Hispanic dance troupe has Jewish roots

Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater performing “Una Hobra de Arte.” The dance company will be peforming Jan. 27 and 28 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of University of Missouri – St. Louis.


When you think of Hispanic dances-the staccato rhythms of flamenco, the dramatic arc of zarzuelas, the color and fire of folkloric numbers-do you also think of a Jewish woman born and reared outside Chicago in Evanston, Illinois?

From now on, you will.

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That very woman, one Libby Komaiko, is bringing her Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater-comprising 40 dancers, singers and musicians plus several guest artists-to St. Louis. The internationally acclaimed company, which the Chicago Sun-Times says “never ceases to bedazzle its audiences with variety, precision, beauty and heat,” will showcase Hispanic dance styles in three shows Jan. 27 and 28 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

“Costumes, sets, scenery, art work-it’s all part of Spanish dance,” Komaiko said in a recent phone interview. “When audiences see the performance, feel the energy, sense the devotion of the dancers, it’s electric, just pure joy.” She added that many scholars think that flamenco and other Hispanic dances have Jewish roots, with the music developing from a fusion of Hebrew, Arabic, Indian and Gypsy influences.

Komaiko, 62, knows whereof she speaks. In 1983, just seven years after she founded her company, King Juan Carlos I of Spain awarded her the title of “Lazo de Dama de Isabel la Católica” for Komaiko’s “superlative work in spreading the cultural and artistic values of Spain throughout the U.S.” Since then, dance fans far and wide have affectionately referred to Komaiko as “Dame Libby.”

Komaiko said the concerts will include classical, folkloric and flamenco dances, with everything from 19th-century court dances to a Mexican-Indian dance performed with poles to the company’s smoldering flamenco rendition of Ravel’s “Bolero.” Still, running an Hispanic dance company was not her original plan.

“I wanted to be on Broadway,” Komaiko said. “My mother was a pianist and educator and my dad was a musicologist. Early on, I took dance lessons every Saturday morning, and I saw all the companies that came to Chicago.” As a teen, she studied and performed jazz dance, modern dance and musical theater with Gus Giordano. She even made final callbacks for a part in a Broadway production of “Man of La Mancha.”

At 18, Komaiko went to watch a friend try out for a scholarship with Jose Greco’s Spanish Dance Company. Greco took one look at Komaiko and asked if she were Italian or Spanish. She laughed and said no, she was Jewish. When he learned she was a dancer, Greco asked her to audition. Komaiko won one of six scholarships to study with his company.

“That was my big step into adventure,” said Komaiko. Over the years, Komaiko has studied in Spain and the U.S. with Elisa Stigler, Gus Giordano, Maria Alba, Nana Lorca, Lola Montes, José Greco, Edo, Manolo Vargas, Paul Haakon, María Magdalena, Pedro Azorin, Ciro, Pacita Tomas, and Roberto Lorca, with whom she partnered for several years.

Komaiko has done more than dance. Her career also has included musical theater, opera, television, film and orchestra, including guest performances with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, the Detroit Symphony, the Evanston and Skokie Valley Symphonies and repeated performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also has been the choreographer and coach for several Chicago Chamber Opera performances.

In 1975, at the age of 26, Komaiko created and founded Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater in residence at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. (See www.ensembleespanol.org.) As a dance professor in the school’s department of music and dance, she has created, developed, directs and teaches the first complete academic program for classical, folkloric and flamenco dance and music. Komaiko is a sought-after teacher, choreographer, and master teacher throughout the nation. Divorced, Komaiko has made her company her family.

Though Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater performed at Dance St. Louis’ annual SPRING TO DANCE® festivals in 2008 and 2010, this is the first time the company will perform an entire show in St. Louis. The concerts are co-sponsored by Wells Fargo Advisors.

What St. Louisans will not see on stage is Komaiko herself. She no longer performs. In 1994, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that can cause joint pain and fatigue. “I do what I can,” she said. “I work with the musicians, I am putting together a new CD, I am redoing some auditory tracks and dialogue for some of the youth concerts we do for schools and I am working on a new video documentary.”

After pausing to reflect on her life, Komaiko added, “You must do what you love in life, be involved in your passion. I have been so blessed to have so many people who believe in this dream-and working in dance, working in arts and education, has been a most beautiful gift for me.”