This Bird Can Dance!

Spotlight on Don Diego, Flamenco Dancer & Park Ranger

Did you study dance as a child?

As a young boy I studied tap dancing and piano.  My idols, although I didn’t know it, would later be Donald O’Connor, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly, who looked a lot like my father.  But all of my friends (rascals) were playing stick ball, stoop ball, punch ball and slap ball. So I gave up dance and piano to be with them. They were a tough group, sort of like the kids in Lord of the Flies. We even started a gang together called the Rawhides and had T-shirts made for us! But unlike typical gangs, we never fought anyone. We spent most of our time hunting and collecting toads, garter snakes, rabbits, pheasants and black widow spiders, which we were planning to sell to the military to use their silk threads for gunsights.  Not having any idea how to contact the army, we lost interest and kicked over the bucket full of spiders into my friend’s backyard, the offspring probably still lurking in some dark crevasses.

When did you become interested in Flamenco?

After high school and college I regained my interest in dancing after seeing the Jose Greco Flamenco Dance Company.  I found Mariquita Flores in the Yellow Pages and signed up for Flamenco lessons. In 1964 I spent every weekend at the World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, to see the late, great dancer, Antonio Gades performing at the Spanish Pavillion.  I memorized some of his steps and showed them to Mariquita.  She was a great teacher for gringos like me.  I also studied with Orlando Romero and Victorio Korjhan.  Then one summer a friend asked if I could organize some dancers for a Flamenco show in NYC. We peformed 22 shows during that summer at Lincoln Center’s Crafts Festival. I also performed at various other venues:  school gigs, weddings, parties.  I worked with were Bernard Schaller (aka Bernardo Martin), Arturo Martinez, Barbara Zavilowitz, Gabriela Granados and Ana Imperio to name a few.  Flamenco was exciting and fun but I never wanted to make a career out of it so I went back to college for teaching. I majored in English literature with a minor in Education.

When did you become a park ranger?

I grew up in Ozone Park, Queens, back when there were still farms in NYC.  I had tree forts, underground forts, swings and many natural areas to explore.

My real passion was in natural history.  I earned a Master’s in Resource Management so that I could follow my true love, a deep interest in nature and wildlife. Somehow, I ended up with a job in the National Park Service and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge where I am currently employed as the Jamaica Bay Guardian for the American Littoral Society.  During this time I still performed Flamenco and I met Josie LaRiccia who has been my yearly partner at the annual Littoral Society Holiday party.  My efforts at preserving the bay can be seen in the 2016 documentary entitled Saving Jamaica Bay which recently aired on PBS Channel 13.

"It was the love of life, when I was young,
Which led me out in summer to explore
The daybreak world.  A bird's first notes were sung
For childhood standing at the garden door.
The loneliness it was which made me wise
When I looked out and saw
Dark trees against the strangely brightening skies
And learnt the love of earth that is my law.
The love of life is my religion still.
Steadfast through rigorous nights, companioned
Only by what I am and what I strive to be --
I seek no mystery now beyond the hill
And wait no change but to become more lonely,
No freedom till the sleep that sets me free."
Siegfried Sassoon 1947