"IN HISPANIC culture, you're really born dancing," declares Tina Ramirez, the diminutive but charismatic founder and artistic director of New York's Ballet Hispanico. "Hispanic people dance at baptisms, weddings -- any chance they get, they dance . . . and when they do, they dance cheek to cheek," she notes, recalling her own early introduction to dance, literally on the tops of her father's feet, as she joyously hung on while he whirled her around the room.
Her father was a Mexican bullfighter, her mother a teacher. Little wonder that Ramirez has had the tenacity to keep her company, plus a school of 600 youngsters, dancing and thriving for 35 years. Born in Venezuela, she immigrated with her family to New York when she was 7. Soon, Ramirez was studying Spanish dance with the renowned Lola Bravo, ballet with the incomparable Alexandra Danilova and modern dance with mid-20th-century master Anna Sokolow.
Natalia Alonso, from left, Eric Rivera, Sara Kappraff, Rodney Hamilton, Irene Hogarth- Cimino, Chan Paik, Pedro Ruiz and Sarah Skogland in "Bury Me Standing."
Following a stage career that took her on international tours, Ramirez returned to New York to take over one of her former teachers' dance studios. "I was also teaching in a public school," she remembers, "and I saw that the Hispanic kids in the public school were losing their identity." Dance, she believed, was a way to stem the cultural assimilation experienced by Hispanics -- especially children -- in the late 1960s and early '70s. In 1970, Ballet Hispanico was born.
Today, as she has throughout her career, Ramirez imparts the same stylistic variety to her dancers that she received as a youth. At Ballet Hispanico's studio, everyone is required to take classes in Spanish dance and salsa. "Other than the language," she explains, "salsa unites Hispanics. It's done all over the world . . . because the rhythmic patterns are so wonderful. You learn to hear music differently. Everything is not always on the same beat. And because every culture is different, many cultures mix together in the music and dance."
On Tuesday, Ramirez returns to the Kennedy Center, where in 1971 her then-fledgling company presented the center's first arts education programming. This time she brings 13 well-honed company members with two evenings of choreography. "NightClub," a full-length dance-theater work, remains among Ballet Hispanico's most ambitious in a repertory that numbers more than 70 pieces. A tribute to the centrality of dance for Hispanics, "NightClub" spans three generations and features three distinctive styles contributed by a trio of choreographers. Ramirez conceived the three acts -- the first by Broadway and Hollywood choreographer Graciela Daniele, the others by Alexandre Magno and Sergio Trujillo -- as a way to trace how Latino style has infiltrated American popular culture.
Recommended for mature audiences (due to what Ramirez called adult material), the opening tango section by Daniele unfolds in a brothel. The following piece, by Magno, draws on Spanish Harlem's 1950s social clubs, while Trujillo's final section, "Hoy Como Ayer" ("Today Like Yesterday") takes place in a contemporary club, where couples spar, drugs are apparent and sexual innuendoes play out in hotly passionate dance. "It's not worse than what you might find on MTV," Ramirez says, but she wants her audiences, frequently families, to be prepared.
Wednesday's program pairs Peter Pucci's "Eternamente y un Dia" ("Eternity and a Day") with Ramon Oller's haunting tribute to Gypsy culture, "Bury Me Standing." Pucci's choreography, accompanied by the Kronos Quartet's renderings of traditional Mexican folk songs, creates snapshots of Mexican culture, history and landscape.
When Ramirez founded Ballet Hispanico, she simply wanted her students to have a creative outlet. But "I was also thinking of the good-neighbor policy. I thought, if people knew how Hispanics are, they surely are going to love us. Thirty-five years later -- look -- they love us. Latin culture has grown in a good way. Look at television. Look at the media, at what's behind the ads. It's all Latin music and dance."
BALLET HISPANICO -- Tuesday and Wednesday at 8. Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600.