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A world-renowned Cuban flamenco dancer makes Tampa her home

Irene Rodriguez fled Cuba and moved to the U.S. in 2019, leaving behind a successful career and business. She's rebuilding in South Tampa and sharing her passion for flamenco.

Passion, technique, discipline, and creativity.

Irene Rodriguez teaches more than just dance. She embodies it.

She's classically trained in ballet, but it's flamenco that has her heart.

Even though the Spanish dance style has taken Rodriguez worldwide, Tampa is now her home.

"Here I don't feel I am foreign. I'm starting to feel (like I am) a part of the city," she said. "My future is here, my dreams are here, and I'm developing this amazing flamenco community."

Woman in black leotard clapping hands.
Daylina Miller
Irene Rodriguez teaches dancers to use palmas, or palms of the hands, during a flamenco class in South Tampa.

Rodriguez was born in Cuba. She began ballet lessons as a young child. While receiving her training, she fell in love with flamenco.

By 16 years old, she was dancing with the professional flamenco company Ballet Español de Cuba.

In 2012, Rodriguez earned first place at the VIII Certamen Iberoamericano de Coreografía in Spain for her choreography.

The piece was a nine-minute recreation of Antonio Machado's poem “El Crimen fue en Granada.” She said the prize is one of her most prestigious awards.

“We can never forget when we are dancing flamenco, we are dancing a culture,” Rodriguez said.

Around the same time, she started her own company called Irene Rodriguez Compañia in Havana, Cuba, growing it to over 400 students and 30 professional dancers.

In 2018, she received the Order "Isabel La Católica" — Spain's highest civilian honor, which carries the signatures of the King of Spain and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But the next year, despite her success, Cuba’s political climate drove her out. She left everything to start from scratch in the U.S.

Even though flamenco has taken Rodriguez to many places, she had never visited Tampa Bay. But after discovering the amount of history between it and Cuba, she said she knew this was the place.

"I said I want to be a part of this," she said. "I want to bet (on) the city.”

Flamenco FINAL.mp4

And she has already left a mark in town.

In 2022, she was awarded the Honor Medal from the University of South Florida, presented by President Rhea Law. She also received the "Outstanding Choreographer Award" at the Youth American Grand Prix, one of the largest ballet competitions in the country.

Rodriguez is also building back her professional company and student base at Brucie Klay's Dance Center in South Tampa.

Studio owner Brucie Klay Boonstoppel said to call Rodriguez amazing is "downplaying" it.

"The biggest thing for me with Irene... is it's more than teaching a class. It's just like passing on that energy and excitement and love you have for the arts — and she is definitely doing that," Boonstoppel said.

That energy begins in the studio for Rodriguez. She requires each of her dancers, from young to old, to wear the same uniforms.

Women don long black skirts, matching leotards, and a red flower in their hair, while men are clad in black pants and shirts.

“To feel you're a dancer you need to look like one. It’s the beginning and it's about discipline," she said.

Rodriguez said the emphasis on being stage-ready in class teaches students to perform long before they ever hit the stage.

Daylina Miller
Irene Rodriguez leads a flamenco children's class at Brucie Klay's Dance Center. All students are required to wear similar uniforms and come to class with their hair done.

Along with discipline, she also teaches them the techniques of the dance form. She tells the dancers to use "pellizco," which translates to pinch in English. But to Rodriguez, it’s more about the attitude that inspires the dancers.

“The Spaniards, as culture, they move and they have this flavor, this character. When a Spaniard talks to you, it looks like they are dancing," Rodriguez said, adding that that fire is "pellizco."

As her dancers progress, they learn more "palos," or rhythms. They start with quick rhythms, and advance to slower, more intense ones.

"Palmas," or palms of the hands, are also an important tool in Flamenco. Along with props that are used as extensions of the arms like "pericóns," "bastóns," and "mantons" — handheld fans, canes, and large silk shawls.

“So flamenco, put together all these things and you are able to express yourself, how you feel that day by the rhythms," Rodriguez said. "So it's what really defines and is a difference between other styles.”

And she even teaches her students to pronounce the dance style correctly.

“I said, ‘How do you name this bird?’ People say, ‘flamingo.’ ‘And how you name…’ and I just dance some flamenco steps and they say, ‘flamingo.’ I said, ‘No. This is a flamingo and I dance flamen-co. I don't look like a pink bird on one leg,’” Rodriguez said.

Each class is bilingual, but dancers don't need to know the language to follow along. Rodriguez floats effortlessly between Spanish and English with all of her students, including Andrew Farinas' daughter, Zoe.

He brought his daughter to Rodriguez’s performance in December — and signed her up as soon as it was over.

“Just watching Señora Rodriguez, it was just it was, it was amazing. I felt like I was back in like Madrid watching like, a flamenco show over in Spain. So it was just, it was awesome,” Farinas said.

Rodriguez is busy preparing herself and other dancers for their next performance this May at Centro Asturiano de Tampa.

Two pairs of feet wearing black shoes and pants.
Daylina Miller
Irene Rodriguez is building her flamenco business in South Tampa. She teaches all ages.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.