Head to the Plaza Mayor in the heart of Madrid and walk a few steps from the center square down one of the cobblestone streets. Peek into Tablao Flamenco Arco de Cuchillleros, one of the city's premier flamenco spots. The tables in the intimate venue are filled with tourists, sipping on sangria and snacking on chips as a flamenco troupe — a singer, a few dancers, and palmeros clapping in time with the music — keeps all eyes glued to the stage. This type of performance is a must-see if you're ever in the area; the traditional flamenco dance that originated in southern Spain has been around for more than 200 years.
Walk by Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix on a Saturday night, and glance inside the window to the venue's lounge. The bar area's tiny stage has been taken over by locals in bright, beautiful garb, with the ladies in long, colorful ruffled dresses and the men in matching shirts or simple black attire. There's a Spanish guitarist on stage, playing the same rhythms you might hear in Madrid. As the troupe begins to sing and dance to the music that's gleaned from the Gypsy cultures of Europe and Asia, Phoenix's own little slice of Madrid comes alive amid the noise of downtown.
That authentic Spanish experience comes courtesy of Flamenco por la Vida, a four-year-old troupe that's made its mark on the Phoenix music scene by performing at festivals and Spanish-themed events. In addition to the Crescent residency it's maintained for nearly a year, the group hosts regular Wednesday night performances at Gallo Blanco.
"Flamenco por la Vida, to me, is world-class and fun and creates awe," says Crescent Ballroom owner Charlie Levy. "It forces you to stop what you're doing and pay attention."
Sure, most patrons may not have any idea what's being sung; all the lyrics are in Spanish. But the emotion behind the shows is palpable. Dancers Angelina Ramirez and Carlos Montufar stomp and twirl, while singer Olivia Rojas belts tunes relating to everything from love and friendship to home and a good meal. It's evident the songs are stories, as Rojas and the dancers take audience members on an impassioned journey that melds heartfelt vocals and dazzling dance moves with the talented live instrumentation.
"People say, 'I have no idea what you're saying, but I can feel it,'" Rojas says. "Flamenco is about community, so whenever I see people asking questions and [feeling] inspired and [wanting] to know more, it makes me feel like we did our job and brought that passion into their lives."
Putting together such cohesive performances requires immense chemistry among the group members, and Ramirez, who also serves as FPLV's founder and artistic director, says she looks for personal compatibility as well as talent when she's incorporating new members into the dance company. She and Montufar studied flamenco at the National Institute of Flamenco in Albuquerque. Several years after moving back to Arizona (Ramirez is a Tucson native), she started FPLV and her own student company and currently is co-owner of 5th Row Dance Studios in Phoenix. She teaches flamenco at the studio, which also features classes in hip-hop, jazz, and belly dancing.
When it comes to FPLV's performances, Ramirez insists the troupe keeps them as authentic as possible. The dancers might not always wear the costumes you'd expect, but that's not the important part — the pure music and dance style means more for the troupe's integrity, and their fiery performances often bring audience members to tears.
"One night at [Gallo Blanco] at the Clarendon [Hotel], a Native American woman thanked me and cried after the set," Montufar, also an instructor at 5th Row, says. "She had no clue how to interpret what she experienced, but she allowed herself to take it in. Something transformed her. I don't expect to change the world with my dancing, but as long as I can touch one person, that person can do something that inspires the next and the next."
The dynamics among FPLV's members are integral to its impact on the audience. Much of their set is improvised, with members taking cues from each other and the instrumentalists to decide how to perform next. Attendees will hear calls of "Guapo!" (handsome) and "Olé!" (bravo) interspersed within the songs; the performers are constantly cheering each other, so it's no surprise audience members are known to clap along and cheer themselves, too.
"Flamenco por la Vida gives us live exposure to another culture and its tradition, and it's done by people who appear to love their art more than money," says Jeff Unger, who's seen them at Crescent Ballroom.
Communication is one of FPLV's biggest tenets in their class curriculum, too, which the troupe says makes their instruction stand out in the Valley. Students don't just learn the moves — they learn the importance of listening to each other and being flexible enough to anticipate their peers' choreography and react accordingly.
"A master flamenco performer knows how to captivate the audience, and also knows how to hold onto them until the end," Montufar says. "We all collaborate and bring ourselves to the stage, each adding a piece to the work of art taking place in the moment. The more seamless and flawless a show seems, the more stress on how well the singer, guitarist, and dancer were in communicating."
While Ramirez is a founding member of Yjastros: The American Flamenco Repertory Company, based in New Mexico, she's excited to stay here and continue to grow the local flamenco community by encouraging anyone — regardless of shape, size, or dance experience — to get involved by learning the dance or seeing a show.
"I always say you are never too old, too young, too fat, or too skinny to dance flamenco," Ramierz says. "It's in your heart. I just help you find it."
Indeed, flamenco — like some of the rock shows that get crowds moving together inside the Crescent's main room — relies on fervor and positivity. The dance transcends language and continents.
"You don't have to be Spanish to dance flamenco," Montufar says. "You just have to learn that it's okay to wear your heart on your sleeve. Flamenco for me has always been a way to say what I can't put into words — the part of me that feels more and thinks less, and the part of me that I always run back to."