In some relationships, it takes the right combination of strength and softness, give and take, to maintain a balance. For professional flamenco dancer and teacher Angelina Ramirez and her wife, arts learning manager Elisa Lucía Radcliffe, the union of balance seems perfectly in time.
Ramirez is perhaps best known around Phoenix for her passionate live dance performances and founding of the company Flamenco por la Vida. Radcliffe has been a dance educator in the Valley for more than a decade and more recently transitioned to a full-time position with Arizona Commission on the Arts.
The couple’s biggest project recently – one that has allowed them to work together, albeit somewhat indirectly – is the Creative Aging initiative, an ongoing program that brings arts therapy to older adults. It is supported by the arts commission, and Ramirez has been working as a teacher and mentor in the program for the last three years.
“I work with teaching arts professionals who work with adult populations who are over age 65 and others who have special abilities like Alzheimer’s, dementia, other memory care [issues] or Parkinson’s,” Ramirez says.
Ramirez has been dancing flamenco for 27 years and teaching dance for more than two decades. She currently performs weekly in the lounge at Crescent Ballroom on Saturdays; performances are open to the public and free.
“We run the institute where we are teaching artists to work with older adults. Angie [Ramirez] had been part of the first cohort, and I was overseeing the second cohort, where she was a mentor,” Radcliffe explains. “She was definitely involved in it way before I had the opportunity,” Radcliffe says.
“I guess I was a guinea pig for the programming,” Ramirez says. “Since then, my company Flamenco por la Vida has partnered with Mayo Clinic, where we teach flamenco in their physical therapy department. And we also work with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute on lecture demos on integrating flamenco for patients who have any kind of memory loss.”
Ramirez’s dance company also partners with Mesa Arts Center, which has a Creative Aging program that invites participation from older adults. Her company is hired through the partnership with the arts commission. “Through the commission, I’ve been able to build these relationships with other arts organizations,” Ramirez says. “So [Elisa and I] get to work together accidentally sometimes!”
“My work mostly involves the networking, convening and learning around it,” Radcliffe explains. “Angie has definitely been one of the all-star teaching artists of our program, who we work with quite often.”
Ramirez is a native of Tucson, and Radcliffe is originally from New Mexico – born and raised around Albuquerque. She moved to Phoenix 18 years ago to pursue her bachelor’s degree in fine arts in dance performance from Arizona State University. She later earned a master’s in secondary education and taught at Carl Hayden High School.
Though it might sound challenging to teach a technical dance such as flamenco to populations who might have limitations in movement and cognitive abilities, she says what she is doing actually makes a lot of sense. “It’s important for older bodies to keep moving – just to keep the brain going,” Radcliffe explains.
Prior to her relatively new gig with the Arizona Arts Commission, Radcliffe taught dance for 12 years in the Phoenix Unified School District. “And I loved it!” she says. “I miss it, and I am continually devising ways to work with young people now that I’m no longer in the classroom.”
Radcliffe says in her new role she is constantly seeking ways to connect the community, especially teenagers, to the arts and to dance. “I work with a couple of different youth organizations here in the Valley – Rising Youth Theater, and I serve on the board of Youth RE:Frame, which is a new organization,” she says. Radcliffe feels that it’s important for the young people participating to have an equal voice with the adults, so they are not just being tokenized but power sharing with adults.
Radcliffe also takes classes with Ramirez, which she has done ever since they were dating. “There is this thing in flamenco called duende, and it takes some life experience to really do,” Radcliffe explains. “I find when the older adults do it, it’s really quite special. They have some rich stories and some pain and suffering – real things to perform.”
“Dundee really translates to ‘the being of something,’” Ramirez explains. “Everything has its state of being. I know flamenco dancers who are just so technical, so clean and so impossibly perfect, but there is something missing,” she says. “Because they have not yet embodied it.”
To truly possess or display duende, it’s not just about what your body can do, it also adds a layer of expression of what the dancer is feeling – what they are experiencing or have experienced being in the body, Ramirez explains. “I think that’s what drives or attracts people to flamenco. Whether you are taking classes or watching a show, there’s a natural kind of curiosity. Flamenco is popular for its passion and its storytelling – conveying a personal story on stage,” she says.
The most important element of flamenco is in the heart, Ramirez says: what the dancer is feeling and how they choose to express it. “When we get older and we feel like our bodies have more limitations, instead of focusing on what the body can do, it’s like, get into flamenco, where you can express yourself emotionally.”
Ramirez and Radcliffe met through dance and have been together for six years. Before they each moved to the Valley, a series of coincidences caused some interesting, indirect connections, especially with mutual friends and the city of Albuquerque. They actually met at Ramirez’ old studio on Roosevelt.
For seven years, Flamenco por la Vida was located at Roosevelt and 4th Street, near downtown Phoenix. But due to development, the rent increased dramatically. The space now costs quadruple what it did a few years ago.
Flamenco por la Vida now rents space from Childsplay Theater Co. onS. Mitchell Drive in Tempe. This is where Ramirez teaches classes. She also occasionally rents space from nueBox in the Armory building on 16th Avenue and Roosevelt. “The 2019 goal and manifestation is to open another studio,” Ramirez says. “At the end of the day, it’s wise just to have one home base.”
Ramirez and Radcliffe got married in Albuquerque in May 2014 in a public park. They say it was a small but comfortable and festive ceremony, surrounded by friends and family. “We were actually going to get married in Spain, but it was right around the time the states started passing [the same-sex marriage law],” Radcliffe says. Albuquerque passed the law, so they decided because of their connections to go there instead. “It was small, intimate and cheap!” they laugh.
New Mexico legalized same-sex marriage about one year before Arizona. But when Radcliffe proposed, she says she was thinking not of expediency, but of the perfect way to surprise Ramirez. Following their first successful Lluvia Flamenco festival, Radcliffe decided she needed to pick just the right place in town and set up a video. She picked a spot at the Phoenix Center for the Arts because it was the place where she first realized she really liked Angelina.
“Angie really likes surprises…and I don’t,” Radcliffe explains. “And I’m really bad at secrets, too. I had actually been carrying the ring around with me for a long time. I was waiting to catch her off-guard.” Because Ramirez was so high from the success of their first festival, the timing was just right, Radcliffe says. “I could distract her just enough to get her there and do it!”
Flamenco por la Vida also recently hosted Lluvia Flamenco 6 (the annual festival coincides with their engagement) at Crescent Ballroom on January 6, featuring both local and out-of-town dancers and musicians, including composer and guitarist Andrés Vadin of Tucson, singer and dancer Manuel Guiterrez, bassist Yosmel Montejo, percussionist Diego “El Negro” Alvarez and piano and accordion player Ioannis Goudelis.
When the rest of life’s uncertainties fall into place, Ramirez and Radcliffe say they want to start a family. Right now the couple enjoys traveling; they’re headed to China later this month. But somewhere down the line, they are thinking of kids, perhaps through fostering or adoption.
Ramirez says that in addition to performing, she takes time off to practice and train every year, taking a class or a workshop from a master. She says one of the best flamenco festivals of the United States is in Albuquerque, which gives the couple a good excuse to go back and see friends and family every year.
Flamenco por la Vida performs at Edge happy hour at Tempe Center for the Arts every third Friday of the month. Ramirez also performs at Crescent Ballroom Saturdays at 6 p.m.
For more information or to follow projects supported by the Arizona Commission on the Arts, visit azarts.gov.