Nélida Tirado's double existence

Nélida Tirado; photo Chasi Annexy

Nélida Tirado, a Nuyorican flamenco dancer, has two resumes. One is for her work as a salsa dancer, including tours with Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Tito Nieves, Tony Vega, and Jose Alberto. Her other resume is for flamenco. In Spain, she performed with Compañia Maria Pages and Compañia Antonio El Pipa, performing at prestigious flamenco festivals in Spain, such as the Bienal del Arte Flamenco, Festival de Jerez, and Festival de Otoño. Her piece “Dime Quién Soy” (Tell Me Who I Am), to be performed Sunday, June 12, at the Alburquerque Flamenco Festival, explores this double existence.

“I lived and worked in Spain for many years, and I found many types of flamenco. There were many mindsets and attitudes. It’s different in the U.S.,” she said. “Here, if someone sees me, they know I am Puerto Rican, and they put me in a box. It hits you in the pocketbook. Are we upholding quality or passports? There is this idea of ‘flamenco puro.’ As foreign (non-Spanish) dancers, we want to be respectful and authentic, but I think we can be hindered by this idea of ‘purity.’”

“Dime Quién Soy” celebrates flamenco, but it also celebrates bomba and plena, the music and dance of Puerto Rico. It honors life in New York, and its melting pot of rhythms.

Tirado was born and raised in the Bronx although much of her extended family continues to live in Puerto Rico. As a preteen, her mother wanted her to connect to her island roots. She looked for a place in New York where Tirado could learn about bomba and plena. “Back in the ‘70s, there just weren’t a lot of places teaching Puerto Rican music and dance,” she said. “Now it’s different, but back then, the scene was a little edgy and underground.”

Her mother finally settled for an after-school program at a neighborhood community center owned by a drum and bugles corps where flamenco, classical Spanish dance, and ballet were taught. Later, Tirado was invited to enroll at Ballet Hispánico in Manhattan, where she trained in ballet, modern dance, salsa, flamenco, and Spanish dance. She danced with Ballet Hispánico’s apprentice company before heading to Spain to get serious about flamenco.

Her salsa career coincided with marriage to the “Mambo King,” Latin dance instructor Eddie Torres. Although they are no longer married, their son, Eddie Torres Jr., is now one of the top salsa dancers in the world, “The Prince of Mambo.”

“Dime Quién Soy” began as a project for Tirado and her son. “It centered around us. It was telling my story, sharing my love and passion for flamenco, and for my son.” The show was the only American act booked for the Flamenco Festival New York in 2016. Her engagement that night, at Joe’s Pub, sold out. Since then, the show expanded with original music and direction by Gonzalo Grau. There is a Latin singer and a flamenco singer in the show, as well as a Latin percussionist and a flamenco guitarist. “If I had a trillion dollars, I’d take this show on the road with a full salsa orchestra.”

Costuming is a contrast between one traditional flamenco gown, worn by Tirado for her big solo, and street clothes for the five dancers who also share the stage. “There’s an urban aspect to the show,” she said. “Urban Golpes” is a flamenco number inspired by the sounds of a rushing subway. There is no guitar. “We all live on the outskirts because we can’t afford to live in the center. So we spend a lot of time on the train.”

A fusion Tirado calls “Guajibaro” combines a flamenco form called guajira, a flirty dance with a fan and origins in Cuba, juxtaposed musically with Jibaro music, from the farm workers and mountain people of Puerto Rico. Also on the program is a salsa piece that feels like a flamenco rumba, she said, as well as a fusion of Puerto Rican plena music and flamenco. “Both salsa and flamenco are so passionate,” she said. “In Spain they see the need for flamenco to evolve. I’m trying to do that here.” 

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