A flamenco artist on how the dance keeps her going as it keeps evolving
Interview by Eryka Dellenbach
Angelina Ramirez is a flamenco dancer and instructor from Tucson, Arizona. Angelina has been active in the flamenco community for 32 years and calls flamenco “more than just a genre one practices; it is a lifestyle.” Her dance and choreography seek to challenge stereotypes of the artform, including who dances it, how, and why. Angelina is a recipient of a 2021SFA Master-Apprentice Artist and is working with apprentice, Diana Olivares, an accomplished flamenco violinist and vocalist (and 2019 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Awardee), to share the dance of flamenco.
Let’s enter with your flamenco origin story. Tell me about your first encounter with the art form.
I was about nine years old. Summer school was out, and my mom really wanted me to be involved in some kind of activity. I got a choice to do flamenco or folklorico, not knowing or understanding what either of them were. My mom read me the descriptions from a kids’ summer activities catalog through the city of Tucson. I was reluctant. I didn’t want to do anything in the summer, as some kids don’t. I was somewhat of a lazy kid. I kind of just did eeny-meany-miny-moe, and it landed on flamenco. The teacher at that time was Deanna Pierce. We would have classes in her living room. She had mirrors up and three panels of wood on the floor and would just teach us classes and choreography.
What made you stay with flamenco and at what point did you feel like it became part of your identity?
We had our first performance for the Tucson Folk Festival in 1989 or 1990. Those are my earliest memories, not quite understanding still what I was doing, just going through the motions. I used to have a recording of that performance, and I remember watching it 15 years later, looking at that little girl and being like, “Natural!” It wasn’t about the movement, it was about the presence and the attitude, the performativity of it and my face. All of that stuff came naturally. I let my relationship with flamenco organically happen. Not having a lot of friends who understood what I was doing, it was my own thing. I think that’s important for every artist, that with whatever medium, you’re having your own relationship with it.
It got to a point where Deanna Pierce couldn’t teach us anymore. I was studying with her for about two years. It took my mom a little while to find a new teacher for me and that ended up being Olivia Rojo. She really let me navigate it in my own way, through my own direction, but gave me the tools. Her leadership kept inspiring me to dig deeper. And then when I was getting to that point where I was really interested in learning more, Olivia opened that door and said, “You should talk to this person, to that person.” From there I went to my next master, my next teacher, mentor, master flamenco artists.
I want to say that flamenco was with me and in my identity from the beginning. But you start looking at the history and the story of flamenco beyond the movement and visual stimulation and flamenco definitely is a colonized art. There’s still a lot of confusion. I think some people don’t want to believe that it’s deeper than a Spanish art form. For me, the short answer I always kind of stick with is this is a Romani gitano art form. I like to reference the movie Latcho Drom by Tony Gatlif because I feel like that tells the story of not just flamenco, but of gitano life in culture, music, identity, family and gatherings.
Flamenco is an ancient art form, but also keeps evolving. That’s where I’m at. I just keep exploring. It’s like, I can figure out what it looks like today, but I don’t know what it looks like tomorrow.
What gets lost when people think of it solely as a “Spanish” art form?
History gets lost in translation, right? I like to go to a theater and see a show with all the lights and costumes. The glitz and glamour of it is great and beautiful. But I think what gets lost are the relationships, the family, and the home. If you and I just started doing flamenco right now, that is also flamenco, because we’re speaking a language together and having a conversation through movement and song and rhythm. For me, it’s about being directly involved, as opposed to sitting in a seat and watching it. And as powerful as it is to feel inspired and fed this information, it’s even better to be directly inside of it: special and intimidating, challenging and vulnerable. I think the vulnerability of flamenco gets lost when you’re only observing.
The film Latcho Drom speaks to the way flamenco has traveled and the nomadism, migration and marginalization that are deeply embedded at the root of its identity. What traces of that past are visible in the practice today?
The relationships. The communication that’s happening between everybody on the stage. As a spectator I can see that, I’m witnessing something in the moment, right there. I consider myself a very lucky audience member. I get to see that as someone who knows that language. It’s also so beautiful to see a hiccup here and there, because it’s not perfect all the time. It’s the purity of it right there. It’s listening to and watching a conversation through movement and song that is happening in that moment. It’s really quite special and probably even more “wow” for someone who doesn’t know what’s going on. I always tell anybody who’s studying flamenco, “You’re not just becoming an audience member, or just the dancer, you’re becoming a musician and an aficionado, and a flamenco.” It’s just so complex, so the journey never stops. And if you let it stop, then that’s sad.
I’ve heard flamenco practitioners talk about flamenco as a lifestyle, how you must make it your life. What kind of sacrifices have you had to make for your practice? What does commitment to flamenco look like for you?
I feel like I have made it my life and done it in my own way. I have taken many hours of class and yes, I have gone to Spain, I have gone to lots of shows. But I also have other interests and other hobbies and I need those things outside of it. Because I found myself practicing one step over and over. You’re just kind of going in circles and it’s easy to do that in flamenco. It’s just so obsessive, and you want to know all about it so much and so hard. I think for me, I have made peace with not needing to be doing it all the time in order for me to call myself a flamenco artist. I do it every day, no matter how I do it. My whole life is rhythm because of flamenco. It’s almost like I’ve turned flamenco into my own math, it’s how I solve things, how I breathe, and how I sleep. I’ve been told that my feet move, I don’t stop.
In many other dance practices and lineages with a live music component, like Irish jig dancing or even ballet, one could say the dancer generally follows the music. In flamenco, the dynamic is different. Can you talk about that relationship between the musician and dancer?
Not everybody is fortunate to have a fellow who can sing a letra for you or play something on the guitar for you. So it’s a privilege to have that accessible to you, because it’s the only way you’re going to be able to get hands-on practice and experience that structure and language. Pre-recorded music is almost like the textbook. You do have to listen to recordings and understand what you’re listening to. There are actual, written songs with choruses and verses that tell a story. I mean, it’s really all about the story, right? And the story can be told in full length or in four lines. Knowing that and making sure you’re doing your homework, you can make sure you’re extracting the right things from what you’re listening to. Listening to music is a whole art in itself. Can you identify what that song is, that rhythm? Can you identify the name of it? Can you identify where that verse came from, what they’re singing about?
It can work in so many ways. That’s the beauty of it. If you’re walking into a tablao, which is a place where flamenco is performed—usually small and intimate, like a cabaret—you have to check your ego at the door, which is hard to do sometimes. If that other person knows this language, then you can do it without knowing them, meeting them just minutes before. Someone you don’t know is going to sing for you, and you’re going to dance. You have to have some humility, sympathy and empathy. You can’t have too many expectations, because it’s just gonna go how it’s gonna go. I’ve definitely messed up a million times because it’s all very uncertain and unsure.
I am very lucky because I do have a flamenco family, and our studies are very similar, so it’s easy for us to just start jamming. We already have that established personal relationship. In order to have fun, you just have to kind of approach it with a grain of salt. It’s gonna come out the way it comes out. If you mess up and it didn’t work, it’s almost like an argument, right? You can argue to the point where you don’t know what you’re arguing about anymore. You have to know how to stop, walk away and just accept that it didn’t work. That has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good student or a great artist. You got to try because that is the language of flamenco.
Can you talk more about the structure and components of Flamenco music?
So you got your palo, which is your song or your rhythm, which is what you are doing. Are you doing Bulerías, are we doing Tango? Are you doing something in a 4/4 or a 3/4 rhythm? And then you got to understand letras in the structure of the letras. As a dancer, how do you tell a singer to sing a verse for you, in movement? How does the singer tell you that they’re going to take a breath, so you can do something loud, rambunctious, and crazy? You also have to remember that there’s a line of respect for everybody. I’m here to support someone, and someone’s here to support me. How are we going to do this together? As an audience member, you don’t know that; you’re just watching a dancer dance flamenco without really knowing that it’s not just the dancer. If I literally took the singer out of it, then you’re just gonna think it’s a flamenco dancer and a guitarist. Then if I took out the guitar side of it, you’re just gonna think it’s performance art. In order for it to be flamenco, those three elements need to be happening.
I’ve come to understand palos, or flamenco rhythms, as speaking to a certain emotional state or attitude, and maybe even a narrative or character. Are there any particular palos that you’ve had a strong focus on or that you’re working with right now?
I always thought of myself as a tangera. I love Tangos. It’s a 4/4 rhythm so I think for me as an American-born human who listened to American music, I heard it all the time in pop music and rock and roll. 4/4 rhythms are natural and come super easy to all of us, whether we know it or not. But there’s something about the light within the heaviness of it. It has this groundedness at the same time as a light, faster, vibrant energy. But I can ground my knees and feel all my weight in my feet. I connect with the movement, the attitude and the spirit of it. Tangos describes my personality the best.
With Bulerías, we’re talking about a 12-count structure—it’s a little bit more complex. The measures are a little bit longer and there are more beats. Where there are more beats, there’s more movement and rhythms that you can put into it. At a party or in a tablao they’re gonna dance and play Bulerías. It’s the most preferred palo.
The most intimidating was always Soleá, what they call the mother palo of flamenco because palos such as the Soleá por Bulerías and Bulerías were derived from Soleares. However, Seguirías is the oldest palo. The Soleá is much slower, more stark, darker, and more solemn. It is hard to move slowly and with purpose. That kind of movement comes from a different place, and for some people it takes more time to find that place. I grew up understanding that the Soleá was to be performed in a way that involves your experience in your soul. When you perform a Soleá, it was beyond technical ability, footwork and turns. It was about the story within you, and mostly about the story of pain and of hardships. There was a sense of your experience and maturity. This is what you wanted to portray when you approached Soleá.
It took me a while to do a Soleá. It’s different for everybody. I’ve been doing this now for 30 years, and I’ve performed with 20-year-olds that are doing Soleá great! And I’ve only done it once in my 30 years because I was just too scared and didn’t feel worthy. That was in 2019, pre-pandemic. I think I could probably approach it a lot differently now because I’ve experienced many life challenges with the pandemic—losing friends and family, going through a move from one city to another. It’s time to just go ahead and get rid of this block that I have with it.
We spoke before about gender in flamenco and how it is performed through dress and gesture. How do you relate to gender within flamenco?
No matter what, the females always wear a dress; they always wear better colors, and the hair’s done and this and that. I don’t really think that it is something that is part of flamenco’s identity. It’s just something we all know, and then we all practice. Especially older generations. I think we’re living in very fortunate times where those things are being broken. I’m talking about Carmen Amaya right now in one of my older adult classes, how she broke the feminine molds. She wasn’t just moving pretty with this gentle fluidity. It was about being able to scream just as loud and even louder than the male counterpart. She also was the one that wore pants and broke that uniform rule for female flamenco artists. People still kind of have a problem with it today.
I wear both a dress or skirt and pants. Sometimes I get really modern and quirky with it, sometimes I get super traditional, gitana’ed out. I’ll just wear all the prints and the ruffles and the flores and the hair. Putting that on puts me in a different place, and I get ready for what is about to happen. I use it to help translate what I want to translate. It helps me be clear about what I want to say.
What do you think flamenco—as an art form to do or to witness—has to offer this particular moment in history?
One of the biggest pleasures I have as a teaching artist is the communities I get to visit and share this art form with. One of my favorite spaces to teach is with older adults who have memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s. The perspective it gives me when a participant is having a rough day and needing some guidance to redirect their moment, often ends in amazingness. I get to see firsthand the shift not only in mood, but posture, speech, facial expressions. No matter anyone’s physical abilities or if they had a bad day at work, they had a moment where there wasn’t any worry or stress—for that small moment in time they were able to focus on themselves. Feed their curiosity. Learn something new. Move their body. Be creative.
We’re all challenged with personal trials and tribulations. Whether from the news, social media and a pandemic, we can feel helpless. We can feel lost and devastated. When we talk about flamenco, there too was loss. Communities were ostracized. There was devastation, sadness, and anger. Even through that complex history, flamenco keeps giving us something to enjoy. To learn. To interpret. No matter how you participate in it, flamenco can remind you of the darkness. If you get a chance, pay attention to the dynamic of the dance or the song, you’ll notice, the story ends in resilience.
Eryka Dellenbach (they/she) is a semi-nomadic artist and educator working between film, performance, and experimental, practice-based ethnography. Born in Chicago and now living in Tucson, they are a capoerista with UCA Tucson Quilombolas and work primarily as a freelance, devotional filmmaker. You can learn more about their work on their website: erykadellenbach.com