Most professional dancers begin their careers in rehearsal studios or recital halls. Eva Lucena started hers inside a Spanish cave.
She was raised in Wales and England, but her father hailed from Spain. And while visiting relatives in the country as a teenager six decades ago, Lucena convinced her family to make a unique stop: the Sacromonte district of Granada, where gypsies live — and put on flamenco dancing shows — in caves.
“I had been dancing since I was 3,” Lucena recalls, “and I wanted to see the Spanish gypsies dance.”
She even got up to dance with them.
“An old gypsy lady came up to me and said, ‘You’re a natural. You will always been a dancer,’” she remembers.
The gypsy was right. Not only has Lucena been dancing professionally in the 60 years since then, she also spreads the Spanish dancing she fell in love with as a child to audiences across New Jersey.
Lucena, now 74, is the founder and artistic director of Alborada Spanish Dance Theatre in Fords — the only company in the Garden State that focuses on Spanish dancing. This year, the theater marks its 20th anniversary.
You can get a taste of Alborada on May 3 at Parker Press Park in Woodbridge, where the company will host the Feria de Sevilla Flamenco Dance & Spanish Cultural Arts Festival for the third straight year. There will be live music, arts and crafts, food vendors, a fashion show, castanet and percussion lessons, and loads of flamenco dancing, of course. Admission is free.
“Take a journey to Spain in Woodbridge,” Lucena says. “We present Spain to whomever wants to see it.”
That has always been Lucena’s goal. After her cave encounter, she started taking flamenco lessons and became a professional dancer at age 18 in London. Soon, she was performing throughout Europe.
Lucena came to America in 1973 and a few years later became co-director of the Spanish Dance Theater in New York with her mentor, Maria Alba. They performed all over the tri-state area.
Alba died in 1992, and Lucena moved to New Jersey in 1995. There, she formed Alborada, which she named in honor of her mentor.
“It’s Spanish for ‘the coming of dawn,’” Lucena explains.
The troupe — made up of 24 dancers and musicians — performed at more than 100 events last year, including theater shows, school assemblies, and performances at art museums, libraries, and street fairs. Lucena calls what they do “dance drama.”
“We create theater from the poetry of dance,” she says.
They also create pieces based on the history of Spain — the Moors who inhabited the area centuries ago, the Sephardic Jews being exiled from the country.
Claudia Campbell-Matland, the company’s marketing director and also one of its performers, was a student at the Princeton Ballet School in the late 1980s when she was first drawn to Spanish dance by catching famed flamenco dancer Jose Greco on television.“It comes from inside the soul,” Lucena says of Spanish dancing. “It gets to you. It’s the expression of the guitar picking up the rhythm and the singer singing. It’s the expression of how you feel about the history of each dance — history that goes back hundreds of years.”
“I tried it, and I got hooked,” recalls Campbell-Matland, an Edison resident. “It’s beautiful and it’s challenging and very complex. It allows you to express your individuality as well as be part of a group.”
She joined Alborada in 2002 and enjoys the fact that you don’t have to be 21 to participate.
“With ballet, you may not be able to dance into your later years because of the demand,” Campbell explains. “But with Spanish dance, you can dance throughout your whole life.”
The event in Woodbridge has become one of Alborada’s biggest events. It’s based on La Feria de Abril, an annual weeklong festival that has taken place near Easter every year in Seville, Spain, since the mid-1800s.
“We thought of this because no one else was doing it,” Lucena says. “It brings the whole light of Spain to New Jersey. It’s unique.”
The first year, about 500 people attended. This year, they’re hoping to attract 1,000.
A new feature to this year’s event is an art exhibition. Artists who are 18 and older are encouraged to bring an easel or sketch pad or camera and capture the festival in art form. They can then submit their pieces for a curated exhibit at the Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge, to be held in the fall.
And yes, when Alborada takes the stage at the festival, Lucena will be up there dancing with them.
“I love my art form,” she says. “I’m passionate. I’m a very young 74-year-old.”