Ron Hitchins was once described as ‘the life and spirit of London’s flamenco scene’.   Not just an accomplished dancer, he was also a mentor and friend to very many flamencos both in the UK and Spain.  Countless numbers of visiting flamenco artists from Spain at some point either lodged at Ron’s Hackney home or headed to his house for post-show parties, dancing and singing in these impromptu flamenco ‘juergas’ until dawn.   Ron’s passion for flamenco earned him huge respect and love from the flamenco world, including many of the great names, such as the dancers Mario Maya, Sara Baras, Manolete, Joaquín Cortés and Rafaela Carrasco as well as eminent guitarists, including Vicente Amigo, Antonio Jero, El Niño Josele, Paco Peña, Emilio Maya and also singers such as Miguel Poveda, Luís Moneo, Manuel Tañé, El Estremeño and Juañares.

Ron was twice (1986 and 2000) awarded the lifetime achievement award by the Peña Flamenca de Londres, the UK flamenco club which he supported with unstinting loyalty.  A bi-annual prize for promising young flamenco dancers is now awarded in Ron’s name using a bursary he established.  Ron lived a full and creative life and was one of the greatest ambassadors for the art of flamenco there has ever been.

Ron’s Flamenco Life

The flame of Ron’s passion for flamenco was sparked in 1951 when aged twenty-two he went to see the legendary flamenco dancer Antonio perform with Rosario at the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End.  Back-stage after the show Antonio encouraged him to take up flamenco, whilst tempering Ron’s keenness to learn the basics in six months with some firm advice, ‘Hombre! Flamenco really is not as easy as it looks!’.  Already a well-known jitterbug dancer, a photo of Ron on the dance floor at the West End’s Feldman Club won the Best Newspaper Picture of the Year award in 1947.  In his incarnation as a jive-dancer, Ron broke the world dance record in 1956 by dancing non-stop for a whole day at the Cote d’Azure club on Soho’s Frith Street.   However, Ron turned to flamenco full-time during the early 1950s, taking lessons with Madame Lalagia at the Royal Overseas League, where the Anglo-Spanish Society was based.  Lalagia had trained with Ballet Russe during the 1930s and was a protégé of the flamenco dancer La Argentina.  Ron subsequently took Spanish classical dance lessons with Elsa Brunelleschi of the Ballet Rambert, until she dropped flamenco footwork from her classes, much to Ron’s disappointment.

Ron turned professional in the late 1950s and was in demand as a performer until the 1990s appearing at all of London’s Spanish themed nightspots, including The Acapulco and The Costa Dorada on Hanway Street, The Costa Brava in Charing Cross, Chandos on Trafalgar Square, The Troubadour on Old Brompton Road, Sultana Ahmed Turkish restaurant in Islington and later at Triñanes in Kentish Town and the Stork Club in Streatham.  At the Casa Pepe restaurant in Soho, Ron earned the reputation as ‘the man who broke the dance floor’, for which he was nicknamed ‘El Bruto’ due to the damage that his ferocious ‘zapateado’ (stamping flamenco footwork) did to the venue’s parquet floor.  It was in the Troubadour club that avant-garde film maker Ken Russell spotted Ron’s talents, inspiring the director to make a BBC Monitor documentary film about Ron’s flamenco life (The Light Fantastic, BBC 1960).  Ron had other flamenco dance appearances on TV, notably in an episode of The Odd Man crime-drama series written by Edward Boyd and directed for Granada TV by Coronation Street creators Derek Bennett and Stuart Latham.

Accepted as one of their own by Spanish flamenco artists, and popularly known as ‘Manolo’, Ron was nevertheless rather modest about his dancing skills and was always keen not to pass himself off as a Spanish performer, preferring to adopt ‘El Chino’ as his stage-name, due to his Lithuanian-Jewish and Chinese heritage by birth.  Over the five decades that he spent on stage, Ron danced with all the flamenco artists resident in London, including Antonio Vargas (of Strictly Ballroom movie fame), Rafael Rodríguez, Gerald Howson, Rogelio de Málaga, Tony Clinton and his son Francisco Antonio, Talia Cohen, Glynn Davies, Sandra Escudero, Conchita del Campo, the entire Basilisco flamenco family (Mario, Willy, Ernesto and Tio Leonel), Paco Peña, Maribel la Manchega, Tito Heredia, Ramón Ruíz, Felipe de Algeciras, Manuel de la Malena, Marcial and Chonchi Heredia and, of course, with his guitarist friend, Jingle.

 Ron’s gravity-defying spinning flourishes, especially during the last copla of his sevillanas dance routine, are now the stuff of flamenco legend.  To celebrate his 70th birthday in 1996 he performed seventy sevillanas at the old Peña Flamenca de Londres venue in Covent Garden, dancing with multiple weary partners and almost without a break all day and nearly all night.  On completing the target seventy dances, he went on to perform several more ‘just for the fun of it’, as he told the exhausted audience.  Ron was also famed for his incredible performances of the lively ‘bulerías’ flamenco form, which he pushed to its limits and gave many guitarists sore fingers due to their having to repeat fast and furious ‘resgueado’ strums on the strings to keep up with Ron’s insistent footwork.  Although he was known for his dancing, Ron was especially fond of the ‘cante flamenco’, the art flamenco singers which is at the core of the art, and was very knowledgeable of the soleá, siguiriyas and the debla.  In the 1980s he turned to teaching flamenco dance in his living room in Hackney, the adverts for which deployed his unique brand of humour: ‘flamenco taught in your convenience’ and also an in-joke for flamenco aficionados ‘tuition of the martinete: students must bring their own anvil’.

Ron never drank or smoked and from his boxing days he knew how to keep himself fit.  Never one to sit on his laurels, in his seventies he took up Argentinian tango, becoming as popular on London’s tango circuit as he had already become on the flamenco scene.  Ron’s love of all kinds of dance attracted the attention of major names in the world of ballet, such as the top ballerina Gillian Lynne and Carlos Acosta, both of whom were frequent visitors to Ron’s E8 home.

 At the famous post-show ‘juerga’ flamenco parties at Ron’s Hackney home, as many as one hundred people would gather to dance, sing and strum guitars into the early hours.  He was renowned as the most hospitable of hosts.  An accomplished cook, Ron would emerge from a hot kitchen at two o’clock in the morning with huge trays of chicken and rice and then at three o’clock, due to its popularity with Spanish visitors, bowls of pink jelly and ice-cream would magically arrive to keep the artists sustained until dawn.  At one legendary party, the guitarist Vicente Amigo and his group performed complicated contra-tiempo ‘palmas’ (flamenco clapping) to the rhythm of a wind-up joke-shop penis which they had found hidden amongst the art work on Ron’s living room shelves.

 After his retirement, Ron took to making videos of flamenco shows.  Tutored in composition by his lifelong friend, the photographer Dave Bateman, Ron quickly took to his newly found art form, deploying clever framing shots to sensitively capture the action on stage.  From behind the lens Ron would shout an encouraging ‘Olé!’, in his unmistakable Cockney accent, the ‘jaleo’ producing appreciative smiles from the performers.  Ron was invariably dragged onto stage for the ‘fin-de-fiesta’ final number before the artists left the stage, arm in arm with their flamenco friend.  He became technically proficient at editing and producing multiple copies of DVDs for flamenco artists and members of the Peña.  Many flamenco performers cherish Ron’s recordings of their early performances, his library of shows and rehearsals over the years amounting to many thousands of hours of valuable historical footage.  The Peña Flamenca de Londres is in the process of editing this important legacy to help further promote flamenco in the UK.

 A homenaje concert in honour of Ron’s flamenco life hosted, by the guitarist Paco Peña was held at the Troubadour in Earls Court in 2014.   All walks of life turned up, from the eminent lawyer, Adrian Lynch QC, a long-time friend of Ron’s, to the guitarist Agustín ‘El Bola’, the nephew of the legendary flamenco guitarist, Sabicas, and everyone who was anyone in London’s flamenco world. It was Ron’s request that a siguiriyas be sung at his funeral held at Golders Green Cemetery on 4th December 2019.  The honour fell to Juañares from Jerez de la Frontera, accompanied by guitarist Tito Heredia.  The anguished cries of this most moving of the flamenco palos was a moving end to a truly great flamenco life.

Are you inspired by Ron to learn more about flamenco?  Join the Peña Flamenca de Londres: www.flamenco-london.org.uk  or contact Steve Carr steve@flamenco-london.org.uk


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