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Once upon a time, there lived a flamenco dancer who could break floorboards with her feet. Her name was Carmen. Everywhere she went, audiences were awed and shocked by her masterful dancing and the fury of her feet. She belonged to the Romany, a group of people in Europe known as gypsies and treated as outsiders. But Carmen would not allow her family to suffer prejudice and ignorance. Family was everything to her, and every penny she made, from dancing at taverns or in small market squares to performing in Carnegie Hall, went to support the people she loved most. The world would come to know Carmen Amaya as “The Gypsy Queen.”
Tanja Babich gives the term “early riser” a run for its money, waking up at 2:30 AM each weekday morning to deliver the day’s headlines at ABC 7 Chicago. Her work has afforded her the opportunity to do aerial stunts in an F-16 fighter jet, cover President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and trail Pope Francis on his first trip to the United States. But the job she is most proud of is mom to two fierce and fun little girls…with one more daughter on the way! Tanja was born in Canada to immigrant parents from Serbia and Chile. She speaks four languages and finds tremendous joy traveling to cities near and far with her husband Paul and her rebel girls.
Once upon a time, on a stormy night in Spain, a Gypsy Queen was born. Her name was Carmen.
Her parents were Romany—or gypsies, as outsiders called them—and weren’t strangers to fighting for their very existence.
The Romany were travellers who worked as musicians and fortune tellers and in other jobs that allowed them to move from place to place as the seasons changed. But they were often viewed with suspicion by those leading more settled lives. People blamed them for thefts, disease, and crop failures, and they were persecuted and mistreated.
Like many Romany people, Carmen’s parents were wandering artists. When Carmen was born, they were living in the Romany quarter of Barcelona, a neighbourhood called Somorrostro. Her mother was a dancer, and her father, known as El Chino, played the guitar.
One evening, while Carmen’s parents put on a show at a Barcelona theater, their four-year-old daughter slept soundly in their dressing room. No one knows what disturbed Carmen, perhaps it was a knock at the door, the roar of the audience, or the crescendo of the music. But the child awakened, climbed out of her cot, and wandered onto the stage.
At first, the audience did not notice Carmen there, but then she began to dance. The tiny girl kicked her legs with the energy of a bucking bronco, stamping her feet and copying her mother’s movements exactly.
Carmen would grow up to become a master of flamenco, a force of nature who performed all over the world.
I’m Tanja Babich. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Carmen Amaya.
<END THEME MUSIC>
For two years, Carmen performed alongside her parents, dancing barefoot in taverns for a few pesetas. She stole fish and fruit when she was hungry, racing down cobbled streets and through tight alleys to the safety of the beach. At the water’s edge, she admired the might and fury of the sea.
When Carmen turned six, her father sent her to school. But when she got there, she found it impossible to sit still. Her fingers tapped on the desk. Her feet swiped at the tile beneath her toes. Just when the rhythm became predictable, it changed, her tongue clicking to keep time.
As if this weren’t enough, the rhythm she created was so irresistible that soon other students joined her. To Carmen, the school was a giant music box, a container that needed to burst open with song, with dance, with energy, with life.
“When I feel like jumping, I jump,” said Carmen.
Carmen did not follow any rules but her own. Soon enough, the administration grew tired of Carmen’s antics and expelled the troublemaker.
But she still had flamenco.
Carmen’s departure from school was abrupt; she hadn’t even learned to read and write yet. So when she signed her first dance contract at 10 years old, she scribbled an X instead of her name.
DANCING FOR A KING
Most nights, Carmen performed at taverns and cafés, returning home to sleep well after the sun rose. The more she danced, the more she earned, and her family went from eating canned sardines and stolen fish to dining on ham and tomato sandwiches.
When she turned fifteen, the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, announced that he would attend the International Exposition. Overnight, Barcelona became a new city. New courtyards popped up for impromptu entertainment, and the best flamenco troupes from every corner of Spain arrived in Barcelona.
Rumors circulated around the city about a talented dancer who could charm even the least enthusiastic audience. The Romany dancers chose Carmen to represent them in their presentation for the king.
Before the performance, a guard stopped Carmen. “¿Eres la gitana bailaora Carmen Amaya?” he asked—was she the gypsy dancer Carmen Amaya?
She nodded. “Who’s asking?”
“The king,” he said. Then, he gave her a long list of rules for how she should dress, stand, and speak. “Remember, he is royalty. You will dedicate every dance to him, but never speak directly to him.”
When the opening ceremony began and talented dancers paraded across the courtyard, Carmen grew more and more anxious as her moment approached. She looked down at her mismatched shoes. They felt unnatural as she shifted from foot to foot.
“¡La gitana bailaora!” said a loud voice. “Carmen Amaya!”
The crowd giggled a little, which infuriated her. She kicked off her shoes and walked onto the stage barefoot, head raised high in defiance.
“¡Va por usted, Señor Rey!” Carmen shouted. “This one’s for you, Mr. King!”
The royal entourage grew uneasy at her break from tradition. They seemed reluctant to clap and cry out as they normally would, waiting for the king’s reaction, but Carmen ignored them.
Normally, flamenco dancers would master one “palo,” one form of flamenco. But Carmen had mastered them all. Female dancers seldom performed footwork and focused primarily on graceful hands, arms, upper body, and swaying hips, while men performed most of the footwork.
When Carmen danced, she put her very soul into it. She whirled, fast as a tornado, clapping her hands and stamping her feet in time with the guitarist. Her flowing costume flared out behind her, nearly unable to keep up with her movements. Her limbs ebbed, flowed, and crashed into the rhythm like waves into the shore.
As the last notes of the guitar faded, the air remained still until the King rewarded her with warm, enthusiastic applause. Never before had any monarch given such attention to a gypsy.
That night, Carmen’s pockets were weighed down with five hundred pesetas, and her family enjoyed a basket of ham, wine, and sweets.
Carmen had made a name for herself in Barcelona. Some called her La —the captain—and some called her the Queen of the Gypsies. But whatever the name, Carmen was a powerful whirlwind who affected everyone around her.
When the great flamenco guitarist Sabicas came to town, he wanted none other than Carmen Amaya to take the stage with him. As soon as she began, a gentleman in the audience threw back his head as if electrified, banging his skull against the wall and shattering the mirror behind him.
As the night went on, Carmen danced with more and more ferocity, abandoning herself completely to the music. CRACK! A floorboard broke right beneath her foot.
Her energy was so contagious that the audience smashed their plates right there on the walls of the tavern. Glittering shards littered the floor like a mosaic.
And then, just like that, the song ended. Carmen stood perfectly still in her final pose, every line in her body exuding strength. Her dark eyes stared out at the audience, challenging them to disrupt her spell.
A hush fell over the tavern.
Then, the audience clapped, stomped, and whistled their approval, and the building shook as if a hundred bulls had rushed through it.
When Carmen walked off stage, broken ceramic crunched beneath her feet.
After this performance, Sabicas pulled Carmen’s father aside.
“Look, Chino,” he said, “Your girl has something that needs to be taken very seriously …You have to take her to Madrid; the people there understand it all, and they’ll be able to recognize it.”
And to Madrid they went.
Not just Carmen and El Chino, but the entire family tagged along. Her younger sisters danced, her mother cooked, her father and brother negotiated her contracts, and her uncle and cousins accompanied her on guitar. When her sisters married, their husbands and children came along.
They were her dance company, her colleagues, her friends, her community.
“I don’t know how to go through the world alone, and if I don’t go with my people, I get nothing out of life,” she said.
She had come a long way from the time when she had performed for a few pesetas. Now, through flamenco, she was able to support her entire family. .
In 1936, Civil War broke out in Spain, so Carmen and her family fled to the Portuguese border, and friends smuggled them into Lisbon.
There, she feared she would have to start over, rebuilding her career from scratch. She went from bar to bar, seeking work, but she was turned away.
Running low on food and money, Carmen begged a waiter to sneak her into Cafe Arcadia without the owner’s consent. She put on her best dress, climbed onto the stage, and began to dance. The restaurant owner ran to stop her, but it was too late.
The crowd was already entranced by La Capitána.
This bold act provided her enough work to scrape by until 23-year-old Carmen received a telegram: a contract for three months in Buenos Aires with a million pesetas guaranteed.
The life-changing offer was too good to pass up. So, Carmen and a few members of her family boarded the ship for a 15-day voyage. Within days, a waiter cornered Carmen with a request: Would she perform for the passengers?
She didn’t know if she could keep her food down, let alone whirl and kick to the strum of her father’s guitar. But Carmen had learned to dance from the ocean that now writhed beneath them. As a child, she had watched the waves for hours, hypnotized. The foam enchanted her. The force of a storm tossing debris inspired her. And like the last notes of a grand finale, the tide receded into the sea.
Now, sitting still in the belly of the ship, Carmen’s feet had grown restless. She couldn’t remember going so long without dancing.
During that voyage, Carmen put on shows for all of the passengers, poor and rich, and she would not accept a dime in payment.
Carmen debuted at the Maravillas Theater in Buenos Aires before a spellbound audience. And, like everywhere she went, Carmen’s dancing was unlike anything they’d ever seen.
Carmen had traveled to Buenos Aires with a three-month contract. Instead, she ended up performing there for 2 years.
When she left, Argentinians named a theater after her: El Teatro Amaya.
THE UNITED STATES
After a tour in Latin America, the great Carmen Amaya, accompanied by more than a dozen dancers and guitarists, arrived in North America. Her salary in the United States was unfathomable— today’s equivalent of about $30,000 a week—which she shared with her family.
In New York City, they stayed at the most prestigious hotel there was: The Waldorf Astoria.
The Amaya clan always kept the doors open, floating from one room to the other dancing, playing instruments, and chatting loudly. One guest even claimed the family had been cooking sardines in their rooms! (Which Carmen adamantly denied.)
The hotel management soon grew exasperated; she was disrupting the other guests’ experience, and she would have to leave. Having no patience for intolerance, Carmen and her family took their money elsewhere.
But the Waldorf Astoria was not the only place where prejudice existed.
On Fifth Avenue, Carmen stood outside of an expensive dress shop, fascinated by a majestic fur coat. She entered the shop and asked to try it on. The clerk barely glanced at Carmen’s gypsy clothes before turning her away.
“It’s an exclusive collection,” the attendant told her, implying that the coat was out of reach for a person like Carmen.
She stopped the woman at once, unfolded a wad of bills, and said: “I’ll take seven.”
She passed out the fur coats one at a time. Each sister and cousin put one on and basked in the feel of soft fur on her skin. Then, the seven of them walked the streets of New York together.
CRITICISM & TRIUMPH
Sometimes North America was kind to Carmen and sometimes it was harsh. She performed at the legendary Carnegie Hall, and even the White House, by invitation of President Franklin Roosevelt himself. In fact, the President gifted her a bolero jacket inlaid with gold and diamonds.
Though the public was infatuated with Carmen’s raw dance style, some critics called her a “gifted clown,” and named her work “mediocre” compared to other Spanish dance forms. One review said that the myth of the “human tornado has been somewhat overdone.”
As her family read the reviews to Carmen, she felt deflated. She was a star, wasn’t she? She grew suspicious, uncertain if the harsh words were a statement on her skills or her social class.
Carmen had had enough, so she waited until peacetime had been declared, then she disbanded her dance company and returned to Europe. She found her country shell-shocked and poverty-stricken after its recent civil war, but it was good to be home among her people.
Carmen sought out professionals who were trained in other dance styles. She hired the most talented musicians and dancers to join her new company. And she shocked audiences with new performance material and a unique costume.
Carmen stepped onto stage in Sevilla wearing the pants of a matador—a bullfighter. “Trousers,” she said, “are unforgiving. They show…every mistake and they give you nothing to take hold of.”
Carmen spent almost a decade perfecting her craft before returning to Carnegie Hall. Her feet echoed through the quiet concert hall, and “the atmosphere vibrated with her very presence.”
“The new Amaya is overwhelming,” one critic said after her performance. “Every movement is animated by a feeling of latent violence, held in check only by an equal power of control. When she lifts an arm it is as if it were forcing itself through a weight of water.”
Carmen returned to Spain with her head held high.
In the spring of 1963, Carmen’s body began to fail.
Every minute on-stage required hours of recovery afterward. In bed, her back spasmed brutally, and all she could do was desperately search for a comfortable position. But no relief ever came.
She rested as much as she could and then, returned to her art. She had to dance, she said, to remember what it was to be alive again. Until one night, she collapsed.
Carmen rested for a few weeks before taking the stage one last time, but again, she could not finish her performance. The pain overwhelmed her and she fainted. She had advanced kidney disease, and her body couldn’t take the stress anymore.
“I feel like a caged lion,” she said.
She retired to a beach estate to await the arrival of spring, but she wouldn’t survive to see the winter.
She was buried shoeless, because the sea had made her who she was.
In the gypsy tradition, family and friends are encouraged to visit the home of the deceased and take something that reminds them of their loved one. By the time the mourners had gone, the house was bare.
Just as she had in life, Carmen gave all that she had to the people she loved the most.