Remarkable Woman Libby Komaiko

Dame Libby Komaiko, Founder and Artistic Director of the Ensemble Espaa┬▒ol Spanish Dance Theater, the in-residence dance company at Northeastern Illinois University, is pictured Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at the campus in Chicago. (Brett T. Roseman, Chicago Tribune / August 26, 2013)

Before she became known as Dame Libby, an honorific bestowed upon her by the king of Spain, Libby Komaiko was a Chicago-born, Evanston-bred girl of Russian and Eastern European descent with her sights set on the bright lights of Broadway.

"However, things don't always happen the way you plan them," Komaiko, 64, said with a soft chuckle.

Here's what happened instead: When Komaiko was 18, she accompanied a friend to an audition at the Palmer House Hilton for renowned flamenco artist Jose Greco's Spanish dance company. Greco asked if the raven-haired Komaiko could dance flamenco. Komaiko, who at the time was trained in ballet, jazz, modern and character dance, had no Spanish dance training and, anyway, was New York-bound, having made the final callbacks for the U.S. road company of "Man of La Mancha." But why not try, she thought. So, wearing her street clothes, she imitated the flourishes of the other dancers.

That night she was granted one of six scholarships Greco was offering nationwide to train with his company.

"Should I play Don Quixote or live it?" Komaiko recalls thinking. She decided to live it.

The intensive six-week immersion in Spanish dance that followed sowed in Komaiko a passion for the art that she would in turn impart to thousands.

After dancing professionally for several years, Komaiko started performing workshops, accompanied by her mother, a concert pianist, including gigs at Northeastern Illinois University.

In 1975, Komaiko founded the Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, showcasing Spain's classical, folkloric and flamenco dance, and later created Northeastern Illinois University's Ensemble Espanol Center for Spanish Dance and Music, the nation's first complete academic program for Spanish dance and music in residence at a state university.

Her professional company today boasts 40 dancers and musicians and a repertoire of more than 125 choreographies, many of them developed by Komaiko, plus a youth and junior company.

"Everybody was wanting to study it because it's the roots — it's the roots of the heritage," said Komaiko, referring to the many Latino students who have come through the program.

In 1983, Spain's King Juan Carlos I awarded Komaiko the high honor of the Lazo de Dama (Ribbon of the Dame) de Isabel la Catolica for spreading the cultural and artistic values of Spain throughout the U.S. Many other awards and honors have followed.

"She has given her life pretty much for this art form, from teaching young dancers who have never been exposed to this before, to her outreach to schools, to bringing top artists from Spain, to writing grants, to forming partnerships," said Jorge Perez, who started with Ensemble Espanol 29 years ago when he was a student at Northeastern and is now its executive director, assistant to the artistic director and first dancer.

Komaiko's life continued to throw curve balls.

In 1994, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disorder that silenced the stomp of her feet.

She did not shrink from the spotlight: Even after she had to walk with a cane, Komaiko performed onstage with castanets. She has since retired from dancing and day-to-day academia but remains a professor emerita, sits on the Ensemble Espanol board and leads the organization where she can.

"The attitude is very important," said Komaiko, who lives in Chicago. "To be gifted with a love of the art, and able to do what you love, what you're passionate about, for a lifetime, is a gift. It's just a gift."

Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: What was the greatest challenge as you built the Spanish dance program?

A: The most difficult challenges had to do with the fact that I am not of Spanish or Latin descent. I would go to corporations with Hispanic boards, and people would say, "Oh, you didn't get the grant — well, you're not Latin, you're not Hispanic." I heard this over and over and over. Nobody would have known if they had just looked at me or seen me dance.

Q: What would you say has been your biggest mistake?