A Cafe de Chinitas poster
The 26 February 1988 GUIDEPOST issue was a commemorative issue celebrating
our 30th Anniversary, one of whose features was “1959”, an article
on La Chunga that is as rousing today as it was when
it was first published 29 years ago. Enjoy
the read — rather, the re-read!
by Bonnie Rosenstock
The search for La Chunga was not as difficult as anticipated, as looking through ads for flamenco tablaos would reveal. She, who had magnificently graced these pages on two separate occasions, the first time 29 years ago in August, 1959, and the second, on June 19, 1970, was about to be “updated.” So off we went to the elegant, splendidly-decorated Café de Chinitas, at 7 Torija Street, in the cellar of an 18th century palace, armed with a battery of questions: What was she doing now? How had international fame and acclaim influenced or changed her life? Was she still the fiery, barefoot gypsy dancer known for her pure, earthy, primitive style that sprang from the roots of her culture? Could she still dance?
For our longtime readers and flamenco aficionados alike, the extraordinary rags-to-riches rise of Micaela Flores Amaya, “La Chunga”, is well known. In brief, she was born in the gypsy quarter of Barcelona, one of nine children. At eight years of age she was dancing barefoot in the streets and bars, accompanied by the handclapping of a cousin, in order to make some money for food. She danced with a gypsy group when she was only eleven. She was taken under the wing of an artist who saw her dance in his studio, and he introduced her personal style. She danced in Madrid, was discovered by Hollywood (she danced in several movies) and Las Vegas, and appeared on the Ed Sullivan show at age 19. She went on to perform all over the world, and along the way became a painter, wife, and mother, raising three children, Luis, a jeweler, Curro, a lawyer, and Pilar, who is still in school. She has been performing at the Café since it opened, 17 years ago.
La Chunga is at home here. Her dressing room has that settled-in-look. The wall of her makeup mirror is covered with photos of relatives and friends, including Carmen Amaya. Her excellent naïf paintings hung up on the other walls. They are happy country scenes, at festivals, people dancing. The bright, glowing colors are in sharp contrast to most of her costumes, as the color she prefers for dancing and “for everything” is black.
To summarize our conversation:
GUIDEPOST: Which countries have you danced in?
LA CHUNGA: Most countries, except Japan, but I prefer to dance in Spain because I feel at home here. I especially loved Paris and Mexico. In the U.S. I prefer New York to Los Angeles.
GUIDEPOST: Why do you still dance barefoot?
LA CHUNGA: When I was little I couldn’t afford money for shoes, or for dance lessons. I still dance barefoot because I feel what I’m doing more, I’m in contact with the earth.
GUIDEPOST: Has flamenco changed much since you began dancing?
LA CHUNGA: No. there are many schools and teachers, some good, some bad. What I would like to see different is that though many bailaoras know how to zapatear fantastically, nothing is happening from the waist up, especially in the arms.
GUIDEPOST: Would you like to teach flamenco?
LA CHUNGA: No. The way I dance is very primitive. It would be very difficult to teach. Besides, I don’t know how to count [time]. I gave private lessons to the Duchess of Alba. She dances very well.
GUIDEPOST: Can foreigners learn to dance flamenco?
LA CHUNGA: Technically, yes, like a typewriter, but they always lack the spirit, the duende. God gives it to you; you feel it. And you have to make a lot of faces.
GUIDEPOST: What is your day like?
LA CHUNGA: I get up at around 11 a.m. and begin to paint until lunchtime, continue to paint until around 7. I dance here 6 nights a week, except Sundays when it’s closed. Sometimes I play bingo.
GUIDEPOST: Have you had any exhibitions of your paintings?
GUIDEPOST: How do you keep in shape? Do you exercise, rehearse?
LA CHUNGA: No, never. We gypsies are lazy [laughs]. I have no special diet. I eat everything, and I’m a very good cook [Don Alberto Heras, co-owner of the tablao, agrees.]
GUIDEPOST: How long will you keep on dancing?
LA CHUNGA: Until my heart holds out. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
GUIDEPOST: What would you like to do in the next years?
LA CHUNGA: Buy a house in the country and live there with my daughter, Pilar, grow some vegetables and feed the hens. Seriously.
GUIDEPOST: For what would you like to be remembered?
LA CHUNGA: As a gypsy that has danced pure.
We left La Chunga to finish putting on final touches of make up and to change into the first of her tour costumes. Our unasked questions were soon to be answered onstage through her vibrant, sensuous movements, from her expressive face down to her bare feet, and everything in between. You can still catch glimpses of her past, as an eight-year-old street dancer and 19-year-old sensation wowing international audiences, as well as feel her strong connection to the great pure flamenco tradition — primitive at times, emotional always, deeply moving and profoundly personal.
Featured image (Cafe de Chinitas poster)/Turismo Madrid Conorcio Turistico. Source: Cafe de Chinitas en Madrisd. CC BY2.0
Bonnie used to write regularly for Guidepost. Since relocating to the States she has won three journalism awards from the prestigious New York Press Association Better Newspaper Contest for her reporting on community issues in the Village (where she lives) and Chelsea neighborhoods, New York.
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