Lola Montes, one of the country's most renowned Spanish dancers and a frequent Southland performer over a career of more than 70 years, has died. She was 90.
Montes died at her home in Laguna Woods on Friday of complications from pneumonia, Oscar Nieto, a lead dancer with her company, said.
In 1955, Montes started her own company, the Los Angeles-based Lola Montes and Her Spanish Dancers. The troupe signed with Columbia Artists Management Inc. and toured the country for 22 years on the community concerts circuit. The company also appeared in Los Angeles and Orange County schools for more than 15 years under a cultural awareness program.
In 1974, the Lola Montes Foundation for Dances of Spain and the Americas was established, dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Hispanic dance and music.
"Twenty years ago, we only had to worry about getting an itinerary together," Montes told The Times in 1988. "Now, it's a whole new situation. It isn't just the dance steps. You need a certain amount of intelligence. There are grant proposals and filing fees to worry about. You either do it or you hang up your castanets."
During her influential career, Montes was the first American to work with the legendary Gypsy flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya.
"I was so green in the beginning," Montes told The Times. "I wasn't a Gypsy, so I just sat in the corner and had nothing to say. But Carmen was magic. Whenever she performed, I was always in the wings, learning and picking things up, sort of through osmosis. I was always very bright, and I was always the best in the class."
Still, she never considered herself a flamenco dancer, according to Nieto.
"She was a Spanish dancer and always modeled her style of dance on the originators of what we know now as Spanish dance -- Pilar Lopez and her sister, La Argentinita," said Nieto, who joined Montes' company in 1971.
"Flamenco is associated with the Gypsy, fiery form of dance, which Carmen Amaya really brought to the fore. Montes was associated more with the neoclassical Spanish school of dance, which was more refined. She also did regional, folk dances, classical and neoclassical dances -- in fact, the whole spectrum of Spanish and in some cases Hispanic dance."
Montes was born Feb. 5, 1918, in New York City as Gertrude Tashma. As a minor, with her father's assistance, she changed her name to Chita Tashma. She trained at the ballet school associated with the Metropolitan Opera and started Spanish dance lessons with Madame Viola, who also taught the renowned dancer Jose Greco.
Montes began dancing professionally when she was 15 after answering a call for a Spanish dancer at a Greenwich Village nightclub.
She later joined Carmen Amaya's Spanish dance company, made up mostly of Spanish Gypsies, and changed her professional name to Lola Montes. Her first husband and dance partner was troupe member Antonio Triana, one of the innovators of Spanish dance of the 20th century.
Amaya's company toured the country and in the 1940s brought the couple to California, where they stayed.
"I just fell in love with the state," Montes told the Modesto Bee in 1990. "I had opportunities here. Thank God I stayed."
She and her husband also appeared in such '40s Hollywood films as "The Gay Senorita," "The Lady and the Monster" and "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."
The couple divorced in the early 1950s. Several years later, Montes married Luis Eguizabal, a titled Spanish emigre who had left Spain during that country's civil war. He died in 1980.
Montes was a member of the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, served on the Olympics organizing committee for Hispanic dance and was president of the Los Angeles Area Dance Alliance in 1985.
During her career, she received numerous professional and civic awards and mentored many young local dancers.
She gave her last performance in 2000 in a show for schoolchildren.
"Age is irrelevant," she had told the Modesto Bee a decade earlier. "I still perform with the company. Sometimes I have more energy than the younger people, but then I'm a very motivated person."
A documentary on her life and career is in production, according to Nieto.
Montes had no children. She is survived by nieces and nephews who live throughout the United States.
A public memorial will be announced.