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Carmen Amaya

“She's the most talented artist of the dancers, and the most brilliant of the artists”

Orson Welles

“There's a lot to enjoyabout Carmen, a lot to admire. and a lot to learn”

Fred Astaire

“She is a volcano lit up by superb blazes of Spanish music”

Charles Chaplin

“She is an artist, and if that's not enough, I would say a unique artist, because she's inimitable”

Greta Garbo

“Carmen Amaya is hail ona windowpane, a swallow's cry, a black cigar smoked by a dreamer,thunderous applause; when she and her family sweep into town, they causeugliness, torpor and gloom to evaporate just as a swarm of insects strips thetrees of their leaves”

Jean Cocteau

“You can see the awesome conviction in the way Carmen Amaya dances. A gawky, skinny, little, dark-haired Gipsy, with a tragic idol face, Asian cheeks, large eyes full of signs...”

Vicente Marrero

“Gipsy dance is the inspiration, a perpetual ray of light, the powerful intuition that breaks the limits of the logical structure and overflow the form. An art like that disarms the critic argumentation, that has to leave his place to the poet. The Gipsy dance is an independent art that does not allow any guardianship. It is not subject to any musical accompaniment, it just dispenses with it. It puts into practice the silence dance theory, it makes the music that it is needed, it does not play rhythm, but it creates it. It makes it with the clapping, the finger sounds, and above all with the desperate drums of the heels. The dancer is actually a percussion instrument, a drum that makes original sound rhythms that belong to the body movements. And now, I am going to talk about dancers and I will begin with Carmen Amaya. This girl is a product of nature. Like all gypsies she might have been born dancing. Indescribable. Soul, pure soul. She is the anti-school, the anti-academy. All she knows, she already knew it when she was born”

Sebastià Gasch

A profile of Carmen Amaya

by Montse Madridejos Mora and David Pérez Merinero
for El Tablao de Carmen

Carmen Amaya has been the most universally popular dancer to come out of flamenco. Born in Barcelona, probably in 1918 and not 1913 as has been written on many occasions with little to back it up. She was brought up in the wretched shacks which were haphazardly crammed onto the beach at Somorrostro, a space in between the current Nova Icària and Bogatell beaches. Her father, José Amaya Amaya, had the nickname El Chino (The Chinaman) and was a professional guitarist and his daughter’s accompanist throughout her life. Her mother, Micaela Amaya Moreno, occasionally danced zambra, although only when among family. As far as we know, the Amaya Moreno couple had 7 children, in the following order: Paco, Carmen, Antonia, Leonor, José, Antonio and María. All of them were professional flamenco performers, apart from little José, of which nothing was heard after his first few years of life. Paco was a guitarist and Carmen, Antonia, Leonor, Antonio and María were dancers and, in the case of Carmen and Leonor, occasionally singers. In turn, their mother’s sister, Juana Amaya, known as La Faraona, was very well known for her statuesque demeanour and talent as a dancer. From the mid-1920’s, little Carmencita Amaya shared the stages of Barcelona with her father and aunt.


The 1920’s. Carmen Amaya in the Barcelona flamenco club, Villa Rosa, sitting fourth from the right. In the foreground Concha Borrull, in the background and on the left, on her feet, Juana La Faraona.


In 1929 her international career started, as she was hired with her Aunt Juana and cousin María to perform in Paris, in the París-Madrid show of the couplet singer Raquel Meller.

AApril 1929, a programme from Raquel Meller’s Paris-Madrid show in the Palace de Paris. The Amaya Trio (Juana La Farona, María and Carmen Amaya) were part of the line-up.

Taking advantage of her stay in Paris, the film director Benito Perojo also used the Amaya Trio to give a flamenco feel to one of the sequences of his film La Bodega. Carmen Amaya’s physical appearance as she dances zambra in the film La Bodega in 1929 can be considered the most conclusive proof that she was born in 1913. The girl, who is very young, and is dancing with her aunt and cousin, does not look much older than 10.

When they returned to Barcelona, they continued to perform on every possible stage, in the Bar del Manquet, in the Cangrejo Flamenco, in the Edén, in the Teatro Circo Barcelonés, in the bar of Juanito El Dorado or in the highly famous Villa Rosa, which was managed by the Borrull family.

For the inauguration of Andalusian Week at the 1930 Exposition in Barcelona, a photo was taken of the entire family for a photo report which appeared on the cover of the Notas Gráficas supplement of La Vanguardia, on the 24th of June 1930.

1931 was the year in which the journalist Sebastià Gasch, a reporter on the Barcelona nightlife who specialised in flamenco, discovered and described the talent of a little gypsy girl who charmed everyone with her dancing, in the magazine Mirador:

You have to get lucky and go to La Taurina on the right day. Because some nights, occasionally, Carmencita dances. It is hard to find the right word to describe this marvel. Imagine a little 14-year old gypsy girl sitting on the stage. Carmencita remains impassive and statue-like, proud and noble, with undefinable racial nobility, inscrutable, oblivious of everything and everyone, alone with her inspiration, with her figée stance which allows the soul to rise up to inaccessible regions. Suddenly there is a jump. And the little gypsy girl is dancing. It is indescribable. Soul. Pure soul.

It seems clear that the arrival of the 2nd Republic meant an improvement to the conditions of her entire family. Journalists were now talking about her, she had a growing reputation and they managed to get out of the shack on the beach, moving to an apartment on Calle de las Tapias in Chinatown.

From 1934 onwards, her performances and successes came thick and fast, and she was now known as the Capitana (captain). She appeared briefly in the José Buchs film Dos mujeres y un Don Juan and she shared the stage with the most important figures in flamenco during that period: La Niña de los Peines, Manuel Vallejo, Manuel Torres, José Cepero, the Borrull’s, Pastora Imperio, Niño Ricardo, Montoya and Sabicas, who became her artistic partner on the guitar for many years. She finally became a hit nationwide in 1935, when the director José Luis Sáenz de Heredia hired her as a guest performer on the film La hija de Juan Simón and Jerónimo Mihura did the same for the short film Don Viudo de Rodríguez. When she had settled in Madrid with her family, she performed in a number of venues, such as the Teatro de la Zarzuela with Concha Piquer and Miguel de Molina and in other Spanish cities such as Seville, San Sebastian and Valladolid. She was given her first starring role in a film by Francisco Elías for María de la O, which was filmed in 1936, months before she left Spain, at the start of the Civil War.

In 1936 she left Lisbon, with some of her family, on her way to Buenos Aires, where her dancing caused such a sensation, above all in the Teatro Maravillas, that she extended her performances for a whole year running. Her success in Buenos Aires led to her performing throughout America: Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Cuba and also Mexico.

During her time in Cuba, in 1939, they filmed the short film El Embrujo del Fandango (from which a couple of scenes with Sabicas and Carmen were “embedded” in the film Martingala by Fernando Mignoni, in 1940). The bolero-inspired dress she used in this film is the same which was immortalised around that time by Ruano Llopis in his famous poster.

They arrived at New York in December 1940 and, thanks to the businessman and manager to the stars Sol Hurok, they made their debut in the cabaret Beachcomber on the 17th of January 1941. This was the start of the golden era of Carmen Amaya’s artistic career. The magazine LIFE devoted a lengthy report to her with some magnificent photos by Gyon Mili, which were displayed in the MOMA. Again, through Hurok, she took part in the documentary Original Gypsy Dances which introduced her to the New York public. With her company she recorded Flamencan Songs and Dances I and II for the record company Decca in June 1941. She left cabaret and made her debut, in style, in New York’s Carnegie Hall together with Antonio Triana in January 1942. She was invited to dance at the President’s Birthday Ball, the charity event which was held every year on the birthday of President F.D. Roosevelt, in 1943. During the same year, she performed her version of El Amor Brujo for the first time in front of 20,000 spectators in the huge Hollywood Bowl in Los Ángeles and used the occasion to film her dancing in the films Knickerbocker Holiday (1944), Follow the Boys (1944) and See My Lawyer (1945).

Her fame was now without borders. In Mexico she filmed the movie Los amores de un torero (1945) with Joaquín Rodríguez Cagancho, and carried on performing in Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina, in whose capital city her father died in 1946.

She returned to Spain in 1947, after an absence of eleven years, as an internationally-established artist. She premiered her show Embrujo Español in the Teatro Madrid in Madrid and then went on to perform it in other Spanish cities such as Valladolid, Zamora and Seville. It made its debut in Barcelona on the 18th of December of the same year, and it was given special coverage by the press, with lengthy articles by Sebastià Gasch and Néstor Luján for the prestigious magazine Destino.

Her shows were now being performed in the best theatres in each of the country’s cities. In Paris, she performed in the prestigious Théatre des Champs Elysées and in London in the Prince’s Theatre. On her new tour of Argentina in 1950, she filled the Teatro Astral of Buenos Aires and the Avenida de Rosario. In 1951, she performed in Seville, Biarritz, Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon. That same year, through the guitarist Mario Escudero, she met the man who would go on to become her husband, Juan Antonio Agüero. They were married on the 19th of October 1951 in Barcelona, in Santa Mónica church, at the end of the Ramblas. It was a simple ceremony, true to her style, first thing in the morning, with a few close friends and family members. The very short courtship (only 15 days) did not stop them being a couple who were completely committed to one another right to the end.

From this point, and probably influenced by the restless nature of Juan Antonio Agüero and his love of travel, Carmen Amaya’s company displayed its talent in every corner of the world. It is hard to keep up with their countless journeys: Spain, France, England, United States, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru etc.

Their return to New York, again at Carnegie Hall, led to a review which was full of praise from the dance expert John Martin for The New York Times, on the 1st of October 1955, which said:

Carmen Amaya has certainly made good use of her time while she has been away from the stages of New York. When she left us she was a gypsy whirlwind with little shape or discipline; she has returned an artist.

In 1956 and 1957 she recorded the albums Queen of the gypsies and Flamenco! In New York with Sabicas, which were acclaimed by the press and about which the pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda confessed:

I would like to find Carmen Amaya and Sabicas’ old records; I lost them during my second divorce. Ex-wives should be told: you can have everything, except for the Carmen Amaya records.

She went on to perform in various other films, such as Quand te tues-tu? (by the French director Émile Couzinet, in 1953), Dringue, Castrito y la lámpara de Aladino (filmed in Argentina in 1954 and directed by Luis José Moglia) and Música en la noche (by the director Tito Davison, filmed in Mexico in 1958).

In 1959, thanks to the intervention of her friend and journalist Josep Maria Massip during the administration of Mayor Porcioles, Barcelona paid her a moving tribute with the inauguration of a fountain bearing her name on the Promenade on the 17th of February. She, touched and generous as ever with her people, took her company from Paris to Barcelona to perform a single charity concert in the Palau de la Música for the construction of the new San Rafael Hospital and Nursing Home. At the end of the concert, César González-Ruano presented her with the Gold Medal, which is awarded by the Madrid Circle of Fine Arts.

Visit Carmen Amaya in October 1959 Somorrostro

In the final years of her life, she carried on performing tirelessly, once again in the United States, in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Uruguay and France. In Spain, she went on several tours around Palma de Mallorca and the Costa Brava, where she finally bought a beautiful country house, Mas Pinc de Begur (Girona) where she was able to rest during the brief interludes between her exhausting world tours.

In 1963, the year in which it became clearer that she was suffering from kidney disease, she shot what would be her final film: Los Tarantos by Francisco Rovira Beleta. Carmen did not live to see its premiere, but it remains her great cinematic testament. A performance full of emotion, drama and unforgettable dancing, such as the bulerías on the beach or the taranto in Bar Las Guapas.

1957, Carmen and her company in the Teatro Tapia in
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Carmen wanted to spend her final days in Mas Pinc de Begur, where she died of congenital kidney failure on the 19th of November 1963, at five past nine in the morning.

And, as Ángel Zúñiga bode her farewell: “Red carnations for the light-footed artist”. Rest in peace.

El Tablao de Carmen pays tribute to the great flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya, one of the most important figures in the history of Flamenco, who with her dancing, passion, ability and charm elevated the mythology of Flamenco to its highest level.

Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Charles Chaplin and Greta Garbo were her most fervent admirers.

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