Magazine article The Spectator

La Chana, Queen of Flamenco

Magazine article The Spectator

La Chana, Queen of Flamenco

Article excerpt

Louise Levene meets the great Gypsy dancer La Chana, who bewitched Dali and Peter Sellers

A frail old woman sits alone on a chair on a darkened stage. There are flowers in her hair. She closes her eyes and the small, wrinkled hands begin to clap. The rhythm seems simple at first but her feet take up the beat, deconstructing it, multiplying it, embroidering it into fresh miracles of speed and precision. The packed house holds its breath until the rattling feet gradually dwindle to the gentlest percussive purr then stamp to a halt.

A fresh explosion of sound -- from the other side of the footlights this time -- as Sadler's Wells rises to its feet to welcome back La Chana ('the wise one'), queen of flamenco, after an absence of 30 years.

The smiling woman I meet the next morning is neither as old (a mere 71) nor as grand as her stage persona suggests. She arrives with her modest entourage -- assistant, manager, second husband -- and accepts my posy of camellias with a fragrant hug. She will wear them in her hair on stage tonight, she says, taking a seat at the head of the table and we begin a conversation that is part interview, part masterclass.

Antonia Santiago Amador never had a dancing lesson, but one day at a family wedding in Barcelona her maternal uncle, the guitarist 'El Chano', began playing seguidillas and she took to the floor, astonishing him with her technique.

'Who taught you that?'

'The radio.'

Young Antonia would hear a flamenco rhythm (compas) on the family wireless then sneak away to practise, hammering out steps on a tiny makeshift dance floor of old roof tiles. Her strict Gypsy father initially refused to let her perform in public -- 'dancers were bad women' -- but her uncle promised to keep a close eye on her and at 14 she made her professional debut.

By the mid-1960s she was performing at Barcelona's Los Tarantos nightspot. Salvador Dali never missed a show (usually accompanied by his diamond-collared ocelots) and a smitten Peter Sellers hired her to feature in his 1967 matador comedy The Bobo. The Bobo flopped but La Chana's performance, filmed intensively over eight eight-hour days, was magnificent. The furious young bailaora storms around the tiny stage in an agony of invention, her rapid-fire zapateado punctuated by gurgling cries of pain.

In 1976 the now 30-year-old star appeared on Spanish TV's Esta noche... fiesta. There was an international line-up but it was La Chana who closed the show with a solo that overran so long that the nightly news was delayed until those thundering feet fell silent.

'I performed the show of my life,' she says simply.

Her career went into overdrive with tours to Japan, Australia, Buenos Aires and Santiago where she danced for an audience of 8,000.

The ovations kept coming but she was dancing with two broken ribs, thanks to her increasingly violent and controlling husband who had swept her off her feet when she was 17 ('he was very insistent').

'In a Gypsy community the man is the one who is in charge,' she explains. 'He was my master, my owner and I was his servant. On stage was the only place I felt free.'

In 1978 he suddenly insisted that she retire from the stage. When I ask about the 'lost years' it's clear that La Chana's fury and sadness are still painfully close to the surface.

'Los anos perdidos!' she wails. 'The best years of my life! I was at the top of my career but if I danced he would take my daughter away. He was full of envy and anger and he nullified me. …

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