Karen Santiago Dances Her Troubles Away

Marlon Miranda, El Vaquero Staff Writer

Broken dreams are not the end of the journey but just the beginning.

Music begins to play as the dancer preps her steps before the intro. In the middle of her routine she feels a snap in her left knee and falls to the floor. A torn ligament stopped an American Ballet Theatre production but also derailed a young dancer’s career and dreams.

Karen Santiago, 55, once had a promising career as a ballet dancer which was cut short when a ligament tore in her knee as a teenager. The injury forced her to quit what she loved doing most — dancing.

“My life changed in five minutes, I was completely devastated,” said Santiago. “I couldn’t even listen to music for years. Every time I heard a dance tune I would break down and cry.”
The injury ended her ballet career but not her love for dancing.

Years after her injury, Santiago slowly started getting back into the dancing scene. She became a professional disco dancer and picked up belly dancing as a hobby. She has performed for former President Ronald Reagan, Casey Kasem, Al Pacino and Kiefer Sutherland.

Belly dancing brought her to a new audience, from private functions to benefit concerts. Santiago was getting back into the groove of her dancing career.

That career took another stop when she met her first husband.

Santiago soon found herself married and starting a family. Once again she had to abandon her dance career. However, being there for her two children, Domanick and Dimitri Albera, was more important than dancing and school.

“When we first got married, I was a full-time student. We started our family right away so I had to give up on school and become a full-time housewife,” said Santiago.

Santiago started working at Arabic dance clubs, as well as working with renowned musicians like Jhad Racy (Ancient Egypt, Mystical Legacies) and Nabil Safi (Helwe Yalee Mashee, Neseet Yahabibi). She was asked to go Europe but refused because her children were too young.

After eight years, her first marriage collapsed in 1992. The split was mutual and they remain good friends to this day.

She remarried in 1993 to Neko Tzoulis, a man with deep family ties and a strict and overbearing personality.

Her marriage to Tzoulis forced her to stop dancing completely. Her husband’s tradition and culture frowned upon belly dancing and thought it to be more in the line of adult erotica than an art form.

“It was a real abusive relationship, both emotionally and physically. I got caught up in a trap most women [in unhealthy marriages] do,” said Santiago. “ I thought I could make it work out but he didn’t, so after 13 years I had to move on. It was a real hard time for me. I lost myself in trying to save my marriage.”

After spending more than 20 years in two marriages, Santiago needed a new beginning.
She went back to her roots and enrolled in a ballet class at Los Angeles City College. She decided to get her dancing certificate.

She heard great things about Dora Krannig and the GCC dance program. She wanted to get her certificate from Glendale. Santiago decided to talk to Krannig, department chair of ballet and choreography at the college. After speaking with Krannig, she decided to join the GCC dancing program.

“Karen is a beautiful person and dancer. She brings a lot of experience to the dancing program,” said Krannig. “It’s good to have such a good role model for the young dancers.”

Krannig introduced the two- year instructional dancing certificate. Glendale is the only school that offers such a certificate. The certificate has been around since 2009 and gives dancers the ability to teach their own classes.

“I am very proud of our success rate. Everyone is always looking for dance instructors and most students who completed the dance program are already teaching their own classes and making $20 an hour,” said Krannig.

Santiago will begin teaching her own belly dancing class after the semester at Blackbird Studios. The studio is located at GCC. Her peers are captivated by her style and presence.

Amanda Richardson, 21, dance choreographer, has had classes with Santiago and holds her in high regard.
“She is a hardworking dancer who is very talented. She is an inspiration to work with and the nicest person I ever met,” said Richardson.

Despite high praise from her peers and instructors, Santiago has remained humble. She has had doubts about her teaching ability.

However, Krannig has been influential in helping Santiago regain her confidence.
“Because of my injury, I always felt like I was doing something wrong,” said Santiago. “Thanks to [Dora] I have the confidence my students will be safe.”

An injury in her youth might have destroyed her goals as a ballet dancer, but her destiny couldn’t be stopped.

Despite the problems she encountered, she kept believing in her dreams even though she sometimes stopped believing in herself.

“I think what brought me to this point is that I have a good heart and no matter what happens I always keep a smile on my face,” said Santiago. “No matter how much sadness or disappointment I have encountered in my life, I never let it destroy me, I survived.”