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In the hypercompetitive worlds of sports and entertainment, it’s not unusual for stars to get an early start. But Santa Fe-based flamenco dancer La Emi’s career began earlier than most: It began in the womb.
When La Emi’s mother was pregnant, her father was working as a box office manager at a Radisson Hotel that is now The Lodge at Santa Fe. “My mother watched performances by María Benítez and others in the months before I was born,” said La Emi, whose real name is Emmy Grimm.
“When I was two, I tried to dance,” said La Emi. “The day I turned four, I was in class.”
The dancer and her family’s close relationship with Benítez, considered the godmother of flamenco in New Mexico, has continued over the years. At 28, La Emi is a leading light on the Santa Fe flamenco scene. She has performed at The Lodge, for Heritage Hotels & Resorts properties such as the Eldorado Hotel and appeared in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s annual presentation of “The Nutcracker.”
Like Benítez before her, La Emi is committed to passing along a love of flamenco, with its staccato foot movements, colorful costumes and percussive castanets, to the next generation.
Trying to pin down the peripatetic performer isn’t easy. A seemingly never-ending game of telephone tag finally yielded a telephone interview with La Emi. It came between a week of teaching in Hobbs Municipal Schools and the trip back to Santa Fe, where she runs the nonprofit La Emi Arte Academy near the immersive art emporium Meow Wolf.
Two things stand out during a conversation with La Emi: her voice and her humility. The young, vivacious performer has a husky voice one normally associates with a film noir actress, perhaps from an indeterminate South American country. But unlike a 1940s Hollywood actress, La Emi doesn’t speak slowly. She’s in a hurry to tell you about all the people who have helped her and to make sure everyone’s name gets spelled correctly.
Her father is her biggest supporter, she said, but flamenco singer Vicente Griego from Dixon is her “godfather.”
She may be a headliner, but La Emi is no diva. “The reality is the second you think you’ve arrived, you’ve cut off your feet,” she said. “It’s a lifelong camino. The farther you go, the more you realize there is to learn.”
La Emi’s camino started in her northern New Mexico hometown of Chamisal, a village of about 300 people on the High Road to Taos that has a tradition of musical performers.
When her father wasn’t in the box office in Santa Fe, he worked at Sipapu during the ski season. “I had a really incredible childhood,” recalled La Emi. “I was homeschooled, and I grew up skiing and snowboarding five days a week when the resort was open.”
In addition to joining the youth division of Teatro Flamenco, the company founded by María Benítez and her husband Cecilio, when she was 10, La Emi pursued her love of the slopes. “I always wanted to hang out with my brother Jacob Grimm,” she said. “I found myself a snowboarding coach and started training. I did a competition and won first place.”
But La Emi’s competitive snow sports days came to an end after she broke her wrists doing backside flips. “Snowboarding and flamenco aren’t compatible,” she said. “Now I go every other year.” It’s helpful to have a mother who is a physical therapist.
The dancer has been teaching since she was 12, first in the small town of Truchas and then, later in her teens, at Moving Arts Española, founded by Roger Montoya and Salvador Ruiz. “They have a nonprofit in San Juan that is doing incredible things in northern New Mexico,” La Emi said. “I cherish them.”
Although she’s determined to keep the flamenco tradition alive in New Mexico, La Emi realizes that not all of her students are going to become professional dancers, singers or guitarists. “What matters is that we can show them life lessons, help them gain confidence, help them build leadership skills,” she said. “There’s a lot of bullying going on, especially in big classes.”
As in dance, Benítez has been La Emi’s mentor in teaching. “When I was in the youth program, she told me, ‘It’s time for you to teach.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do it.’ She said, ‘You don’t have a choice.’ ”
La Emi first went to Hobbs with María Benítez about five years ago, she said. With her own company, La Emi is in her third year of teaching public school students in Hobbs, with stints of six weeks in the late fall, six weeks in the spring and two weeks in the summer.
In addition to teaching and building her audience, first at the now-defunct downtown nightclub Skylight, where she produced monthly shows for three years, and now at the Eldorado and The Lodge, La Emi’s life has been about studying. “I’m so fortunate to have studied with different maestros. New Mexico has become a hub for flamenco. I couldn’t ask for anything better,” she said.
In addition to Benítez, La Emi has studied with Carmela Greco, daughter of the famed flamenco dancer José Greco. The Italian-born American performer popularized the art in the 1950s and 1960s with electrifying appearances in such films as “Ship of Fools.”
La Emi said she has studied in Madrid two different times under Carmela Greco at the urging of her godfather Griego. “She took me in with open arms and said, ‘You’re going to come live with me.’ I learned as much as I could,” La Emi recalled.
After studying and performing for two years with the National Institute of Flamenco in Albuquerque, La Emi launched her own company this fall and began performing at Heritage Hotels, such as the Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, where she was on stage from Nov. 15-16.
Flamenco wouldn’t be flamenco without its colorful, form-fitting costumes and La Emi was lucky enough to find a talented seamstress, Maria Sena, when she was shopping for material at Jo-Ann Fabrics and “asking a million questions.”
Asked about the castenets, La Emi grows serious: “They will get you a job or they will lose you a job.” She credits her study of the classical Spanish percussive art to landing the role of the flamenco dancer in the Opéra Louisiane production of “Carmen” earlier this year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Castenets are a feature of her role in “The Nutcracker.”
The holidays are a busy time for La Emi because of “The Nutcracker” with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, which takes her to Colorado, Los Angeles and The Lensic in Santa Fe, for four performances, two on Dec. 14 and two on Dec. 15.
Then it’s back to The Lodge in Santa Fe, where it all began, for nightly shows in the Benítez Cabaret from Dec. 26-31. The Lodge’s website says ticket information for those performances is coming soon.