“Carmen Amaya is hail on a windowpane, a swallow’s cry, a black cigar smoked by a dreamer, thunderous applause; when she and her family sweep into town, they cause ugliness, torpor and gloom to evaporate just as a swarm of insects strips the trees of their leaves.” Jean Cocteau (1889–1963)
Carmen Amaya (1913–1963) was a Romani dancer who performed around the world and had a huge impact on the art of flamenco. During her lifetime she was called the greatest of dancers, and Queen of the Gypsies.
Carmen called herself a Gypsy, but today this term is considered offensive by many Romani people for its negative history and connotations. She was what we would now call Romani, or more specifically, Calé. (They are also called Gitano, which is Castilian Spanish for “Gypsy”)
The Calé are a Romani-descended people in the Andalusian region of Spain, who long ago emigrated from Northern Indian. Their culture and music greatly influenced the entire region.
Flamenco music grew out of Andalusia, and there is some controversy regarding its exact origins and various influences (even the etymology of the word “flamenco” is unknown for certain), but there is no doubt that it grew with the local Romani people at the helm. Though flamenco is at the heart of Romani culture, it is also a mixture of Indian, Persian, Greek, Moorish, and Arabic elements.
Flamenco is known for its energetic, staccato style, and as a cultural art it has many parallels to American blues. As a people the Romani had been oppressed and abused for hundreds of years. Flamenco emerged as a very private and ritualistic dance, performed with hand clapping because they could not afford musical instruments.
In Spanish culture and especially in Flamenco there is a word called duende, usually translated as spirit, soul, or fire. It is a difficult concept to translate but it is meant to convey the heart, soul, and emotion of flamenco. Different styles of flamenco dancing convey different emotions, but they all have duende. As a folk music, flamenco embodies the hopes, joys, and sorrows of the Romani people, and expressing this in dance is duende.
Carmen was said to have great duende in her dance. In the videos of her dancing, you can see the trance-like look on her face and the great emotion she expressed in her dance:
“I saw her dance and it seemed like something supernatural to me… I never saw anyone dance like her. I don’t know how she did it, I just don’t know!” Sabicas (Agustín Castellón Campos)
Carmen forever changed the art of flamenco with her dancing. Though she never studied dance formally, she started dancing at a very young age, travelling around to taverns and halls and performing with her father. By her teens she was known around Spain and as far as Paris. In the 1930s, Carmen began to travel the world, and became famous especially in the Americas, mesmerizing audiences from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, to Mexico and the United States, where she danced in several films. She was invited by Franklin Roosevelt to dance in the White House in 1944, and also by Harry Truman in 1953.
A pioneer in flamenco, Carmen combined traditionally feminine and masculine flamenco dance into her own unique style full of duende. Her heavy, stomping, lightning-fast footwork had been reserved for male flamenco dancers before, but she combined her intricate footwork with a feminine grace and style. She often danced in matador pants- in fact, she preferred the pants and jacket to a dress. She made shockwaves with her unusually passionate and fiery dance while wearing traditionally masculine clothing, but today these styles are taken for granted in flamenco.
“Rhythm, sensuality, drama were part of her arsenal of magic. Serious, sultry and unpredictable, she commanded instant attention. Alternately appearing in flamboyant gowns and her preferred tight matador pants, she exuded the pansexual, virtually demonic charisma of a rock star. Her lightning footwork, faster than the eye could comprehend, made audiences dizzy”. Conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957)
“She was from the race of the rebels, of those people who stray from the beaten track and ordinary rules, who only show that there is suffering in their dancing, like there is suffering in existence, and a rage for living. It is a dance that is marked by fire, whose thirst could only be quenched through death”. Patrick Bensard, director and founder of the Cinémathèque of Dance in the French Cinémathèque.
Inspired by Carmen’s flouting of gender norms in her performances? You should read about Fannie Sperry Steele, an American rodeo performer who refused to follow the safety precautions reserved just for women.
Image of Carmen Amaya courtesy University of Washington.