BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREGORY BARTNING
I met Carla in the studio she single-handedly created: Dance Arts Academy. Prior to her interview, she called and asked me what to wear, and then came in a beautiful practice dress. She said she didn’t like being photographed, and then erupted into stunning poses. She asked lots of questions, and then grew passionate in her answers. But of Carla’s many contradictions, perhaps the greatest was when she danced, her small feet thumping profoundly under her delicate frame on the floor of the dance studio she had poured herself into building.
How long have you been dancing and can you tell me a little bit about the journey?
I’m 70 years old, and I have been dancing probably 60 years. I never decided to make it my life. It took over me and nothing else mattered. I didn’t plan on being a professional dancer. I was only doing it because I loved being able to express myself through dance, and then one day I was debuting on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl with the Lola Montes Spanish Dance Company. From there the career evolved. But I didn’t choose to do it; it chose me.
What does your current dance practice look like?
I don’t perform other than for a few friends here and there. I mostly teach and give myself the opportunity to dance in the space I created, taking advantage of it while it is still here and I am still here.
How have the reasons for why you dance changed?
They’ve changed in so many ways. Considering my work itself, I think it has a great deal of maturity, much more than before when I worried about everything. I just want to feel it. I don’t want to think about it. And I think all of my years dancing have given me a comfort level. I know I feel comfortable in my skin doing what I do.
Sometimes it matters to me and sometimes not. I think I must be successful. Look what I created, and from nothing. I built Dance Arts Academy with a loan from the Small Business Administration and borrowed money from friends who believed in me. Realistically, who would have thought this could be done? But I did it. I have to pinch myself sometimes and say, “Hey you did this, you created this for all these dancers who come in every day.” I had a vision of a place that wasn’t just focused on ballet and modern, but a place where all the ethnic forms of dance could have a home. Against a lot of objection from other people who didn’t want to hear drums beating, I persisted in my belief that every dance discipline should have a home, especially considering that my discipline is flamenco. I put my life savings into the floor so dancers could make rhythmic sounds on a sprung state-of-the-art floor. If I look back at the history of what it took me to build this, sustain it and deal with all the difficulties and challenges, I think I am successful.
What do you perceive is your legacy?
I never thought about a legacy until just recently with my two lovely little great-nephews. I was going through some stuff at home and found letters of recommendation written about me. I couldn’t believe I was reading about me. They were incredible letters. I had forgotten I had them. I thought, “I’m going to make copies of these and send them to my great-nephews so they will have this legacy of what people thought of their Aunt Carla in such glowing terms.” That will be my legacy to my precious little boys and the rest of my family.
Do you see yourself dancing for the foreseeable future?
I can’t imagine living without it. That is foremost on my mind. I want to be able to dance until I die.
Something I have told many students over the years is about a show I saw on PBS about a young woman who was a dancer who had had a horrible car accident and lost both of her legs. What impressed me was how she dealt with it. She didn’t stop dancing. And what I’ve illustrated to my students is that she was dancing from her heart. She sat down on the floor with no legs, and you never even noticed she didn’t have legs. She was dancing with her whole torso and her being, and this is what I want to tell my students, that the dancing isn’t the footwork, it’s the soul. I have used that story many times to illustrate that dancing is of course the movement people see, but it’s not the whole thing, it’s not the whole story. It’s about responding to the music. The music comes in here (she motions to her ears), it stops here (she motions to her heart), and comes out there (she motions to her body and the space). That’s the dancer in me. I am moved by this process.
What advice would you give to the next generation of dancers?
Love it and just do it. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved. Certain things you must give up. But if you have to do it, you’ll do it.
Addendum: Rafa Esparza, the Dance Arts Academy studio manager, sent me this note, which Carla asked be included with her interview.
I’m Rafa Esparza, DAA’s studio manager. I’ve worked here nearly three years. I’ve grown really attached to the place, its energy, my co-workers, the dancers and, of course, Carla. Carla and I have a close relationship; the work I do requires we work as such, but we’ve also developed a friendship.
This interview has definitely stirred up a lot of emotive thoughts and feelings in her. I’ve witnessed firsthand the amount of work and dedication it takes to keep DAA alive. Carla’s persistence and unwavering determination to keep DAA’s doors open is a testament to her intense passion for living. And so it pains me to say that her determination to follow her passion for opening and maintaining DAA on the one hand, ironically, has to some degree been at the sacrifice of her passion for dance on the other hand. Yet Carla and her dream are still unraveling with a grace that really astonishes me. Los Angeles is a center of an abundant and progressively growing creative community. It should go without saying that DAA is undoubtedly both a creative landmark and a home for many of this community’s dancers, thanks to Carla Luna.
Carla Luna toured worldwide with the Jose Greco Company and the Lola Montes Company. As a soloist, she performed in the dance companies of Ballet Español de Paco Mundo y Maria Velasquez, Alhambra Ballet Español, Rafael Cruz Ballet Español, and in flamenco tablaos such as Corral de la Pacheca in Madrid and Los Rombos in Mallorca. While working in Spain, she studied with Matilde Coral, Rafael el Negro, “El Farruco,” La Tati and Ciro. She founded the Carla Luna Flamenco Dance Ensemble, which toured from 1991 to 1994, and is the director of Dance Arts Academy, which she founded in 2000.