A GUIDEPOST REPRINT
LA CHUNGA: A NEW BEGINNING
by Jules Stewart
19 June 1970
Micaela Flores Amaya is one of the most popular commercial bailaoras in Spain, and she is also one of the finest. As flamenco expert D. E. Pohren has noted, she is one of the few who possess the basic qualities: arms, hands, carriage and sheer instinct.
“La Chunga”, as Micaela has been called since childhood, was born in Barcelona–in the gypsy quarter that has been the home of many of Spain’s great flamencos, among them Carmen Amaya. As a child, one of La Chunga’s passions was going down into the center of Barcelona itself, wandering about as she would, finding a meal here, a “new” dress there–a homely little gypsy girl (“La Chunga” means “ugly”) who soon began to attract attention with her “little-girl” dance.
By the time La Chunga was into her teens, she had become an artist’s model, and it was one of her employers who brought her to the attention of the great lady of flamenco, Pastora Imperio, who was in Barcelona looking for a young dancer at that time. Pastora Imperio made La Chunga her protegée, teaching her the essentials of the most classic form of flamenco, concentrating on the arms and hands while ignoring the feet almost entirely. What La Chunga herself provided, of course, was an intuitive sense of rhythm–and the duende so necessary to any great “flamenco”.
After long months of work, “La Chunga” made her debut in Madrid–in the famous Corral de la Morería. At that time, La Chunga danced little more than the rumba gitana she had more or less been born with. But she was an immediate success, eclipsing some of the top, established figures of the day. . .
La Chunga soon learned other bailes, of course–bulerías, soleá, tientos, siguiriyas, etc.–but her primitive approach remained. “Her jondo dance”, says Pohren, “was out of the past, almost religious, completely unlike the agitated virtuoso dance that surrounded her”.
For some time, La Chunga continued to dance without elaborate costumes–and she danced barefoot, just as she had in the barrio of Montjuich in Barcelona as a girl. (Dancing barefoot is one of the trademarks of La Chunga, of course, although dancing without shoes is as old as flamenco itself. Since flamenco juergas often took place in caves or houses where the floors were dirt, shoes were often as not a handicap. See D.E. Pohren’s “Lives and Legends of Flamenco” as well as La Chunga’s own comments below).
Movies in Hollywood, a whirlwind tour of the United States and Mexico followed, whisking her to international fame. . . La Chunga went through a period when the purity of her dance was seriously threatened, by the criticisms of those who wanted her to be more “sophisticated”, by her agents who saw greater financial rewards in a more “palatable” flamenco, and by the natural influences of long stays abroad. Dance lessons, arrangements, costumes and make-up came too, and each one marked the threat of a gradual transformation into a good but no longer “different” bailaora. . .
Now a mother and living in Madrid ( where one of her favorite pastimes is painting in a charming naif style) La Chunga has recently “re-appeared” (she insists that she never really retired), at the newly inaugurated Café de Chinitas, which seems to have been established with her in mind. For many who have seen her dancing there in the past two weeks, La Chunga seems to be bringing back to life the legend that once made her the hope of flamenco purists.
As fast-moving off-stage as on, La Chunga is not very easy to pin down for an interview. But here, in a few fleeting moments, is what we were able to learn about this radiant personality:
GUIDEPOST: How did you acquire your nickname? (“Chunga”, in Spanish, means a “joker” or “clown”.)
CHUNGA: This nickname was given to me when I was a little girl because I was not much to look at.
GUIDEPOST: When and how did you become interested in flamenco dancing?
CHUNGA: I began to dance when I was eight years old, in cafés and in the calle Escudilleras in Barcelona, in order to earn my daily bread.
GUIDEPOST: Why do you dance barefoot?
CHUNGA: Because I feel the music more deeply that way.
GUIDEPOST: What is your opinion on the state of flamenco today?
CHUNGA: Flamenco is going through a bad period. I think someone ought to write a book explaining where flamenco begins and where tap-dancing ends, because today one can hardly distinguish between the two.
GUIDEPOST: What figure do you admire most–of the past or present in flamenco dancing?
CHUNGA: Of the past–Carmen Amaya. Of the present–although she no longer performs–Pastora Imperio.
GUIDEPOST: Why did you stop dancing for a period, and why have you returned to the stage?
CHUNGA: Who ever said I had retired? I danced less, that is true, but I’ve been told when God created the stars, he admired their beauty, and we, who see them every night, no longer pay them any heed.
GUIDEPOST: Do you like to dance outside of Spain?
CHUNGA: Not too often. But I know that one earns more abroad, and one is also appreciated more.
GUIDEPOST: Where have you been most warmly acclaimed?
CHUNGA: In Paris.
GUIDEPOST: Have you ever performed in the U.S.?
CHUNGA: Yes, I have danced in America–in Las Vegas, Hollywood, Miami and other cities.
GUIDEPOST: What is your opinion of that country?
CHUNGA: I liked it very much, and I think Americans are a bit saboríos. (loosely: “strange”)
GUIDEPOST: Do you think the American public is capable of understanding flamenco?
CHUNGA: Flamenco is a form of prayer, and everyone knows how to pray
. . .
Featured image: La Chunga/Ateneo de Cordoba, CC BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons; Background (flamenco dancer)/Martinahavlikova84, Pixabay
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