In an iconic scene from the 1960 John Wayne classic The Alamo, a young woman entertains a cantina full of men with a table-top Flamenco dance. It’s a robust performance and she owns every step of it.
Teresa Champion, the dancer, hadn't even auditioned for the movie, but when Wayne saw her at an early rehearsal on the Brackettville set, he cast her.
Champion remembers it precisely.
"What's your name?” she says, imitating Wayne’s drawl. “I said, ‘Teresa.’ He said, ‘Teresa's gonna be on top of the table!’ And I'm thinking, ‘I'm afraid of heights!,’ And he said, ‘Yes, I'm sure, you're gonna be in my movie!’”
She was only 22 back then, but she’d had already been dancing professionally for 10 years. In fact, Teresa Champion introduced Flamenco to South Texas in the 1950's.
"I'm the first one to bring Flamenco to San Antonio, into Texas,” she said.
It's a classic 18th century Spanish dance accompanied by guitar with powerful, precise stomping and dramatic gestures, similar to ancient Hindu and Jewish dances. Champion first heard it when she was a girl studying Folklorico dance in Mexico at the prestigious Palacio Bellas Artes. Her father had worked three jobs in San Antonio to save enough to send her. The intent was that she learn classic Mexican dance. But when Champion heard Flamenco, she was instantly enchanted.
“I just loved it,” she said. “And I said, ‘this is what I want to do.’"
She devoted herself to the study of Flamenco and soon began performing at dinner clubs in San Antonio. She married her guitarist Willie “El Curro” Champion and together, they made tandem careers performing Flamenco locally, nationally, and even overseas. She became an ambassador of the arts and of San Antonio. With Willie on guitar, they toured the world and she eventually became a sought-after dance instructor.
"I opened doors for everybody in San Antonio, for Flamenco,” she noted. “And a lot of my students are teachers now."
The Champions eventually opened a dance studio on South Flores, where she's taught for decades. It has a larger-than-life mural of her on one outer wall. They were married for almost 60 years before Willie passed away in 2012.
Today, she's the grand dame of San Antonio dance instructors, still teaching classes at 79 years old and revered by students and fellow instructors. At a recent Flamenco lesson, she led a class of women dressed in black through a rigorous, two-hour practice. During every performance, she’s still a dramatic, professional performer.
"Well, it’s just such an honor to be able to take classes from such an icon as Teresa Champion in San Antonio,” dance student Alma Gonzales said. “She's the one who first brought Flamenco to San Antonio.”
And the city has showered Champion with praise this year. She performed on stage at WeFlamenco Fest, and again at the Tobin Center as a Distinction in the Arts honoree earlier this month.
“To see her performing at almost 80 is such a tremendous inspiration,” Gonzales said. “That she still can do that! I always say she wears higher heels than I do when she's out and about. She's incredible!”
She's an incredible advocate for the arts and a living example of passionate performance approaching her eighth decade.
"Nothing's changed. For me, never change. I don't know about other people as they age,” she said. “But for me, I don't change. I'll be Teresa forever."
And she'll always be one of the people who make San Antonio great.