Sandra Rivera began her dance training with Tina Ramirez at Ballet Hispánico. As a founding member, she performed as a principal dancer and created a number of roles in the Company’s repertory.
Where did you grow up? When did you first know you wanted to dance?
I grew up in a beautiful community in El Barrio (East Harlem) in the 60s. At that time, it was predominately Puerto Rican and the area was affectionately called El Barrio. My parents use to take my brother and me to El Cosmo Movie House on 116th Street right in the heart of El Barrio. We would see Spanish musical films with performers like Lola Flores…I grew up wanting to sing and dance like her.*
In 1964, I started my professional training at The Tina Ramirez School of Spanish Dance. Tina also suggested to my mother that I take a ballet class with Alfredo Corvino. My mother made it happen! Eventually, my mother found her way to The Tina Ramirez School of Spanish Dance. I remember my first day of class. I was so pleased in my new flamenco skirt and the greatest red dancing shoes ever! The first time I saw Tina I was hooked. There was so much action! Children, like me, dancing with twirling toreador capes, fancy fans, stomping feet, flying arms, and best of all, castanets that made exciting and thrilling sounds.*
What was it like to be a founding member of the Ballet Hispánico Company?
At age 15, I started my professional career from 1968-1970 with the group Puerto Rico Canta. Tina was their choreographer, and in the summer of 1968, a group of her advanced students were offered jobs for the summer performing season. At age 17, I became a founding member of Ballet Hispánico at the invitation of Tina Ramirez.
Tina always told us she was “preparing us to be professionals.” She provided us with rigorous training focused on the wide variety of Spanish Dance forms - folkloric, classical Spanish dance, and flamenco, including her own repertory of danzas estilizadas. She made sure we mastered these dances with her incredible commitment to preparation. She also ensured we had a lot of performing experiences. We were in constant demand in the Hispanic community. We could see the pride in our community when we preformed. It was so impressionable for a young person, and it reminded us that our performances made a difference.
One memorable performance that stands out for me was the first time I danced La Jota on Christmas Eve in Bellevue Hospital, New York City. I was 12 years old. Old enough to know it must be sad to spend Christmas in a hospital. The patients looked sad when they came down but they were so happy after we danced La Jota. It was the first time I realized I could make people happy with my dancing.*
When and where was your favorite performance with Ballet Hispánico?
My most memorial Ballet Hispánico performances were:
Delacorte Dance Festival, Clark Center Productions (performing in Ms. Ramirez’s Portrait of Carmen), Henry Street, The Joyce Theatre and the following tours: Our first Company U.S. tour to Texas, McAllen, San Antonio, and California, our France tour, and The “21 Day Snow Tour in Upstate New York.”
How did your time with Ballet Hispánico shape your career as a professional dancer?
I have not stopped dancing since I joined Ballet Hispánico. I define myself as a dance artist - the role includes dance educator, choreographer and performer. Ballet Hispánico allowed me to be part of a generation of dancers who established the dancer role in a variety of settings where dance had not been included before.
On a personal level, as a teaching artist for Primeros Pasos, BH’s educational program, I was able to integrate my interest in Latino history with dance. It was great to go into the NYC public school system to teach.
I graduated from CUNY Baccalaureate Program with a concentration of Dance in Latino Diaspora. I have gone on to create my own work centering on spirituality with a Latinx perspective. I was an artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine serving as a co-director with the Omega Dance Company.
Currently, I am a dancer and choreographer for Naomi Goldberg Haas, where I get to share my dance knowledge with a senior population by performing dances for a variable population.
What did you learn from Tina Ramirez? Are there any specific sayings you remember?
Tina Ramirez taught us the importance of being a professional dancer - the meaning and the relevance. You give your heart, body and soul at every performance. You commit with a sense of integrity, and whatever you take on you do to your fullest. In whatever role I take on, I am working with the discipline Tina instilled in me. It is always important to be present. You have been given a job to do and you do it to the fullest and best of your ability.
An impressionable saying that Tina would tell all her students regardless of their age was, “that’s not professional” or “professionals don’t do that,” which led someone to ask, “what is a professional?” She answered, “Professional dancers get paid to dance.” I clearly remembered it and was very impressed. I thought, “you mean I can get paid to dance?”
How have you watched dance progress as an art form? What impact do you feel you or your generation of dancers had on the field of dance?
I have watched dance progress in social justice. In one of my most recent works, I led a series of communal gatherings entitled “Respuesta, A Response to the separation of families at the border.” Dancers are in all fields of society, including religious and liturgical settings.
I am proud of being the longest Company member of Ballet Hispánico that is still connected to BH by teaching a new generation of dancers. I began with Ms. Tina Ramirez and became a founding member. I contributed to the educational and community programs of the Company, I served on the faculty of School of Dance, and continue as a special teaching artist for the specialized Spanish Dance Studies. I pay homage to Tina Ramirez‘s Spanish Dance with the dances she taught me. I joyfully and gratefully pass on these lessons to a new generation of dancers.
*Excerpt from “Barrio Girl, A Life Through Dance.”