The invincible dancer

Antonia Santiago Amador, otherwise known as ‘La Chana,’ cast a spell over Salvador Dalí, Peter Sellers and Maya Plisétskaya. And though she suffered years of abuse from the men in her life, she rose above it to triumph around the world. A new documentary pays tribute to her spirit

‘La Chana’ with Peter Sellers.
‘La Chana’ with Peter Sellers.

When Antonia Santiago Amador, otherwise known as La Chana, made her entrance on stage, the world would hold its breath. For this Catalan gypsy, born in Barcelona in 1946, managed to turn the violence and danger of her life into art.

A natural percussionist, Antonia started beating out rhythms with her feet on the bridge she lived under with her family when still a young girl. Next, she used the bricks dumped on scrubland. Until, one day, she heard the seguidilla flamenco meter on the radio and spent the entire night trying to reproduce it. Against her family’s wishes, she made her debut at La Bota del Tossa del Mar. By 18, she was performing at Los Tarrantos in Barcelona and by 19 Peter Sellers had signed her up to appear in the film The Bobo: Sellers subsequently wanted to take her to Hollywood, but her family put their foot down.

Antonia started beating out rhythms with her feet on the bridge she lived under when still a young girl

At 22, her performance at Las Canasteros in Madrid was highly acclaimed despite the flamenco singer Manolo Caracol’s reservations about her being both blonde and Catalan. From there, she went on to win first prize at the Perth Dance Festival in Australia and worked for years at the Arniches Theatre in Alicante and in Florida Park, Madrid. In 1977, her popularity soared thanks to her brilliant performance in José María Iñigo’s TV show Esta Noche Fiesta. Audiences raved about her as far away as Chile and Argentina but offstage, her life was mired in violence and abuse.

Her expression and power when dancing won her admirers such as Salvador Dalí, Russian ballet star Maya Plisétskaya and Russian dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov, but when the curtains closed, La Chana lived at the mercy of her husband. The marriage lasted 18 years and caused her to disappear mysteriously from the stage at the height of her career.

“That’s when he left, taking everything – money, jewels, the BMW – he left me in the street,” Antonia explains from her home in the Llinars area of Barcelona. She remained out of the public eye for five years, feeling “worthless” while managing to salvage “her strength and her soul”. Improvisation was one of her fortes. It was in her blood and it was what she had always done.

In 1985, supported by friends and a number of businessmen, she returned to the stage with La Cumbre Flamenca dance company and toured to critical acclaim in Australia, China, India, Europe, Latin America and the US. Finally, after marrying her current husband, Félix Comas, she retired.

Now a documentary on her personal life and career, La Chana, has been recognized by Amsterdam’s International Documentary Festival and Italy’s Le Voci dell’Inchiesta. Thanks to the Spanish pianist, dancer and music teacher Beatriz del Pozo and the determination of the Croatian director Lucija Stojevic, audiences in 30 countries can appreciate the magic of this self-taught phenomenon.

The great flamenco dancer known simply as Antonio once said that La Chana was performing flamenco of the future. She used rhythmic combinations that were far from traditional at a speed that was unprecedented. All the great flamenco artists from Eva Yerbabuena to Rocío Molina, concede there is little to compare to La Chana in terms of turning rhythm into art which she continues to do at the age of 70 today, albeit seated.

Antonia describes the flamenco meter like an all-encompassing light. “Once I am in it, I can do anything,” she says.

English version by Heather Galloway