Maclovia Ruiz: A Life in Spanish Dance

By Patricia Bulitt


Editor’s Note: Dancers’ Group strives to honor the diverse and rich legacy of all forms of dance. To continue this mission we are working with Berkeley-based dancer and dance ethnologist Patricia Bulitt. Patricia has helped to bring unheard and unknown voices to the greater dance community through the Legacy Oral History Program and her project “Our Neighbors Dance their Dances: A Celebration of World Dance.” This interview presents highlights from the conversation between Patricia and dancer Maclovia Ruiz. Born in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico in 1910, Maclovia and her family relocated to San Francisco in 1913.

For reader clarification, there are two interview voices in this piece: Patricia as narrator and Patricia as interviewer. When excerpting from the interview, Patricia honors the exact language of Maclovia Ruiz as it appears in transcription.

Q: What year did you start to dance?

Maclovia: Do you mean professionally or when I started to take lessons at the dancing school? Or when I started to dance by myself when I was about one year old? As soon as I was able to walk, which would be maybe two years old at the most, I felt the spirit. My father being an artist, and being creative, he would take me to the theatre [in Mexico] as a child. I got so enthralled with performing, the performance. The feeling of dancing came with the music that my father loved. How he loved playing music all the time. I would listen to music and start to imitate the music. When we moved from Mexico to San Francisco, it was completely shocking.

We moved to North Beach … Everybody was so poor, according to the way I was living in Mexico. Not knowing the language and not being able to speak, and be[ing] laughed at all the time by everybody because I didn’t know how to speak English.

Q: You said you were drawn to music?

Maclovia: She [Maclovia’s mother] saw that I loved dancing to music, so she encouraged me and took me to different dancing schools. Nobody accepted me during that time because we were Mexican, and during that time Mexicans were like black people. They were ostracized.

Q: You said that Mexicans were not accepted at the dancing school. Are you saying that as a child, you were not permitted to go into a school that was run by a Caucasian?

Maclovia: Yes. I remember the first dancing—when somebody knew about a dancing teacher who had a little group of children. I went and then she reprimanded me because she felt that I was too dark. I was too dirty and she had me wash. She took me by the hand and made me go wash myself because she felt that I was too dark. And too dirty looking.

Q: Do you remember what kind of dance school that was?

Maclovia: I think she was trying to be a ballet teacher. I remember my mother fixed me up and put a great bow on me. “No we can’t accept her.” I would just dance by myself at home.

Maclovia continued on to describe her early experience in North Beach which boasted many Spanish clubs and Spanish-speaking musicals. Attending San Francisco’s Our Lady of Guadalupe where down in the basement, “underneath the church, was a little, like a club, and theater and this little stage, and that’s where I started performing.”

Q: So the children and adults would come together for the Spanish club?

Maclovia: All I know is that we were always there. And I was so busy all the time dancing. It was Mexican dancing, and Mexican people. Once in a while somebody would get up and do a tango—you know, they’d have people perform, doing a tango. I used to have to dance the Mexican Hat Dance. My father taught me that dance in the house. I’d just follow him, and that’s how I learned to do the Hat Dance and the Jota—folk dances that my father knew. The Jota in Spain, there’s different types of Jotas. Most of the Jotas are typical, very authentic, ethnical form of Spanish dancing which is a lot of hopping, hopping around.

Maclovia continued, describing with great affection what she learned from her father:

Maclovia: He taught me something that has stayed with me all my life: the interpretation of Spanish dancing. He taught me exactly how to understand that a dancer who does Spanish dancing has to be very proud and haughty-like, and flirtatious.

Both of Maclovia’s parents were enthusiastic about their daughter’s dancing ability and their discovery of the Anita Peters Wright School:

Maclovia: I met a little girl, one of my friends, who seemed to be taking dancing lessons. I told her that I was having trouble trying to go to a dancing school because nobody would accept me. I felt I was too ugly. I would love to go to a dancing school.

Malcovia danced at the Anita Peters Wright School until she was 18 years of age. She exclaimed to me, “I kept dancing in recital after recital. I got a tremendous amount of stage presence.” Following her passion for dance, Maclovia went to New York to learn Spanish dance. It was also her good fortune to become a student of George Balanchine.

Maclovia: I went at least four times a week. Balanchine knew that I was doing ballroom dancing. Caesar Tapia taught me some Spanish dances. Balanchine decided that I should do Carmen and Lakmé at the Metropolitan Opera House for him. And that’s how I got to dance at the Metropolitan Opera House. And I danced at Carnegie Hall many times.

Q: For the role of “Carmen” in the Opera, would you like to say something about that process?

Maclovia: Since he [Balanchine] wasn’t familiar with Spanish dancing and I knew, you know, enough to show him how to make the ballet look Spanish. I don’t say that I was the choreographer, but I helped him, and he, being the great dancer, choreographer, it turned out beautiful.

Q: How did the character of “Carmen” bring out your own cultural heritage?

Maclovia: When I was a child, it had always stayed with me through the years, through all my years, the feeling of what I felt as a Spanish dancer. I have a photographic mind. At that time, I could see a dance … I brought out the feeling and the movement and I looked very Spanish.

In the program notes of Carmen, which played at the War Memorial Opera House from October 9-31, 1942, Maclovia was listed as a soloist with the Corps de Ballet. After viewing a rehearsal, arts critic Alexander Fried wrote, “It would be impossible to find a more brilliant and magnetic last act than solo dancer Maclovia Ruiz.”

Q: I have a clipping from the newspaper dated June 3, 1934. It says, “Ruiz, with Adolph Bolm and Dmitri Romanoff, will dance in ‘Chinese Legend,’ a feature of the Opera Ballet at the Opera House.” It was sponsored by the Women’s Committee of the Opera Association. Here you are a Spanish dancer in the “Chinese Legend”!

Maclovia: I don’t know whether he created it or [if] it was already done by the ballet in Russia. It was the story of a warrior who was madly in love with this little Chinese dancer … and that’s the only thing I remember. All I know is that I was the dancer, the principal dancer, [and] that Adolph Bolm felt I could do the part. I have a picture of me. I have so many pictures that I can’t remember. At my age, eighty-five going on eighty-six, I can’t remember. It’s very important that I can remember about my dancing in vaudeville. They were [in] movie houses. In those times, [they] had two or three acts before the movie went on. I was about sixteen, [maybe] up to eighteen years of age.

Q: You had stopped the interpretive dance at this point?

Maclovia: Yes, I had to stop being with Lenore Peters [of Anita Peters Wright School]. I felt that it was important for me to be on the stage, so I went to agents here in San Francisco—William Morris and others. During that time they had—before the movie, or in between the movie—they had about three or four acts like what they did in vaudeville. And there is where I learned how to present myself on the stage.

I think of the words which Maclovia used to describe what was necessary to have stage presence. She described it as the “secrets of the stage,” and used words such as “charisma” and being like a “star.”

Charisma, she said, “was necessary because dancing on stage is not just appearing. It’s how you appear on the stage, how you present yourself, how you have that charisma. It’s like a star that shines around you, but you have to show the public that you have that. I learned all that before I had the experience of dancing with the San Francisco Ballet and going to Spain and all.”

Traveling to and fro between New York and San Francisco, Maclovia became associated with the famed Spanish dancer Antonio, in whose company she danced and from whom she received choreography. When presenting her personal letters to me, her face glowed, as if our interviews gave her youth all over again, a chance to return to dance.

Maclovia: He’s from Madrid. He was born in Seville, and he started extremely young. I think he was only about six when he and Rosario—they danced together so well as children, that they decided to become professionals. They were dancing all over the worlds. And they traveled all over Spain. They used to travel all over Spain in those little carts, those gypsy carts.

Q: Let’s stay with your experience of the company.

Maclovia: He [Antonio] choreographed many dances, but the one that sticks out is Leyenda del Beso. Leyenda, it means “the Legend of a Kiss.” Antonio told me, “Maclovia, you are the type of a dancer who has—I could never tell you what to do because everything you do, your head, your arms, your body, when I ask you to do a step that I create for you,” he says, “you do it so perfectly, I don’t have to ever tell you what to do.” And he always admired me for that, that I was what they call a dancer’s dancer.

Maclovia continued to tour with Rosario in Cuba, South America, Brazil and Argentina. Well into her 70s she continued to teach ballroom dancing, and coach Spanish and flamenco dancers. At the Potrero Hill Neighborhood Center she taught Qigong into the late 1990s. On New Year’s Eve of 2004, Maclovia Ruiz died in San Francisco, California at the age of 95.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Bulitt is a solo dance artist and dance ethnologist. Her most recent site specific commission was from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For many years, she danced in creeks, mountain tops, regional parks, and on Lake Merritt on a floating platform, honoring birds. As an interviewer for LEGACY Oral History Project and Our Neighbors Dance Their Dances: A Celebration of World dance, she collects field interviews with Eskimos in Alaska and Bay Area dancers. She serves on the Izzies Committee and resides in Berkeley, CA.