Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dancing up a storm

She was born in a shack in Barcelona in the the middle of a storm. She worked from the age of four. She became famous first in Spain, later in Latin America and finally all over the World. She was in a series of Hollywood films and nominated for an Oscar. She appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, played Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. She danced first for Roosevelt and later for Harry Truman in the White House and introduced castanets and popularised the foot stomping we now think of as typical of flamenco. She died in Begur on the Costa Brava at the age of just fifty from kidney failure. Carmen Amaya has often been called the greatest Flamenco dancer that ever lived.

Carmen was born in 1913 into a gypsy family that was heavily involved in the flamenco world. Her dad, el Chino, was a well respected guitarist and her career stemmed from her appearances with him on the flamenco circuit in the 1920s and 30s. She never received any form of formal training and her style was pure instinct or learned from the street. Her big break came when a review by a famous journalist of the time described her as wild, stamping the floor, moving her hips like a savage beast. The absolute antithesis of a trained dancer. People were intrigued and went to see the phenomenon. Her fame spread.

She toured constantly around Spain and by 1936 at the age of 23 she had appeared in her first film role. When the Spanish Civil War broke out Carmen headed first for Portugal and then across the Atlantic to Argentina and from there around Latin America before finally embarking on a world tour. When she returned to Spain in 1947 she was a world class star.

She was generous, spontaneous and very Spanish. Just how Spanish is maybe revealed by a story about her when she was performing in New York and staying at the Waldorf Astoria. A Spanish fishing boat captain had presented her with a few boxes of sardines as a gift. Carmen and her entourage didn't have access to a kitchen so they used the bed bases as improvised grills destroying a couple of antique bedside tables in the process.

She wasn't too worried about money and spent it or gave it away quickly. She said she had more than she knew what to do with and, as she seems to have lived on “pan y tomate,” cigarettes and coffee. When Roosevelt presented her with a bolero jacket, encrusted with semi precious stones, she took it back to her hotel, cut it into pieces and shared out the gemstones amongst everyone who had danced with her that evening.

Carmen was a huge star. So when she ditched the big heavy calico dresses and dressed in men's high waisted trousers and short jacket everyone thought it was a good idea to copy her. When she started to stamp her feet rather than just move her hands they copied that too and when she introduced castanets her daring was applauded and copied.

If you have a stereotype of a flamenco dancer in mind you're probably thinking Carmen Amaya.

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