BIOGRAPHY OF CARMEN AMAYA, THE FAMOUS FLAMENCO DANCER FROM BARCELONA
Carmen Amaya was born in Barcelona in 1913 and passed away in Begur (Gerona) in 1963.
She was born in a shack in the Somorrostro. Her father was Francisco Amaya “El Chino”, a poor guitarist who played in taverns day and night to earn a living. When she was only four years old she started going out at night with her father to help him. She was just a little gypsy girl by then. Her father played the guitar and Carmen danced and singed. After that, they asked for money or took the coins that the audience have thrown to the floor. At the same time, she appeared in some theatres which lacked any prestige. José Sampere, a businessman, was the first one in being interested on her and took her to the most known Spanish Theatre of Barcelona. However, the problem was that she wasn’t allowed to work legally due to her age so the officially date of birth may not be the real one according to some researches about the artist. Her name appeared for the first time printed in the Expo Barcelona 1929 thanks to Sebastián Gash, a sharp critic who watched her and talked about her in the weekly newspaper Mirador: “Imagine a 14 years old gypsy sitting in a chair on the tablao, Carmencita remained impassive, statuary, noble with a racial elegance, inscrutable, absent, not paying attention of what is happening around her, alone with her inspiration, with a very hieratic actitude to allow her soul to raise until inaccessible areas. And suddenly, a jump. And the gypsy dances. Indescribable. Soul. Pure sole. The feeling made real. Movements of twist in right angle, pure geometry.
In that time also Vicente Escudero watched her dancing and said that Carmen Amaya will make a revolution in the flamenco dance because she mixed two styles: the old female dancer and the frenetic foot tapping of the male dancers. In 1935 she was hired by Carcellé who presented her in the Coliseum in Madrid. That was maybe her only national recognition. The world of cinema also noticed her. She performed a small role in La hija de Juan Simón. Later, she worked in María de la O, along with Pastora Imperio.
The 18th July 1936 Carmen and her family were in the Zorrilla Theatre in Valladolid working in the company of Carcellé. In that moment their economy was in good shape and they bought their first car. They had to go to Lisbon to enforce a contract but the car was confiscated and they couldn’t go there until November. After some setbacks they embarked to America in a ship that took 15 days to cross the Atlantic. They arrived to Buenos Aires and the triumph of Carmen Amaya and her family went beyond expectations.
They went there just for four weeks and stayed there nine months due to the fact that every time that Carmen performed in the theatre a lot of people attended and the tickets were sold two months before the show. As a proof of the popularity of the artist in the South-American country we can find a theatre with her own name: the Theatre Amaya.
In America Carmen Amaya met a lot of famous people of her time. She was in Hollywood a couple of times filming some movies and the cinema, music and culture celebrities wanted to watch her dancing. The musician Toscanini went to watch her once and said that he had never seen an artist with that rhythm and fire before. She was constantly improvising. Her compass was solid and she possessed a prodigious sense of the rhythm with a rigorous tempo that was exact in all her movements. Anyone has ever span like her, so fast and perfect. In America she met Roosevelt, the president of the United States and in Europe she even met the Queen of England.
She didn’t come back to Spain until 1947 and she did it as a worldwide star. Her stay in America turned her into a professional and famous artist. Lot of stories hard to believe were told about her as the anecdote of the fried fish in the luxury suite of the Waldorf Astoria.
In that time her flamenco dance was the best one. She stood out not only for her art but also for the wonderful personality that won everyone she met. She was also very generous. It seems that during her stay in America the dancer had a sentimental relationship with Sabicas who declared before his death he dated Carmen for nine years and they broke up in Mexico.
In 1952 she married the guitarist Juan Antonio Agüero, a member of her company, a man from a distinguished family from Santander who wasn’t gypsy. They lived an authentic love story, with an intimate wedding. In 1959 Carmen lived another exiting moment in her life when the ceremony of the inauguration of the fountain Carmen Amaya was celebrated in the seafront promenade in Barcelona located in the neighbourhood Somorrostro, the same fountain and the same place she lived in as a child years before. The last ten years of her life she was surrounded of lots of people and almost sanctified, not only by the audience but also by her colleagues. Her genius was instinctive, wild, far from the academic styles. When she performed for the last time in Madrid, Carmen Amaya was deathly sick; she had a renal failure that stopped the elimination of toxins from her body. The doctors couldn’t find any solution to her problem.
The sickness made worse in the filming of “Los Tarantos” in the spring of 1963. She had to dance barefoot with an unbearable cold. She always put on her coat when the filming stopped and they didn’t repeat any scene. Despite these drawbacks, Carmen remained strong and began the summer tour. However, the 8th of August while she was working in Gandía, Carmen didn’t finish her performance. She was performing when suddenly she said to Batista: “Andrés, let’s finish”.
That was the end of the dancer Carmen Amaya, who got inspiration from the street, the family and the gypsy blood and revolutionized the flamenco dance. With her way of dancing, Carmen Amaya showed that for her the flamenco was feeling, soul and passion. Her dancer came from the anger and the violence retained with an amazing speed and strength. Still today she is a model of the flamenco dance.
Even if Carmen is remembered for her dance she also sang. In fact, her father thought at first that she was better in singing than in dancing. She had a dark and hoarse voice, typical of the gypsy sing. A good example of her way of singing can be seen in “La reina del embrujo gitano”. Recordings on slate records 1948-1950 collects a good sample of her abilities as a flamenco singer, accompanied by two guitarists from her dynasty, Paco and José Amaya, as does “En familia”.
Being born in Barcelona was significant to Carmen Amaya. First, she is very familiar, thanks to the style of living there and also another aspects of Barcelona in the last years of monarchy marked her dance.
Carmen Amaya was baptized in the church of Pueblo Nuevo. “At the age of four the necessity of my family brought me -explained Carmen Amaya to the journalists- to perform for the first time in a café”. Carmen’s childhood was a tired itinerary through taverns. Her father, with the guitar under the arm went to every tavern with her playing songs that she danced with spirit and grace. They earn some coins and then did it again until the dawn. The guitarist and his daughter came back home tired with some bread if they earned enough and could see how their family came to meet them happy to see the food.
How rough was Carmen Amaya’s childhood! The memories of that period were present in Carmen’s behaviour, the spontaneity of her heart, her generosity, and the interest in helping those in need. At the same time, these lessons made her prudent and realistic. Carmen admired the artists not only for their exceptional way of dancing but also for the clarity of their thoughts and their noble heart.
It has been said that the first time that Carmen Amaya performed before an audience was at the age of four, in the Español, along with her father. The show was part of a series of shows by José Santpere. Later, thanks to the success of that night she started to perform regularly in tablaos like Villa Rosa, among others. Carmen had five brothers younger than her and their family was in need. In that time, the presenter Sebastián Gasch started to proclaim the talent of the dancer.
In 1929 she went abroad for the first time. Carmen was just eight years old and she was hired to perform in Paris. She went there with her aunt, “La Faraona” and her cousin María. The three of them presented with the name “Trío Amaya” in the Palace and the performance was very successful, so much that they extended the contract one more year. In that time Raquel Meller was famous in Paris and Carmen coincided with her in several shows.
In that period Carmen Amaya became famous, prisoner of her art, the businessmen presented her to the audience and the critic. They wanted her so much that made her give all her energy and she started to have the first crisis of illness. The tribunals took part to let up the contracts. Carmen came back to Spain and performed in the main stages of the country such as the Press Palace in Madrid.
Our dancer would always remember the enthusiasm of the audience in the “Variedades” of Seville, where at first were sceptics to the fame she won abroad. After the tour she- who was twelve years old- came back to Barcelona and performed in the most famous establishments of the night life. In that time she filmed the first film: “María de la O” filmed in “Orpheas” in 1936.
Luckily for Carmen, the end of this period coincided with the first American offers and she started to act in the New World when the joy of the Catalan night disappeared.
The American period
In 1936 Carmen Amaya went to Buenos Aires hired by the businessman of the “Maravillas”. After a successful season she went to Brasil where she earned fourteen thousand dollars weekly and after working in some South-American countries she moved to the United States.
The artist was hired by the famous “Carnegie Hall” in New York and later by “Radio City” where she performed nine times per day. She spent five years in the United States surrounded by expectation and fame. She filmed some movies in Hollywood and met the most famous North-American actors. One time, she gave a recital in the White House invited by the president Roosvelt who gave her a present and enjoyed her performance. This fact, plus her movies and the press made her very famous in the United States. She toured the States several times.
Toscanini said about her: “I had never seen a dancer with so much fire, rhythm and a wonderful personality in my life before” and Leopoldo Stokowski said: “She has the devil in the body”. Charlie Chaplin asserted: “She is a volcano of Spanish music”. Greta Garbo, with her exactitude and deliberation said: “She is an artist, and as if it was not enough, she is a unique artist, because she is inimitable”.
Coming back to Spain
When she came back from America and after some tours in Europe and the Middle East Barcelona met the new art of Carmen Amaya in December of 1947, her best moment, during a performance in the Tivoli. She was later around Europe –in Paris and Rome, among other places- and came back again to Barcelona in 1951. She married then Mr. Juan Antonio Agüero in the Parish of Santa Madrona.
We have already talked about the ceremony of the 16th February 1959 when the fountain of the seafront promenade in Barcelona was dedicated to her, the same place where she lived as a child. That same year, in October, she performed in the Theatre Barcelona where a tribute was paid to her the 30th. Later, she participated in a festival in the Municipal Palace of Sports in benefit to the Somorrostro. And there were the last performances of the dancer. Later, as we said before, we have her again among us when Carmen Amaya decided to live in a simple farm in Bagur knowing her bad health.