Beyond the Stage: In Conversation with La Tania

By Heather Desaulniers

October 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Flamenco dancer in black & white polkadots
Flamenco dancer in black & white polkadots
La Tania / photo by Adrian Arias

Under the warm glow of the stage lights, two guitarists and a vocalist offer the opening musical motifs, their lively, impassioned sound penetrating the air. A soloist approaches them, costumed in a long white gown with a ruffled train. She begins swirling a white lace shawl in a serpentine symphony, her torso reacting to the broad movement. As the dance and music crescendo, her arms stretch out from the shoulder in large circles, sculpting the expanse. Intricate footwork patterns, body percussion and luscious turns unfold with incomparable control, speed and precision. Wrists sinuate and the upper body spirals in moments of sustained flow. Every second informed by a palpable, emotive drama.

The piece: Alas al Viento – a Flamenco dance in the traditional Alegrías style and twelve-beat structure. The event: the 39th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, held this past summer at the War Memorial Opera House. The soloist and choreographer: La Tania. A four-time contributor to the Festival, La Tania’s bold and dynamic performances have always been memorable for attendees, Festival staff and fellow participants. Yet, this year’s engagement was particularly special. It celebrated technical depth and formidable artistry. It was steeped in the lineage of Flamenco as well as in the artform’s present-day identity. And this mid-July performance marked an occasion of weight and note, a milestone – La Tania’s retirement from the stage.

Retirement certainly signals the end of a chapter, or perhaps the close of a specific narrative. But by no means is it the end of the story. Especially not one like La Tania’s that has been coupled with dance and movement for as long as she can remember. “Dancing, as a form of release, expression and therapy, has been a huge part of my life, and will continue to be – I’m still a dancer, still a choreographer and still a teacher,” she says, “this is a farewell to only one specific part, that of on-stage performer.” For La Tania, a repertory selection like Alas al Viento (which translates as ‘Wings to the Wind’) was the perfect way to say this goodbye, “when you are ending something, it’s very easy to want to replace it, but I’m not trying to replace anything; I want to be open to possibilities and allow for freedom – this dance captures that expansive and carefree spirit.” Yes, La Tania’s recent appearance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival was a time to say farewell. It was also a time to take flight, to see what comes next, and to continue an artistic journey that was birthed decades earlier.

La Tania’s journey with Flamenco dance began at the young age of two, when she relocated with her family to Southern Spain, to an area with a very strong Flamenco tradition. “My mother fell in love with Flamenco, took it up and became a professional, so I grew up in that community, where Flamenco was an everyday part of life, families getting together to sing and dance,” La Tania shares. This creative, collaborative environment served as La Tania’s early training ground. Instead of an academic studio setting, she learned through an intense immersion in movement and music, by watching and participating with the master dancers and artists around her. She continued this immersive study throughout childhood and at seventeen had the opportunity through a family friend to audition for Joaquin Quintero & Alicia Diaz Spanish Dance Company in Mallorca, Spain. After a successful audition, La Tania was accepted into the company as an apprentice – her own professional career had officially been launched.

Fast-forward a number of years. After performing non-stop with numerous companies across the globe and honing her craft with mentors like Cristodal Reyes and Ciro, La Tania found herself in California taking a well-earned sabbatical and visiting family and friends. Many of them had not seen her dance since she was a child, so she decided to put together an informal evening at Crown Hall in Mendocino. Little did she know that this one performance would be a jumping off point for a new chapter in her journey, the start of the California years. “Rhoda Teplow, an arts advocate and organizer, saw the show and liked my work, so she invited me to participate in a dance series she oversaw in Mendocino,” recalls La Tania, “from there, she became my first booking agent and manager, and truly helped me get a new company started.” That new endeavor was La Tania Flamenco Music & Dance, and the group toured extensively throughout California between 1994-1999.

Flamenco dancers with manton
La Tania / photo by RJ Muna

Then came a time of pivoting, a year bringing both change and opportunity. As La Tania Flamenco Music & Dance was coming to a natural ending point, La Tania was awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation to create Passage of the Muse, a project that she characterizes as a highlight of her lengthy career. Passage of the Muse saw its premiere in 1999 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – an interdisciplinary, multi-generational and very personal full-length work, “this was a significant and special piece involving four generations of my family – me, my niece, my uncle and my Grandmother,” she describes, “my Grandmother’s paintings were used as projections, there was poetry, a beautiful light/scenic design and of course, dance; and the financial support meant that I could really do what I envisioned.”

Various performance opportunities and guest solo appearances were ongoing during the early 2000s, including a tour in Hawaii in 2003. Though during this part of her artistic journey, it was teaching that began to take center stage. In the past decade, La Tania taught regularly at Mission Cultural Center, Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, City Dance as well as at her own studio in Oakland, sharing Flamenco with all ages and all levels. Today, she remains part of the teaching faculty at City Dance and offers regular classes at Oakland’s In the Groove studio.

A continued dive into teaching is something La Tania is looking forward to in this next leg of her creative journey. Guiding students as they master steps and technique, choreographing dances for them to perform and most important, being a mentor. By sharing her personal experiences, La Tania hopes that her students will be encouraged to pursue whatever path they may desire, “I want to impart that if you have a passion for something and work towards it, even if you are pretty much on your own, as I was, you can do it.” With this focus on instruction, mentorship and choreographing for her students, it’s even possible that another company may blossom and develop sometime down the road. “I would love to start a company with a larger ensemble, maybe with a trainee-type program, though I’m still thinking about what that might look like,” she explains. In the shorter term, her students will be performing two pieces in City Dance’s showcase this December at the Palace of Fine Arts. La Tania is also working on new choreographic material for a quartet of dance artists to audition for next year’s SF Ethnic Dance Festival. And she is currently collaborating on a film entitled Finding Compás, taking her dancing and acting skills to the screen.

New projects and long-term goals require time, energy and space. And for La Tania, retirement from performing has afforded this needed space. Not only to bring these present and future artistic endeavors to fruition but also space for the soul. Space for personal development. Space to re-energize. Space to breathe. “Taking the steps to retire from the stage was difficult, I was fearful, it was emotional, but I knew it was time,” La Tania notes, “and I’m excited to choreograph and teach, try different things, and see if I can have some fun in between.”

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.