With Rocío Jurado’s permission, “the greatest” could well be the dancer Carmen Amaya, exiled to America in the 30s and 40s, where she was the queen of flamenco dance. His personality, smiling, generous and simple, became pure fire on stage.

Biography Carmen Amaya

If there is a universal dancer on the planet, it is Carmen Amaya. The queen of flamenco was born in Barcelona in 1918 (not in 1913, which is almost always mentioned) and died in Begur (Girona) on November 19, 1963.

That girl who was born in a blanket under a cart in the Barcelona shanty town of Sorromostro, changed flamenco dance forever. No one has ever danced like her before, and no one has ever danced again.

Tiny and scrawny

Carmen Amaya came into the world in a gypsy village in Barcelona. She was the second of eleven children born to Micaela Amaya and José Amaya “El Chino”. Of the eleven, only six lived, and the petite Carmen was soon to become the family’s economic engine. Her mother was a dancer, her father a guitarist and she was also the niece of Juana Amaya la Faraona.

Like most gypsies in Spain at the time, Carmen’s family lived in desperate poverty. They strived to make a living however they could. Micaela sold bedding; Joseph bought and sold used clothes. In the evenings, he earned his living playing in the taverns of his village.

When she was only about 4 years old, a small, skinny Carmen started dating her father. The man played the guitar while the little girl sang and danced. Afterwards, the two of them would pass their hands or pick up the coins that the audience had thrown on the ground.

She had such natural grace, that Carmen did not stop gaining fans in some small theaters and tablaos, in which she performed throughout her career, even already famous. For example, in the “Villa Rosa”, the Bar del Manquet, in the New World, in the Crab, in Eden…

José Sampere, an artistic impresario, was the first to take an interest in it and took it to a room of a certain category, what is now the Teatro Español in Barcelona. The big drawback was that his young age did not allow him to work legally, so the dates of his experiences are not very clear as he is continually lying about his age.

“He would take (José Amaya: “El Chino”, his father) and I would start dancing. He told me: no, not that, do it again, like this, that; It’s right, or it’s wrong, or you don’t get in to the beat. She sang and danced. Then I started dancing for soleares, la farruca. And then it was when my father made me put on my pants and dance for joy. Pants are unforgiving: you see all the flaws in the world and you have nowhere to hold on,” Carmen explained in an interview.

Carmen as a child

Carmen de niña

Early successes

“La Capitana” – the name with which she had been baptized in the city’s flamenco circles – was already on everyone’s lips, but it would not be until the International Exhibition of 1929 that her name would appear for the first time in print. He was a star in the making.

With her aunt, “La Faraona”, and her mother’s cousin, Maria, “La Pescatera”, she went to Paris to perform in a show directed by a popular singer named Raquel Meller. Carmen was the star. Meller was so jealous of her popularity that she fired her. Surely, it would have influenced that the Meller and the Pharaoh had fought in the face.

But that “Amaya Trio” (as they called themselves aunt, cousin and the little girl) had many more contracts for a year.

Carmen was already earning enough money to help support the family, and they soon settled into their first home. Carmen’s father built it with adobe (mud bricks). There was only one large room, divided into a kitchen and a bedroom.

Carmen by Ruano Llopis in 1939

Carmen por Ruano Llopis en 1939

At the beginning of the 30s, the great dancer Vicente Escudero considered that there were only three dancers in Spain to be taken into account, La Argentina, Carmita García, his partner, and Carmen Amaya, “the most flamenco”.

Agustín Castellón, “Sabicas”, the famous guitarist, described the first time he saw Carmen dance: “I thought it was something supernatural… I’ve never seen anyone dance like her. I don’t know how he did it, I just don’t know!” Carmen was about ten years old. Sabicas would be, years later, his partner for about 9 years (although very discreetly carried).

Sebastián Gash, a well-known critic, spoke of it in the weekly Mirador:

“Suddenly a jump. “Suddenly a jump. The indescribable. Soul. Pure soul. The feeling made flesh. It was the anti-school, the anti-academy. Everything I knew I should have known at birth.” (Text taken from the Fundación Secretariado Gitano).

Triumph in Madrid and first films

In 1935, Carmen Amaya made her debut at the Coliseum Theatre in Madrid, where Luisa Esteso gave her the alternative. That was her artistic debut as a dance figure in a theater. She also performed at the Teatro de la Zarzuela with Concha Piquer and Miguel de Molina. For the first time, in Seville on December 11, 1935, at the Teatro Lloréns, at a function to benefit the Red Cross. And she didn’t stop dancing on stages in Barcelona.

He didn’t just dance. Carmen Amaya had an important cinematographic facet and her debut was in that same year, participating in the film “La hija de Juan Simón”. A year later, Carmen shared scenes with Pastora Imperio in “María de la O”. In this film, he also sings.


Because Carmen Amaya sang very well…

A lesser-known facet of this great dancer is her singing side. As a curiosity, his father wanted him to dedicate himself to that aspect of flamenco and not to the hard life of dance.

He had a hoarse, dark voice, typical of gypsy singing. A good example of his way of talent can be seen in “The Queen of the Gypsy Bewitchment”. He also appeared on several slate albums between 1948-1950, which include a good sample of his talents with two guitarists of his lineage, Paco and José Amaya, among others.

Carmen Amaya singing and dancing in 1950

Carmen Amaya al cante y baile en 1950

Carmen Amaya in South America

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Carmen and her family were at the Teatro Zorrilla in Valladolid, working in the company of Carcellé, the impresario who made her debut in Madrid.

By that time, things were already going well for them financially and they had bought their first car. They had to go to Lisbon to fulfill a contract, but the car was confiscated and they were not able to cross into Portugal until November. After a 15-day boat trip, they arrived in Buenos Aires.

In that Argentinian city, the triumph of Carmen Amaya and her team exceeded all expectations. They went to stay only four weeks and ended up living there for nine months. Every time Carmen performed, the theater was full and tickets were even sold out two months in advance. A good example of the enormous popularity that the artist achieved in this South American country has been the construction of the Amaya Theater in her honor.

He toured all the countries of Latin America and the films recorded with Miguel de Molina and the incorporation of several members of his family to the company date from these years.

Carmen Amaya began to earn a lot of money, so much so that, in Rio de Janeiro, at the famous Copacabana nightclub, she earned about $14,000 a week. Aware of her success, a businessman named Sol Hukor decided to hire her for eight years to perform in the United States of America.

Carmen in Argentina
The great Carmen Amaya

And EE. UU. Becomes the best dancer in the world

With this artistic entrepreneur, Carmen Amaya would go a long way. First, however, and while its presentation in New York was being defined, a nine-minute short called “Original Gypsy Dances” was shot. It premiered at the World Cinema in New York on March 12, 1941.

After the opening credits, it began with a poetic description of the gypsy art of Carmen Amaya, “the best gypsy dancer of our time” who “reveals to us the fierce passion and tragic poetry of her homeland.” They showed her with an invented origin so that their marketing would be perfect: Carmen came from the “historic city of Granada, in Moorish Spain” and her dance was from the “old Alhambra”.

Carmen Amaya is the best dancer

In her intimate life

Although Carmen earned a lot of money, she began to feel insecure because of her lack of education. The profession of dancer during her childhood years had left her little time for formal education. Over the next year, she learned English quickly and practiced her writing. She tried to “polish” herself and develop other skills besides dance. But virtually all of his biographers agree that he couldn’t read or write (and that he didn’t really sign his autographs).

He had the worst year of his life, almost certainly, in 1945. Carmen and the company moved to Mexico City. Around that time, Sabicas left the company. He and Carmen had been romantically and professionally involved for nine years.

The constant trips and the closeness of the coexistence took their toll on the relationship between Carmen and Sabicas. Although the dancer was dying to get married, he never asked her. On one occasion they even had a fight on stage, which caused Carmen to leave in a rage in the middle of a performance in Mexico City.

Their relationship was over, and Carmen was heartbroken. The company continued on to Buenos Aires, where they settled for the next two years. There, Carmen suffered another devastating blow. His father, El Chino, died of throat cancer.

At that time, La argentinita had already triumphed and, long before that, a dancer from Almeria named Carmencita. But with Carmen Amaya, flamenco had an unimaginable popularity.

She was hired by the famous “Carnegie Hall” in New York in 1942 and by the “Radio City”, where she gave nine performances a day. She was hired by the famous “Carnegie Hall” in New York in 1942 and by the “Radio City”, where she gave nine performances a day. He appeared in several films shot in Hollywood and became intimate with the most famous figures in American cinema. On one occasion, she gave a recital at the White House, at the invitation of President Roosevelt.

It is said that Roosevelt gave Carmen Amaya a flamenco jacket of gold and diamonds. The brilliant artist, scissors in hand, distributed it in pieces among her people. Because that’s how she was: even though Carmen was the star, she got along the same as the rest of the company.

Carmen Amaya in Life Magazine, 1944
Carmen Amaya in the U.S.
Poster of his performance with Sabicas

Cartel de su actuación con Sabicas

In the United States, the legend of Carmen Amaya was born. Toscanini would say: “I have never seen in my life a dancer with so much fire, rhythm and such a terrible and wonderful personality.” Leopoldo Stokowski said: “He has the devil in his body”

Charlie Chaplin also knew her: “It’s a volcano illuminated by superb splendours of Spanish music.” Greta Garbo would comment on her: “She is an artist, and if it seems like an understatement, a unique artist, because she is inimitable.”

Why Carmen Amaya Revolutionized Flamenco

Prior to Carmen’s time, the ballerina emphasized movements from the waist up, movements of the shoulders, arms, and hands. She wore a dress with a fitted bodice and a wide ruffled skirt. She usually wore a shawl around her shoulders, dangling earrings, and a fancy flower or comb in her hair. In contrast, the male dancer danced from the waist down.

Carmen Amaya performed in the masculine suit of tight pants, shirt and short jacket, and used the quick footwork that usually only men did. Although she was not the first woman to do so, she was the most memorable. He did not, however, stop performing in long bates of more than four meters. He also made multiple quick turns that stopped so suddenly that they took your breath away. All this was done by a woman who was 1.5 m tall and only weighed around 40 kilos.

Masculine style in the wardrobe
Carmen Amaya's dance

His mastery reached very high levels in his famous garrotíns, bulerías, tanguillos and, especially, in alegrías. As for the rhythm with which she moved, perhaps no dancer could have grasped it: it was a frenetic rhythm that, however, did not lose its melodic line.

To her we owe the dance of the flamenco palo called taranto.

Vuelta a España

It was not until 1947 that she returned to Spain, and she did so having become an undisputed star worldwide. His years in America had served to establish his art and for his fame to grow unstoppably. Things were said about her that seem hardly believable. And the strangest stories imaginable began to circulate around his surprising personality. Like the fried fish he grilled in his luxurious rooms at the Waldorf Astoria.

In 1951, she married guitarist Juan Antonio Agüero, a member of her troupe, a man belonging to a distinguished Santander family who was not a gypsy. They lived a real love story, with an intimate wedding.

In 1959 Carmen experienced another of the most exciting moments of her life, when the inauguration ceremony of the fountain that had been named after her was held on the Paseo Marítimo in Barcelona, which crosses the neighborhood of Somorrostro, the same places and the same fountain where she had played many years before. barefoot and dragging her childish miseries.

The Disease

Carmen Amaya suffered from a kind of kidney failure that prevented her from properly eliminating the toxins that her body accumulated. And the doctors couldn’t find any solution to his problem except dancing and sweating.

“Remove all the poison by dancing. But if he stops dancing, he has a heart attack. And I want him to die dancing,” Agüero told a reporter.

His illness was aggravated by the filming of his last film, “The Tarantos,” in the spring of 1963. The dancer had to dance barefoot and in unbearable cold, so that every time filming stopped she immediately put on her coat, and there was never a need to repeat a scene because of her. Despite these inconveniences, Carmen bore it with exemplary fortitude, and when they finished filming the film, they began the summer tour and on August 8, while working in Gandía, Carmen did not finish her performance. He was dancing one of his numbers, when suddenly he said to Batista: “Andrés, we’re done.”

Death and Legend

Carmen is reported to have said, “I want a white tomb with nothing on it, as a gypsy’s grave should be.” His first grave, in Bagur, was one of the poorest in the cemetery. Caravans of gypsies attended a funeral of more than 2,000 people.

Finally, the remains of Carmen Amaya were transferred to the cemetery of Ciriego, in Santander, the land of Juan Antonio Agüero. And there rests the greatest dancer of all time without a plaque with her name.

“Carmen died ruined, without five cents, with debts, but with a heart as big as that mountain” (César de la Lama, ABC newspaper, December 1967).

Carmen Amaya was a fundamental dancer in the history of flamenco who triumphed all over the world. A legend of flamenco dance. Jean Cocteau said of her that she was “hail on the windows” and, under this phrase, David Prats rescues the figure of the charismatic dancer from Barcelona in this documentary by ALL FLAMENCO.

Carmen Amaya in a documentary