Romani dancer Carmen Amaya conquered the world with an immutable spirit, becoming known as the Queen of Flamenco.

A wild storm raged in Barcelona on the night Carmen Amaya was born. Waves crashed in a frenzy and lighting slashed the sky. Some say the spirit of the wild wind took root in Carmen Amaya’s soul. She was, after all, a child of the Romani— the people who are also called gypsies— and gypsies were thought to be different than other God-fearing folks.

The Romani were untamed.

Amaya’s mother was a dancer and her father a guitarist named “El Chino”—“The Chinese One”—named such for his dark slanted eyes. Carmen got those eyes from her father, but she inherited her true gift from her mother: dancing feet.

As a toddler, Amaya found her way onstage as her parents performed at a Barcelona theater. She began dancing, mimicking her mother’s every move. The audience watched as the child bucked, stomped, and kicked as though she were born to dance. It turns out, she was.

Carmen Amaya would later conquer the world through dance and become known as the Queen of Flamenco. Flamenco, a dance of the Andalusian gypsies, was the rhythm coursing through her blood. She danced barefoot with her parents in taverns all over Barcelona, her skill was rewarded with a few pesetas, but she still often went hungry. She learned to steal fish or fruit from market stalls and run to the banks of the sea, where she greeted the furious waves like old friends. The wild wind of the sea helped quiet the storm within her, yet her restlessness only left when she danced.

Her tapping feet and hands clapping on the desk disrupted classrooms and Amaya was thrown out of school before she ever had a chance to learn to read and write. She was illiterate her whole life, singing future contracts with only an “X.” But she didn’t mind; she had her family, and that is all she needed.

Gypsies roamed the countries in caravans, colorful wagons that contained all their possessions, sharing a campfire and cooking communal meals. They were all family and traveled as a pack. Wherever Amaya went, her family went—parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts. “Her people,” she called them.

Amaya performed at taverns late into the night, sharing her earnings with her people. Successful nights meant everyone ate ham and tomatoes. Other nights, she only made enough for everyone to eat sardines. But sardine nights would soon be behind her.

When Spanish King Alfonso XIII announced that he would attend the 1929 International Exposition, excitement ran through Barcelona like an electric current. Vendors crowded into the city, outdoor cafes sprang up like dandelions, and entertainers, including the country’s best flamenco troupes, begged to perform for the monarch.

The Romani began a rumor that there was no better flamenco dancer in all of Spain then Carmen Amaya. Those rumors reached the ear of the King.

A royal retainer found Carmen and asked, “¿Eres la gitana bailaora Carmen Amaya?” (Are you the gypsy dancer, Carmen Amaya?)

Amaya’s dark eyes flashed with suspicion. Spain was not kind to the Romani, and considered them to be thieves and undesirables. So she answered back defiantly, “Who wants to know?”

Amaya agreed to dance before the king, and was given a long list of requirements in order to do so: She must dress modestly, stand silently until her performance with her head bowed, and never look or speak directly to the king. She must also dedicate each dance only to him.

Amaya nodded that she understood, but taming her was the same as trying to tame a whirlwind. As she reached the stage, the dancer kicked off her shoes, held her head high, looked King Alfonso directly in the eye and shouted: “¡Va por usted, Señor Rey!—This one’s for you, Mr. King!”

The crowd gasped at her audacity. But once Amaya began dancing, no one could take their eyes off of her — even the King.

Unlike most flamenco dancers who mastered only one “palo” or form of flamenco, Amaya danced them all.

She paid no attention to the custom that women dancers should only expressing themselves with graceful hands and arms. Instead, she adopted the male style of flashy footwork, staccato stomps, and heeltaps accented with kicks and twirls.

Her body was her instrument which she played like a virtuoso. The king had never seen anything like her, and came to his feet with enthusiastic applause. No monarch had ever so acknowledged one of the Romani people, and he was so impressed that Amaya would visit the king several times in Estoril. Everyone in Spain would now know the name of Carmen Amaya.

That night, her pockets were laden with a royal gift of 500 pesetas and her people enjoyed succulent ham, sweet figs, and flagons of rich red wine.

Amaya was now called La Capitána (The Captain) and “The Queen of the Gypsies.” Her fame spread—when the legendary flamenco guitarist Agustín Castellón “Sabicas” came to Barcelona, he invited Amaya to share his stage. Her performance so electrified the audience that they broke crockery against the walls of the tavern and the building shook with their roars of approval.

Sabicas told Amaya’s father that her talent was too big to be confined to Barcelona, and urged him to take his daughter to Madrid. The whole family extended went along. “I don’t know how to go through the world alone,” Carmen said. “If I don’t go with my people, I get nothing out of life”.

Amaya and her people, including Sabicas, fled to Lisbon at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. When she couldn’t find a tavern that would allow her to dance, she arranged to be snuck into a tavern without the owner’s consent. Before the owner could stop her, Amaya took to the stage and the audience’s reaction convinced the owner to give her a three-month contract at his club in Buenos Aires. The money wasn’t great, but Amaya accepted and she and her family made their way to Argentina. On the ship, she danced for the passengers for free, just to quiet her restless feet.

Carmen was such a success in Argentina that her contract was extended for two years. When she eventually left the city, the theater in which she had performed was renamed El Teatro Amaya in her honor.

There was a new continent for Carmen to conquer and she set sail for New York City. Yet, because Amaya was illiterate, she was deported upon entering the United States for being unable to sign her name and had to sail to Cuba to learn. She arrived in 1941, earning a salary equivalent to  $30,000 per week, Amaya (and her people) checked into the elegant Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Soon other guests complained that “those gypsies” played loud music all night, danced from room to room, laughed, shrieked, and even cooked sardines in the rooms. They were asked to leave the hotel.

Such prejudice followed Amaya and her family wherever they went. While window shopping on Fifth Avenue, a lustrous mink coat caught Amaya’s eye. When she inquired about the price, the clerk looked her up and down and sniffed, “It is an exclusive collection.” The sales clerk believed that a person of Carmen’s ethnicity couldn’t afford such a luxury, which made Amaya’s blood boil.

“I’ll take seven of them,” she told the flabbergasted clerk. All the women in her family were sporting the coats by nightfall.

Soon after, Amaya performed to universal praise at Carnegie Hall and was even invited to dance at the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He gifted her a gold bolero jacket inlaid with diamonds.

Amaya returned to her home country after peace was declared in Spain, where she gathered new musicians and dancers to be part of her company. She also added yet another rebellious move to her repertoire: Instead of the customary ruffled dress, she donned the trousers of the legendary bullfighter, the matador.

Because the trousers were unforgiving and showed every mistake, Amaya vowed that she would make none. 

“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.”

Sculpture of Carmen Amaya in Barcelona. Photo by Óscar Palop.

In the spring of 1963, Amaya began to lose that control. She collapsed onstage. After resting for several weeks, she tried again and was unable to finish her performance. The pain was too great. She had advanced kidney disease and though she said, “I feel like a caged lion.” She never danced again and died on November 19 of that year.

She was buried, allegedly with her feet bare, near the sea whose soul she shared.

Carmen Amaya is remembered for fighting prejudice and breaking down all barriers to express her art like the force of nature she was—uncontained and unstoppable. Dancers everywhere, discovering her performances on video, are still inspired by her passion and immutable spirit.