" Ballet Hispanico encompasses three components, including the professional company; a school with more than 600 students; and Primeros Pasos (First Steps), an educational program that serves over 25,000 students and teachers in New York City and across the United States. The company tours both nationally and internationally, allowing people to see through the arts what Hispanics look like in a dramatic and abstract context. Ramirez, who has been managing Ballet Hispanico as founder and artistic director for thirty-plus years, doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon. Arts education will always be in the forefront of her agenda, but she also has dreams of bigger productions. "Every year we raise the bar on ourselves," she said to Iwasaki of the Deseret News. "I like challenges, if, of course, they help us become better."
Dance Magazine, April 1995; March 1997; March 2002.
Deseret News (Salt Lake City), February 23, 2003.
"Tina Ramirez Biography" Ballet Hispanico, http://ballethispanico.org/general_information/about_tina .html (May 30, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Hispanic Biography on May 20, 2003.
—Kelly M. Martinez
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Ramirez, Tina: 19(?)(?)—: Dancer, Choreographer, Educator