True or false: South African dancers and teachers have taken Spanish dance to Spain?
True! In 1989 the Spanish Dance Society, based in Joburg, took over a syllabus of iconic Spanish dances to be taught in universities and dance schools. In celebration of this extraordinary feat, Spain has honoured no fewer than four South Africans, who have nurtured and continue to preserve Spanish dance techniques and traditions worldwide, with a knighthood. The most recent was the bestowing, on February 1, of Rhoda Rivkind with the Encomienda de la Orden de Isabel la Catolica (the Order of Isabella the Catholic) on behalf of the king of Spain and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation.
Rivkind, a principal dancer with the Mercedes Molina Spanish Dance Theatre, who in 1963, as Luisa Cortes, was invited to join flamenco master Luisillo’s company in Spain, was honoured for her service as the founding executive administrator of the Spanish Dance Society.
The teaching initiative was co-founded in Joburg in 1965 by this veteran artist-educator, with the late Mersyne Conidaris (Mercedes Molina, who died in 1978), Enrique Segovia (Sir Geoffrey Neiman), Dame Marina Keet (honorary life president), Theo Dantes, Marina Lorca (Dame Mavis Becker) and Hazel Acosta.
Forty-eight years later the International Spanish Dance Society, which has codified Spanish classical, regional and flamenco dances in an examination syllabus, is now taught in 23 countries on five continents. This year Malaysia and the Philippines join the roster of teacher and dancer training.
In an intimate ceremony in the Spanish ambassador Juan J Sell’s Waterkloof, Pretoria, residence – and surrounded by her daughter Tanya, sons Brett and David, society chairman Enrique Segovia, the Montoya family and Marina Vargas (Wilcarina Yeates) – Rivkind graciously thanked the ambassador and King Juan Carlos, acknowledging this “great and humbling moment”.
The spritely 76-year-old, who spends three months of the year examining dancers in Bangkok, Singapore, London, Sydney and other Spanish Dance Society destinations, pledged: “As I have done for the past 48 years, I will continue to spread the rich legacy of Spanish dancing throughout the world.”
Rivkind’s biography reflects the diversity of this country’s influences and training. Born in Heidelburg, in the then Transvaal, on July 15, 1936, as Rhoda Zulman, her dance career began, aged 12, in Durban, where she trained in ballet, tap, modern and acrobatics. At 18 Rhoda became a ballet teacher, and two years later passed her international Royal Academy of Dancing exam.
Her life’s work began in 1959, when she was 23, when she moved to Joburg and pursued her love of Spanish music. Two years after joining Mercedes Molina’s studio in Hunstaton Building at the corner of Twist and Kotze streets, in Hillbrow, the Durban import was a principal dancer and teacher with the Molina Company where she met, danced and taught with Enrique Segovia.
Rivkind (she married the late Issy Rivkind in 1967) recalls that period of her life. “After teaching for Mercedes for four years and travelling the length and breadth of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe with her company, the well-known Luisillo visited South Africa for the second time. As Mercedes had been a member of his company for seven years before she returned to South Africa, Luisillo asked to see the Molina Company in performance. He was most impressed, and offered me a contract to join his company in Spain, which I did for 18 months.”
Back in Joburg the studio run in partnership with Molina, Cortes and Segovia flourished for 14 years. Molina died in 1978 and the company closed a few years later in 1984. Rivkind then ran a junior company, the Luisa Cortes Spanish Dance Theatre, for six years. Her studio, the Luisa Cortes School of Spanish Dance, is still operating at her home in Houghton. Rivkind’s legacy is also firmly rooted at the National School of the Arts where she taught Spanish dance as a matric subject from 1986 to 2008.
At the medal ceremony the ambassador thanked the South African Spanish dance pioneer for her talent, passion and generosity in embracing “the culture of others”. Pride, tinged with nostalgia, and sheer joy filled the air.