In art, great geniuses are inimitable. They are born and die with that indefinable attribute they possess. They are touched by a supernatural talent, incomprehensible even to themselves. One of these geniuses, these individuals who endure throughout the ages, was Carmen Amaya – a Roma flamenco dancer who was born in Barcelona in 1913 and died in Begur in 1963.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, El Somorrostro was a beach on the outskirts of Barcelona, full of humble and dilapidated barracks which were inhabited mostly by Roma. It was a suburb seldom frequented by the people of Barcelona, who considered it dangerous territory – a form of atavistic prejudice that inevitably extends itself to all Roma settlements.
It was in this peripheral location, specifically in Barracks 475, that the great Roma dancer Carmen Amaya Amaya came into the world as the daughter of José Amaya and Micaela Amaya Moreno.
Carmen’s talent for singing and dancing come to light at an early age, a point which marked the end of her childhood. Accompanied by her father, a guitarist nicknamed ‘El Chino’ [meaning ‘the Chinese man’], they would wander through the districts of El Paralelo and Las Ramblas every night until dawn. The four-year-old girl would sing and dance to the sound of her father’s guitar, and once the performance was over he would pass his hat around the audience.
As Amaya once explained to journalists, ‘At four years old it was my family’s hardship that led me to perform for the first time in a small café in Barcelona.’
Little by little, her unique style of dancing began to become known in flamenco circles. Word of mouth – the best kind of marketing – made Carmen an object of interest for aficionados and promoters alike. The various tablaos of the Catalan capital wanted her to join their ensembles; Villa Rosa, Taberna del Manquet, Flamenco Cangrejo, Taurina and Casa Escaño, are just some of the venues that sought her presence. At this point her stage name became ‘La Capitana’.
Sebastián Gasch, a flamenco critic and talent scout of the era, described her thus:
[...] La Capitana, a nom de guerre that little Carmencita likes to go by, is an exceptional case of a ‘thoroughbred’. When she dances she vibrates from head to toe, she writhes, shakes and stands up in histrionic haughtiness, and her steel feet clatter with deafening fury, obsessed by the crescendo of the guitar, in a frenzy without a compass that recalls the exaltation of the Jubilee of the Blacks, always topped by an abrupt, explosive display at the end.
In 1929 the World’s Fair was held in Barcelona. Thousands of visitors flocked to the international pavilions, which included Pabellón Andaluz, where guitarist Miguel Borrull ran a tablao and hired the Amaya family with La Capitana as the main attraction. They would give one performance daily, then continued by night at other nearby cafés cantantes, as they had always done, until daybreak.
At this point in her life, Carmen’s fame and reputation in flamenco dancing crossed borders, and everyone, whether critics, professionals or aficionados longed to discover her merits. Thus, the prestigious dancer Vicente Escudero wanted to incorporate her into his dance company and present her in the USA; however, this proved impossible because she was not old enough, and so her debut on American soil was postponed for a few years.
Her arrival in Madrid, however, came all the more quickly. The guitarist Sabicas, who at the time was one of the few artists on the Spanish art scene who understood flamenco, convinced her father to leave Barcelona:
Look Chino, you know that I understand something about this [flamenco]. Your girl has something that needs to be taken very seriously; but here, among these people who neither know nor care about it all, it will lead to nothing [...] You have to take her to Madrid; the people there understand it all, and they’ll be able to recognise it.
This was enough to convince father and daughter to set off for the Spanish capital. After spending a short time in small tablaos and nightclubs, the businessman Juan Carcellé hired her for his next show and formally presented her at the [Teatro] Coliseum in Madrid. She proved a great success: for weeks on end every seat in the theatre was filled with people wanting to see Carmen dance solo, only accompanied by ten guitarists. From here, she went on to other theatres such as La Zarzuela and Fontalba, where she shared the stage with the most prestigious artists of the age such as Concha Piquer and Miguel de Molina.
Her next step – which was typical of famous artists of the time – was to make the leap to cinema. This was made possible by the director Luis Buñuel, who at that time was the executive producer of the Filmofono production company. The film, entitled La hija de Juan Simón [Juan Simón’s Daughter], was directed by José Luis Sáenz de Heredia. He went on to direct fifteen more feature films with Carmen, the last of which – Los Tarantos – she would not see finished. This succession of events in 1935 meant that the Roma flamenco dancer became well known in every corner of Spain.
But then, all of a sudden, war erupted on 18 July 1936! Spaniards’ lives would never again be the same after that fateful day. The military uprising surprised Carmen Amaya while she was in Valladolid, in the middle of a tour which was due to include performances from the north to the south of the country.
Everything was interrupted at that point. The flamenco dancer cancelled all her contracts and left, alerted by trusty informants who predicted a long conflict. So she set off for Lisbon, with the intention of travelling to South America. First she spent a few days in the Portuguese capital waiting for the rest of her family, and then once they were all together they boarded a ship called the Monte Pascoal and began their journey on what would turn out to be a very long exile.
After more than fifteen days crossing the ocean, she arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she was received expectantly by the press with great warmth and enthusiasm. It did not take her long to sign a contract and make her debut at Teatro Maravillas in Buenos Aires on 12 December 1936 – to resounding success. The agreement to perform for a few weeks turned into two years. To paraphrase Julius Caesar, Carmen Amaya arrived, danced and conquered!
The local press reported on the premiere of her show:
[...] It should be noted first of all that simply the presence of the Roma dancer and songwriter Carmen Amaya offers everything that great art truly represents. Petite, agile, fine, with her dancing of the purest Roma style, she provides dazzling contrasts ranging from the softly sentimental to the passionate, with something wild and erotic at the same time. Our city has seen many dancers parade about on stage, but the woman who showed up at Maravillas last night is an extraordinary dancer.
This resounding triumph led her to travel through most of the countries in South America, giving highly acclaimed performances. In Mexico City she even danced in two different venues every day: Teatro Fábregas and Tablao El Patio.
So much success would inevitably resonate in the United States of America. In 1941, the famous businessman Samuel Hurok hired her to debut on Broadway; she would then continue touring at venues belonging to the Love’s States theatre chain before moving on to various Canadian cities, and finally finishing in December 1941 with performances at the sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York. The prestigious critic Walter Terry published the following:
Carmen Amaya’s performance last night at Carnegie Hall, in her last performance of the season, was exciting, vibrant, passionate. This Spanish Roma girl was always characterized by explosive power, but last night her gala was more explosive than ever.
In both Hollywood and New York, the biggest names in show business were wild about her performances: Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles and many others. This enthusiasm was shared by high-ranking officials such as General MacArthur, who named her an ‘honorary captain’ of the US Navy, and even President Roosevelt, who invited her to the White House.
So much notoriety did not go unnoticed by influential figures in the cinema and record industries: she starred in four films and recorded just as many albums under the tutelage of Agustín Castellón (known as ‘Sabicas’), who by then had become her partner in private life too.
With America at her feet, Carmen Amaya was at the peak of her artistic career. Now considered the greatest of all flamenco dancers, she had everything an artist might desire – but deep within there was something troubling her: Amaya wanted to return to Spain, her homeland, which she missed enormously and wanted to be part of once more.
So one day, without caring about her numerous contracts and the huge economic benefits they would have brought her, she took the huge decision to return. She encountered a broken, impoverished and frightened nation. The post-war period was marked by hunger and fear, but she did not care, for she was with her people again, which made her feel whole and complete.
Carmen had long been allowed to choose where and when she danced. For such a memorable occasion as this, becoming reunited with her fellow Spaniards, in 1947 she decided to perform in the show Embrujo Español, at Teatro Madrid in the Spanish capital.
She continued to perform in a number of large cities, until she arrived in the place she had so yearned for: her home town of Barcelona.
Journalist Sebastián Gasch, who had been an admirer of Amaya since the start of her career, wrote, ‘After a while, she too had wanted to return. It was the nostalgia, the desire to see her sky and her homeland, her countrymen, the memories of her childhood.’
Upon her return to Spain, she started to tour Europe. Her first destination was Paris, where she performed to tremendous acclaim at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées on 2 April 1948; this was followed by appearances in London and other major European cities. Journalist Jean Silvant wrote about her visit to the French capital in the magazine Revue de la Danse:
‘Carmen Amaya’s dancing is actually above art, for she herself is an expression of art; her style has no rules, no technique and its aesthetics cannot be compared to anything else.’
The British prime minister Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II attended her performance in London and afterwards stopped by to greet and congratulate her – which led The Times to publish a photo with the caption ‘Two queens face to face’.
At an artistic level, she could not ask for any more – but then something happened that motivated her above all else: Barcelona City Council informed her that a fountain would be dedicated to her at the inauguration of the esplanade Paseo Marítimo de Barcelona on 15 February 1959. Despite having travelled the world, it was this that brought her the greatest satisfaction and moved her most deeply. Carmen cancelled any contracts or scheduled performances that would have collided with this date – irrespective of the fees she then had to pay for breach of contract – and arrived along with her dance company to inaugurate ‘her’ fountain.
The 1960s would prove to be the gitana catalana’s final decade – and one that was all too short. For some time, her health had been steadily deteriorating due to an inborn organ defect: a form of kidney failure that prevented her from properly eliminating the toxins accumulated by her body. Only by sweating while dancing was she able to eliminate these toxins, and so this was her best medicine; however, the disease existed nonetheless, and over time it became more acute. Yet the setback did not prevent her from dancing in Europe and America; she even had the strength to shoot a film, Los Tarantos, which was nominated for the Oscars in 1963 – although she did not live to see it on screen
She continued to tour while the fatal disease consumed her body, but after a performance in Malaga she could not take it any more and decided to suspend the rest of the tour. However, in a huge gesture of generosity, she made a superhuman effort to fulfil her commitment to Begur City Council by giving a benefit concert to raise money for a local development project in the small Catalan town where she had chosen to spend her final days. She disobeyed her doctors in order to perform, and ended up in kidney failure: it was the last time Carmen Amaya would step onto a stage.
The disease progressed ineluctably until its fatal outcome: Carmen Amaya died at five past nine in the morning of 19 November 1963, in the presence of her husband, Juan Antonio Aguero – a guitarist from Santander and a member of her troupe, whom she had married in 1952 and from whom she was inseparable – and her entire family or ‘her people’, as she liked to say. The next day, her mortal remains were buried in Begur cemetery, in a white tomb that had been erected in just twenty-four hours to house the body of the most famous flamenco dancer of all time, built by a group of volunteer masons who had worked without resting. A few years later, in 1970, she was moved to Santander cemetery, where she has since rested in the family grave of her husband, who died in 1991.
News of her death resonated around the world. There were countless obituaries and programmes about her in the press, radio and television, for her art and her personality had long become legendary worldwide. Below we see a few lines taken from an extensive and emotional article by Mexican journalist Genaro María González entitled ‘Requiem for Carmen Amaya’:
She vibrated, she made everything vibrate. She acquired her status as a world-class dancer based on her art and with the voice of her responsibility, without relying on a stage structure – which was not necessary – and by using only her graphic language. [...] She created and recreated, while her clicking fingers were like the whipping wind and her clattering heels became lullabies.
Having performed a dance, she would never repeat it again in the same form. One could almost believe that Ramón Charlo wrote the following stanza just for her:
‘...and her dance is different
it varies according to her dream,
according to what her heart feels,
but with the burning tradition,
of pure gitanería [Roma-ness]’.
Carmen Amaya achieved a level of popularity greater than any other flamenco artist, ever – whether in singing, dancing or playing the guitar. Whether one has seen her dance or not, her name is known both within the flamenco world and beyond. Among flamenco professionals, her artistic value is obviously indisputable. Indeed, when flamenco dancers are asked about their favourite figures, they usually give you a series of names according to their personal taste – but always accompanied by the acknowledgement, ‘Leaving aside Carmen Amaya; she was something else’.
‘Something else’ is equivalent to saying: Carmen Amaya is in a different category from the rest of the canon; there is simply no comparison. She belongs to the select group of chosen artists who do not create art so much as they are themselves works of art. These people have an innate talent for communicating via the senses, something that materialises in various art forms, depending on the individual. In Carmen it was dance, and more specifically, by dint of her birth, flamenco gitano dance. Her dancing was so unique and different that it could not be compared to anything else – not even with itself, from one performance to the next. For that reason it was impossible to leave a codified school or teaching method or style: her dancing was created with her and ended with her.
At the same time, she was fated to express her genius with her body. Everything else that meant something to her in life was destined to take a back seat. Carmen found her strength and motivation in her family, with whom she continually surrounded herself. Wherever she went they travelled with her; they were not only her source of energy, but also a fundamental aspect of her reason for existing: dancing.