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St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society kicks off its 40th season with a tribute to its founder

Three women smile while taking a selfie together. They are standing in a brightly lit room with yellow-green walls.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Destiny Hooper, 29, of Tower Grove South, makes a selfie with St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society founder Maricel Salascruz, 83, and Maria del Mar Villaù, 56, of Sevilla, Spain, on Oct. 5 before performing at a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration “Tertulia” at the Missouri History Museum. A tertulia is a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones, especially in Iberia or in Spanish America.

Lee este reporte en Español.

Nestled behind a quaint single-family home off Hampton and Scanlan avenues in south St. Louis sits a white two-car garage that Marisel Salascruz turned into a flamenco dance studio in 1992.

“I started giving classes in my dining room, because I didn't have a place,” Salascruz said. “I started looking at my dining room floor getting white … and I said ‘I have to do something’.”

Salascruz insulated the garage, painted the walls and placed a brown wood dance floor on one side and a mini-closet for her dancers' flamenco dresses on the other. The discolored dance floor tells the story of hundreds of dancers who have put dedication, passion and time into learning how to flamenco dance through the St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society.

The dance company is celebrating its 40th season Saturday at Bayless High School with “Dreams of Lost Memories,” a fiery showcase that captures the life and journey of Salascruz, the society’s artistic director. The performance is directed by Maria del Mar Villaú of Spain and Salascruz. The 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. shows also will highlight the realities of Alzheimer’s disease. Salascruz is dedicating the performance to her friends and family who are living with the disease or have succumbed to it.

An older woman wearing a blue and white polka dot dress poses for a picture. Her back is to the camera, but she is seen in the reflection of a mirror in front of her. She is holding a black and white polka dot dress, with the hanger up above her head and the dress pulled over her waist. She is standing in a makeshift dance studio with warm, exposed light bulbs. To the side is a headless mannequin, wearing a purple dress and pink shawl.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Maricel Salascruz shows off the handmade flamenco dance dress she will wear during an upcoming performance by the St. Louis Flamenco Society, on Oct. 5 in the dance studio she operates out of her home’s garage in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood of St. Louis. Salascruz estimates she has 300 flamenco dance dresses in her home and studio.
A senior woman's hand grips the fabric of a red, turquoise, yellow, purple and blue flamenco dancing dress, showing the fabric to toward the camera.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Maricel Salascruz shows off a handmade flamenco dance dress on Oct. 5, in the dance studio she operates out of her home’s garage in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood of St. Louis.

The 83-year-old dancer and choreographer started the St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society in 1984 because she said her culture did not exist in St. Louis at the time.

“I went to a fair — to our international fair — and at that time it was under the Arch, and I saw a lot of different countries dancing, but I didn't see Spain,” she said. “I said ‘Wow, why are we not represented?’”

She started out teaching about 10 girls the fundamentals of flamenco dance, along with Spanish and Costa Rican regional and classical dances. Over the past four decades, nearly 500 students have trained with Salascruz.

The society aims to preserve and promote Spanish culture through flamenco dancing. Salascruz hopes the values, traditions and history she teaches through dance will keep flamenco alive in the region.

Flamenco began in southern Spain. Roma people, who were forced out of India and traveled for 600 years to other countries, brought the art form to the area. Flamenco dance is influenced by Jewish, Christian, Moorish and Romani cultures. Flamenco includes folkloric singing, passionate dancing, vivacious stomping, enthusiastic clapping and the use of musical instruments, including drums, guitars and castanets.

A dancer’s life

Salascruz was born in Granada, Spain, right after the Spanish Civil War. Her family moved to Costa Rica just a few months after she was born out of fear for their lives. Her grandmother introduced her to flamenco dancing at 5 years old.

Because she danced so well, Salascruz’s family sent her to the National Theater of Costa Rica where she studied classical ballet, drama, Costa Rican folk dance and flamenco. She moved back to Spain as a teenager and eventually graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Spain in Seville. In 1972, she moved to St. Louis.

“Flamenco has been my savior,” Salascruz said. “It helped me so much in my life. It is not just doing a simple dance, it is what you feel when you are dancing.”

A collage of pictures hung on the wall. The one at the top left is tinted blue, with the people in it tinted white. It features a young woman and young man, dancing. The woman is in front, wearing an ornate flamenco dancing dress.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
An old photograph of Maricel Salascruz hangs at the top left of a wall of pictures, seen on Oct. 5 in the dance studio Salascruz operates out of her home’s garage in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood of St. Louis.

Salascruz said flamenco dancing gives her the ability to transmit her deepest emotions to her audience. She hopes to continue dancing for the rest of her life, but she understands that the art form is evolving with younger artists and dancers coming into the space, and it is becoming more challenging for her.

“In my time, the technique was much easier,” she said. “Right now, the technique is so difficult … they are doing so many things.”

Through the society, Salascruz teaches traditional flamenco dancing, which she said could help keep the art form pure.

“Flamenco has the force itself to be beautiful,” she said. “It does not need modern dance, it does not need jazz, it does not need tap.”

Pushing flamenco forward

The society performs about 10 shows a year at schools, events, festivals and arts education programs. It also puts on workshops for children and adults. Salascuz brings in guest flamenco dancers from all over the world to teach dancers various flamenco and regional folk dances.

She said exposing students to international dancers could broaden their perspectives on the popular Spanish dance and embolden them to practice or teach flamenco dancing outside the St. Louis region.

Salascruz hopes the dance company gains more exposure through her students. She said it has been difficult to get organizations and companies to understand the value of the art form and to donate to keep the dance organization growing. She operates on a tight budget and received small grants from a few companies when she first started the group but has not received any financial assistance from major arts organizations or other large donors.

Salsascruz dreams of one day offering her program to local schools as a dance class credit, but until then, she continues to inspire her dancers to bring flamenco traditions and culture to their communities.

Two women wearing black, yellow and red flamenco dancing dresses, dance with their hands over their heads and smiles of their faces. The are in the center of a room, with people seated along the walls.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Destiny Hooper, 29, of Tower Grove South, left, and Maria del Mar Villaù, 56, of Sevilla, Spain, dance to flamenco music with castanets in hand on Oct. 5, during a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration Tertulia at the Missouri History Museum.

Destiny Hooper began training with Salascruz at 5 years old. She joined the dance academy at 11 and continued on throughout high school. She came back to dance with the company in 2020. Hooper, whose family is Bolivian, said the flamenco culture is buried deep inside of her now.

“Rhythm is universal and music kind of ignites something within a person, regardless of background and language,” Hooper, 29, said. “So, even with flamenco, if you don't understand the Spanish lyrics, you can still hear the pain, the joy, whatever it is in that music, and it touches a deep part of you, regardless if you know what that part is.”

Hooper is an ambassador for the society and the art form. She talks about flamenco dancing and its traditions to her high school English students to help them understand its importance. Hooper hopes the legacy of the society carries on through teaching younger generations.

“Diversity is such a big topic that people talk about, especially in St. Louis, where we've been kind of like in little pockets here and there,” she said. “It's really nice to express that and unite people in that music, regardless if it's from their culture or not.”

Initially, Hooper was shy and did not want to perform in front of people, but Salascruz was patient with her and affirmed her, which helped her become comfortable onstage and in everyday life.

“The thing about flamenco that I think is so beautiful is that even if you're learning the same steps, the way that you carry yourself or the way that you do that step, you are shining a part of yourself,” she said.

A woman wearing a black, red and yellow flamenco dancing dress and a purple and white shawl on her shoulders smiles wide while dancing. Behind her is a row of seated people, watching her.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Maria del Mar Villaù, 56, of Sevilla, Spain, dances to Flamenco music on Oct. 5, during a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration Tertulia at the Missouri History Museum.

Flamenco is intense and requires hours of practice but is therapeutic, said Emma Frey, who has been dancing with Salascruz’s company for 15 years.

“I work a full-time job that is very mentally draining … but when I come to class, it's kind of a way for me to put all of that behind me and take out frustrations on the dance floor,” Frey said.

The 35-year-old trained in ballet as a child for 10 years. One day Salascruz came to her ballet studio and taught flamenco; she enjoyed it so much that she left ballet and pursued flamenco instead. She loves how freeing the art form is.

“It was just so different — the arm movements, the head movements, the footwork,” she said. “Something I learned about flamenco is normally with most dance forms, the dancer follows the music, but with flamenco, it's the other way around, the guitarist follows the dancer.”

Frey, who is white, dances to show children and adults how rich flamenco culture is and how it should be part of the region’s culture.

“I think for it to flourish, we do need people to invest their time and learning about the culture and learning about the dance form and kind of challenging themselves to start taking classes,” Frey said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.