Spanish Dance Icon Libby Komaiko Dies at 69
Dame Libby Komaiko, one of the most important female figures in Spanish dance in the United States passed away on February 2, 2019. A trailblazer for Spanish and Flamenco dance in the United States, she leaves behind a strong and flourishing legacy which includes the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, The Ensemble Español Center for Spanish Dance and Music, the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Youth Company, the Northeastern Illinois University Spanish Dance Program and the annual American Spanish Dance and Music Festival.
An admirable, visionary leader, Komaiko successfully trained and maintained the same administrative and artistic personnel for decades, bringing an uncommon level of stability and consistency to a genre of dance dominated by pick-up companies. She leaves the company with more than 100 works of choreography.
Komaiko was often mistaken for Spanish but was actually Jewish of Lithuanian and Russian descent. She was born in Chicago in 1949 and grew up in Evanston. Her parents were both musicians exposing Komaiko to music since infancy. Inspired by a live performance of the Nutcracker, Komaiko studied classical ballet and character dance as a young child and as a teen studied jazz, modern and musical theater.
At 18, Komaiko went to watch auditions for Jose Greco’s Dance Company where she was unexpectedly asked to audition by Greco. Komaiko said to Greco, “I’m not a Spanish dancer,” in which he replied, “Just try.” Greco offered Komaiko a spot in the company, which were her first steps in a life-long career in Spanish dance.
In 1972, Komaiko was invited to teach as an artist-in-residence at Northeastern Illinois University. Shortly thereafter she began teaching full-time and developed the Spanish Dance Program there. In 1976 she incorporated Ensemble Español and the company received in-residence status at the university.
In 1983 she was granted the Lazo de Dama de la Orden de Isabel la Catolica (the Ribbon of the Dame) from the King of Spain, His Majesty Don Juan Carlos I. Komaiko was the first American artist to be awarded the distinction. In 1986 she was featured on the cover of Dance Magazine and was also featured in DanceTeacher magazine in 2001. In 2003 she received the coveted Ruth Page Award and in 2004 received the prestigious International Latino Cultural Center Lifetime Achievement Award. President Barack Obama congratulated Komaiko’s efforts in 2011 for the company’s work globally.
Komaiko successfully overcame the many challenges and barriers for women in Spanish dance. A culture of sexism still today exists for female artists in Spain, particularly in leadership roles, making Komaiko’s international success notable. As well, American-born artists struggle in the United States to gain the same level of respect that Spanish-born artists automatically receive from American audiences. Komaiko overcame these challenges with grace and persistence while enduring an autoimmune condition which she was diagnosed with in 1994.
Komaiko is survived by her brothers Daniel Komaiko and William Komaiko, her sister Leah Komaiko, her birth daughter Jen Miller and birth granddaughter Amanda Miller.