Judy Myers on the documentary, La Chana

When Antonia Santiago Amador danced, the doors to her soul were opened. Behind one door, there were diamonds. Behind another door, there was light. Compas was the key that opened the doors for Antonia, best known to the world as “La Chana.”

“I was happy dancing because I was born to dance,” she proclaims in the documentary La Chana, directed by Croatian film director Lucija Stojevic, screened on April 11 in Merkin Hall thanks to the Thalia Theater and Angel Gil Orrios, the Thalia’s artistic director. The film performs the double service of capturing La Chana’s artistry as well as her tragic biography, illuminating each in relation to the other.

La Chana, who is now unable to walk without help, was best known for her innovative rhythms, speed, strength, and emotionally wrenching performances. Her art could be so anguished that at times it would terrify her own daughter, who couldn’t watch her dance. “She was a wild force of nature,” the daughter, now grown, says in the voice of a little girl. “On the outside she looked like my mother, but I was scared her power would hurt her.”

La Chana was a born percussionist and Gitana from Catalan—a perfect vessel for the ultimate manifestation of flamenco. Indeed, flamenco, through compas, was her lifeblood. “Having compas in your head is the key to everything,” she says in the film. “When the end is well defined, you can’t make a mistake.” “Flamenco is infinite; the more you know, the more you know nothing.” “You must have compas engraved in your mind; once that happens, everything is fine.” “Strength and speed aren’t the anchor; it’s the soul. Your soul needs to control the compas.” The way La Chana experienced compas was deep and rare; you see it when she is young, in the documentary’s archival footage, and when she is older, in interviews made for the film.

As much as compas liberated La Chana, it served to enslave her. A young girl who was unable to sit without moving her feet to some internal rhythm, she was forbidden to dance in public by her traditional Gypsy family. She defied them and rose to establish an internationally acclaimed company with herself as star, beloved by, among others, Salvador Dali and Peter Sellers, who featured her in his film El Bobo. La Chana’s Gypsy husband, enraged by her success, beat her so severely that he broke her ribs, then forced her to retire. She only returned to dance when he stole the fortune she’d earned and left her and her daughter on the street, broke and broken. “She built an empire,” one of her admirers says. “Others squandered it.”

Yet La Chana did return to dance, not as the head of her own company but as a member of La Cumbre Flamenco. “I didn’t think I could return with all that speed and strength and truth,” she admits. But while she was no longer the star, she was still La Chana; a young student laments that La Chana’s rhythms are so difficult and contemporary that they are almost too difficult to catch.

Throughout the film, La Chana reiterates that compas led her to her soul. But what exactly does she mean by “soul”? The same thing most of us think of? Or could it have been the force of nature that so terrified La Chana’s daughter? Scientists theorize that at the center of every galaxy lies a black hole, a place where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape—even light. But physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that black holes actually emit a stream of radiation that is invisible to the human eye.

When the film was over, La Chana, now in her seventies, took the stage. She was led to a chair and seated to thunderous applause. Accompanied by cantaor Diego Amador and his son, palmero Diego Amador Jr.—both members of La Chana’s family—La Chana danced, sitting down. Suddenly everything was illuminated: compas, flamenco, duende, the abyss. On rare occasions, I’ve seen this elsewhere. But seeing La Chana was more. To watch her dance was to witness the transformation of a physical human body into an eternal presence that, like a black hole, simultaneously absorbs and emits radiance. “When I danced, I was in my light,” La Chana explains. “It was where I felt alive.”