Carmen Amaya was born in Barcelona in 1913 and died on the 19th November 1963. She was a gypsy dancer who was to become one of the most outstanding “bailaoras” (female flamenco dancers) of the twentieth century; she was also one of the most imitated.
Her hard masculine style of dance was often copied, but many believe she was inimitable and to this day there has never been a dancer to match her ferocious style of dance. Her fast rattling foot work became her trait and it is said that on several occasions she actually put her foot through the stage while performing. She will be remembered as the dancer who wore the Traje corto, a tight fitting suit, which was normally only been worn by men; her style of dance was far from feminine.
Carmen Amaya created a deeply personal style of dance that was so individual and this along with her manly image and legs of steel became her trademark. She revolutionized female flamenco dance and broke many of the rules and traditions of the old style dance, and there were, therefore, those who criticized her non-conformist style.
She was mainly accused of de-feminizing the female flamenco dance, which, until then had concentrated more on the arm and upper torso movements.
But Carmen’s dance went through two stages and later in her career she dropped much of her manly image and concentrated on the more feminine style.
Carmen Amaya danced with the flowing ease of a serpent, twisting and arching her body as she turned with such speed and perfection, driven by what appeared to be an almost animal instinct. She was described a “Soul, pure soul”; by the Mirador newspaper in 1929 and her legend grew increasingly where ever she went.
Carmen Amaya was born in the run down gypsy “barrio” (neighborhood) of Somorrostro where at the age of four she started dancing in taverns and bars.
She was born into a long line of gypsy flamenco performers, her grandfather was a dancer, Juan Amaya Jiménez, her father, El Chino was a guitarist and her aunt, La Faraona, another flamenco dancer from the equally gypsy district of El Sacromonte in Granada.
It was with La Faraona that Carmen first went to Paris and even at the age of just ten, she demonstrated that she was going to change the tradition of flamenco dance.
She became known as “La Capitana” (the captain) and went on to perform along side such legends as Manuel Torre and La Niña de los Peines, touring Spain in 1929 with Manuel Vallejo, winner of the second Golden key of flamenco.
At the start of the civil war Carmen and her large family went to Portugal where they were scheduled to perform for a season. Shortly after they arrived in their neighboring country, penniless and distressed, they headed to South America, eventually settling in Argentina, where she spent many years living in Buenos Aires.
She formed there with her own flamenco troupe, made up mainly of family members, who toured extensively moving from town to town like a swarm of insects, conquering everyone with her gypsy beauty and her magical presence. She performed in Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Across Latin America, Amaya mesmerized audiences with her unbelievable magic and contagious character and was treated like a gypsy queen wherever she went. In fact, she became an icon for thousands of imitators who donned the male style clothing and attempted to copy her unorthodox movements and manly image. But it was not just the dance that made Carmen Amaya so great, but also her sharp gypsy wit and personality, something only she could successfully carry off, and this she did, capturing the hearts of everyone who saw her.
She is said to have spent money as fast as she earned it, reportedly having no interest in material things, she lavished friends and family with expensive gifts and money. But the many months on the road took their toll on Carmen, and family fights and disagreements eventually forced her to disband her troupe and fly off to Mexico City.
It was here that she would meet the guitarist Sabiacas who had been exiled in Mexico since the start of the civil war in Spain. She spent many years performing with Sabiacas , a man with whom she was also romantically linked, although this is something that she played down as just a professional friendship.
In 1941 Carmen and Sabiacas went to New York where she would continue to gain hoards of fans, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt who invited her to perform at a party in the White House.
After her separation from Sabiacas she eventually married Juan Antonio Agüero, a guitarist from Santander who cleaned up her financial and family problems, and took over the reigns of her career for the rest of her life.
Carmen Amaya spent a considerable time in Hollywood appearing in many films making her a world-renowned artiste. Her last film was La Historia de los Tarantos in which she appeared along side another legend of flamenco dance, Antonio Gades.
Even though Carmen completed filming Los Tarantos, she never saw the finished result, She had contracted a kidney disease which prevented her from dancing and after a short illness she died at her home in Bagur, Barcelona.
Carmen Amaya was posthumously awarded the Medal of the Tourist Merit of Barcelona and she was named Hija Predilicto de Bagur, (favorite daughter of Bagur). She has also been honored in Barcelona with a monument that was erected in the Montuic Park, and a fountain, which was named after her in the district of Somorrostro. She has also been remembered in Buenos Aires, where a street has been named after her.
Few personalities of the flamenco world have been so widely mourned and so greatly missed, as has Carmen Amaya.