Spanish dancer/singer Carmen Amaya went down in history as one of the greatest and most influential flamenco performers of the 20th century. The Barcelona native was famous for her singing, but she was even more famous for her dancing -- and long after her death, Amaya's dance moves have continued to influence young Spaniards who study flamenco dancing. Amaya was born into a family of gypsies in Barcelona on November 2, 1913 and grew up in the Somorrostro section of the city, which was considered a poor slum back then, but is now full of pricey beachfront real estate. Although Amaya had no formal training as a dancer, she learned a lot about flamenco from her family, including her father, a flamenco guitarist named El Chino, and her aunt, La Faraona. And she also learned a lot about flamenco at Bar de Manquet, a working-class flamenco hangout where she was first hired to dance in 1924 at the age of ten. Bar de Manquet was where Amaya met Escudero el Gato (Escudero the Cat), a famous gypsy dancer from Madrid who was the brother of flamenco guitarist El Pelao Viejo. Escudero el Gato's dance moves had a major impact on Amaya, who became a celebrity all over Spain when she was in her teens, and became even more famous in her twenties. Amaya was 22 when the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, and she left Spain to get away from that conflict. During her 11-year absence from Spain, Amaya traveled all over the world and danced in New York City, Paris, and Lisbon, Portugal and performed in a long list of Spanish-speaking countries that included Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile. Amaya became such an international celebrity that in 1944, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited her to perform in the White House; Amaya also performed for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the '40s. Amaya returned to Spain in 1947, and by that time, the Spanish Civil War was over; the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, aka El Generalíssimo, was firmly in place and would remain until his death in 1975.
During her lifetime, Amaya appeared in quite a few films -- some in Spain, some in Mexico, and some in Hollywood. Those films included La Hija de Juan Simón in 1935, María de la O in 1936, Seda, Sangre y Sol in 1942, Sueños de Gloria and Knickerbocker Holiday in 1944, See My Lawyer in 1945, and Los Tarantos in the early '60s. Amaya was only 50 when, on November 19, 1963, she died of kidney failure in her native Barcelona (where she was buried). In 1999, author Paco Sevilla published his Amaya biography Queen of the Gypsies: The Life and Legend of Carmen Amaya. And in the 21st century, Amaya's grandniece, Omayra Amaya, has continued to teach flamenco dancing and discusses her grand-aunt's legacy on her website. ~ Alex Henderson