Carmen Amaya (1918-1963) was born into a gypsy family and learned to Flamenco as a child from the people around her. From the age of 4 she would perform in the streets, singing and dancing to her father's guitar for whatever coins the public would offer. Her father believed she was most suited to the song but, while she enjoyed singing and occasionally performed throughout the rest of her life, it became clear that she was destined to be a dancer first and foremost. She first performed in a Barcelona restaurant at the age of age of 6, already under her nickname
La Capitana, and from there she moved to the theaters of Madrid where she gained fame for her fusion of the traditional female style of dancing and the more traditionally male footwork which she performed with a ferocity that would define her.
She enjoyed great success touring throughout Spain, but the onset of the Civil War forced her to leave and move to the Amercias. She performed with Sabicas' company to enormous acclaim and later toured throughout the world, cementing her fame internationally. She also became a darling of Hollywood performing at the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of 20,000 people and appearing in a number of popular films including
María de la O,
Follow the Boys &
Los Amores de un Torero.
She eventually returned to Spain in 1947, her enormous fame preceding her, and performed in the Teatro Madrid before continuing to tour Europe and the world. In 1963 she appeared in what was to be her last film,
Los Tarantos, shortly before her death of kidney failure.
La Capitana literally revolutionized Flamenco dance, particularly among women. Before her, female dancers limited themselves to the graceful arm and body movements drawn from classical Spanish dance, with only very basic footwork as occasional adornment. Carmen changed all this – her fast, highly technical and musical footwork formed the centerpiece of her dances (showcasing it perfectly by being the first female dancer to wear pants during performances), and she moved away from the classically artistic style favored by the academies to perform in a style more influenced by emotion and reaction to the music. This emphasis on the power of emotion within the dance caused a complete renovation for both men and women dancers throughout Flamenco and continues to be one of the greatest influences on Flamenco today.