When I arrive at the Entre Flamenco new digs on Bandera Road, Estefania Ramirez proudly offers to give me a tour. At least twice the size of the company’s former quarters, the place is handsomely set up, with two actual studios, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, supporting facilities and even a stage, complete with curtain and a smaller adjacent dressing room. Gloria Trevino’s dance photos adorn all the rooms except the large Studio A, where colorful Spanish shawls hang like paintings on the wall facing the obligatory floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
“These are the shawls we used in our last production. They are so beautiful — why have them sit in a closet when they can provide great decoration with a Spanish feel?” asks Ramirez, who co-founded the Entre Flamenco school and company with her husband, Antonio Granjero. A Spanish feel is what this place is all about. Granjero and Ramirez moved here from Spain in the fall of 2009 to a grand welcome by the local dance community. Both are well-known flamenco artists with international experience who, over the years, had developed Alamo City ties as visiting artists and residency leaders as well as performers. They chose to settle here because of the existing interest in flamenco and Spanish dance in general, but also because Granjero — who is from Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain — loves this environment. They lost no time establishing a teaching studio that quickly attracted both novices and experienced dancers from near and far. They also dazzled packed houses at the Sterling Houston Theater last December with a high-voltage original show called Flamenco for Four Seasons. With its new, expanded premises, christened the Entre Flamenco Dance Space, the organization not only has room for larger classes now, it can also stage shows under its own roof.
“We’ll be branching out and offering more to the community,” says Ramirez, who looks every bit like the Spanish dancer of everybody’s imagination — svelte, petite, with fine features and black hair pulled back into a bun. “Two years ago we couldn’t have imagined that we would need to expand so soon, but it was pure demand that forced us to move.” Entre Flamenco now has some 115 adult students and a nine-member professional company and will soon add programs for kids, yoga for dancers and the community and possibly salsa and merengue. But the most exciting additions are the monthly performances, which, for the next couple of months, will feature Flamenco del Sur, a new production partially funded by a grant from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio. An “homage to Andalusia,” the show includes a number of dances set to less well-known song types, such as cantes abandolaos, or bandit songs from the craggy limestone hills around Ronda in the Malaga region. “We have developed new movements for these songs,” she notes. “We are not the first ones to attempt it, but few have been successful so far in translating these cantos into dance. It’s a challenge and an honor to create new choreography that goes beyond the traditional.”
The idea originally came from Maria Benitez, the founder of the famed Santa Fe-based Teatro Flamenco, where Ramirez first met her future husband and where both worked for quite some time. Contrary to what many people think, flamenco is not an improvisational dance form, says the dancer. Almost everything is choreographed, down to hand placements, with some room for improvisations left only in solo pieces. Moreover, the dancing is not trying to be narrative. “It’s meant to reflect the dynamics of the song and the guitar but not necessarily the meaning of the lyrics,” she says. “It’s up to the dancer to convey what she or he wants to convey.” Later in the year, the monthly performances will present a mixture of repertory works, including new numbers from Flamenco del Sur.
“I knew I wanted to study this art”
The American-born Ramirez was attending the University of New Mexico on a modern dance scholarship when she got her first taste of the fiery Andalusian tempos. Helping backstage during a flamenco show, she was overwhelmed by what she saw and heard. Modern dance was quickly forgotten as she joined the school’s flamenco troupe, becoming a soloist within 18 months. “What drew me and what still makes my hair stand on end is the relation between musicians and dancers,” she explains. “Up to that point, I had only worked with recorded music. Once I heard the intensity of the guitar and song, I knew I wanted to study this art.”
Which she certainly did. While still a student, the emerging star was recruited by Maria Benitez and toured extensively with her through the United States and Canada. One of her most cherished memories is the 1996 PBS Evening at the Pops concert that featured Benitez’s Teatro Flamenco performing El Amor Brujo accompanied by the Boston Pops, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. That was also her first joint appearance with Granjero, who served as Benitez’s co-artistic director for 14 years. But their personal relationship did not develop until years later, when both lived and worked in Spain. For one thing, Granjero was already married, and for another, Ramirez was busy building her career. But he eventually divorced, and one day they ran into each other in the Valencia train station. “And there was a spark,” she says with a sheepish little smile. The couple now have a 4-year-old son.
While in Spain, Ramirez studied with the masters of the genre and performed for four years with the Seville-based Cuadro Flamenco founded by José Galvan. Later moving to Valencia, the now-seasoned artist taught dance and movement theory and founded and directed Jordanas Flamenca, an annual flamenco music and dance festival that’s still going strong. “I am the first American to establish such a festival in Spain,” she notes. “I am proud to say it just celebrated its 10th anniversary.” In addition to themselves, the Granjeros’ current company consists of some of the best artists in San Antonio, including Denise Rios, Jackey Rodriguez, Sonya Jimenez, Leeza Peche and Claudia Trevino. On stage, Ramirez is an expressive, elegant dancer whose movements are sharply chiseled and whose footwork can be both fiery and delicately subtle. As company co-directors, she and her husband complement each other. While he develops the choreography, she works with dancers on their technique and teaches them the finer points of dancing with feminine props, such as shawls, fans and long trains.
Until recently, Ramirez divided her time between her work here and touring as a principal soloist with Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, one of the top U.S. companies, but she has now decided to devote all her energies to the San Antonio center. “There’s so much to do here. Our business has grown so much that it became difficult to be away and manage things from afar,” she explains. “Our goal is to ultimately turn San Antonio into a capital of flamenco.”