José Molina, 81, Who Brought Spanish Dance to U.S. Audiences, Dies
Posted January 11, 2018 8:08 p.m. EST
José Molina, a Spanish-born dancer who brought flamenco to audiences throughout the United States with his troupe and in regular television appearances, died Jan. 5 in Manhattan. He was 81.
The cause was lung cancer, said Judith Shapiro, a friend and former student.
Molina left Spain for the United States in 1956 for an appearance on “The Steve Allen Show” and stayed. He soon joined the company of famed flamenco dancer José Greco.
In 1961 he formed his own company, José Molina Bailes Españoles, which toured the United States for the next three decades.
“An arresting dancer, Molina at times performs with some of the outrageous panache of Rudolf Nureyev,” Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times wrote in a review of a Bailes Españoles performance at Carnegie Hall in 1978.
Nelida Tirado, who danced with Molina’s company beginning in the late 1980s, said he was still a striking figure then.
“Onstage, he exuded simplicity, charisma and charm,” she said by email. “The audience adored him.”
Later in life, Molina also made an impact as a teacher, introducing countless students to Spanish dance.
“He taught by example, and he didn’t lower his standards even when teaching beginners,” recalled Shapiro, who now teaches flamenco at the Alvin Ailey School. “He would say, ‘Better to do one thing right than 10 things badly.’ And students endured the endless repetition not only because of his expertise but because he taught with such generosity, warmth, humor and charm. Everyone had a crush on him.”
José Molina Quijada was born in Madrid on Nov. 19, 1936. When, as a young boy, he took an interest in dance, his mother, Carmen, was supportive, but his father, Ramon, initially was not.
“He didn’t want his son to be a dancer,” Molina told The Palm Beach Post in 1972. “In those days they had prejudices about men in dance. Today — after I have become a success — he is proud of me and salutes my choice.”
To earn money for dance lessons, Molina worked at the fish market where his father was employed. From ages 16 to 19 he toured nightclubs in Europe and the Middle East before making his television debut in the United States.
Dancing with Greco’s company during a surge of interest in flamenco often put Molina in front of very large crowds. The audience for a June 1960 performance in New York at City College’s amphitheater was estimated at 11,000.
Once he formed his own company, he continued to play at prestigious outlets like Carnegie Hall and Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. He was not shy about giving traditional Spanish styles a show-business sheen aimed at U.S. audiences, a tendency that some critics decried but that others found essential to maintaining interest in what could have been a fading fad.
“José Molina and his troupe have elevated the Spanish dance form from the jaded nightclub floor show to the concert stage — its rightful place,” Thelma Newman wrote in reviewing a 1972 performance in Florida for The Palm Beach Post.
Molina was also familiar to television audiences, especially from his more than 20 appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Molina, who lived in Manhattan, leaves no immediate survivors.
Later in life he imparted flamenco and other forms to countless students in the humble but beloved Fazil’s Times Square Studio.
Since it opened in the 1920s, the studio, nicknamed the Snake Pit, had been a rehearsal space for all sorts of dancers, including Fred and Adele Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Gregory Hines.
Fazil Cengiz, who operated the studio from 1978 until it closed in 2008, always took pains to make it available to flamenco dancers, who sometimes had trouble booking space because their furious footwork was thought to destroy floors. Molina, Shapiro said, “was the go-to teacher for flamenco in New York City when I started in the 1990s.”
Interviewed by The Times in 2000 for a feature article about the studio, Molina used the Spanish word “aire” — “wind” or “atmosphere” — to describe the ambience of the history-steeped place.
“It’s a genie going around the rooms, and we have to believe in that,” he said. “The aire is not every day, but we catch it sometimes.”