Carmen Tórtola Valencia (1882 - 1955)


Carlota Caulfield
Mills College

One of Spain's most famous and controversial women, Carmen Tórtola Valencia was a talented avant-garde dancer and one of the pioneer Spanish feminists of this century. Her life was a constant striving towards personal and artistic freedom.

According to a copy of her birth certificate conserved at the
Institut del Teatre of Barcelona [1], she was born in Seville on June 18, 1882, of a Catalan father, Florenc Tórtola Ferrer and an Andalusian mother, Georgina Valencia Valenzuela. When she was three years old her family moved to London, where they later left her, for reasons that are unknown, in the care of a wealthy British Family. Her parents both died between 1891 and 1894 in Oaxaca, Mexico where they had settled.

Tórtola generally refused to discuss her early years and when she did she gave contradictory versions of her story encouraging the air of mystery that eventually grew around her. Some critics speculated that her lineage could be traced to the Spanish royal family, others thought she was the daughter of a British nobleman. In his book Tórtola Valencia and Her Times (1982), Odelot Sobrac, one of her first biographers, describes a youthful and unconventional Tórtola who rejected formal dance training and tradition, in order to develop her own personal style based on the free expression of emotion through movement. Her disdain for conventionality was also mirrored in her private life which she always protected from public scrutiny.

Better educated than most women of the time, she learned several foreign languages and read extensively. Although she never forgot her native tongue, she always spoke Spanish with a foreign accent. Tórtola had been influenced by Isadora Duncan. Like the North American dancer, Tórtola took the Greek ideals of beauty and the passion of Greek tragedy as inspiration for her innovative use of movement and mime. Her interests soon extended to the study of other cultures and their dance forms. Whenever she was not dancing she was in museums or libraries, where she found the images and ideas that would stimulate her imagination. She was particularly fascinated by the African, Arab and Indian cultures, which she studied intensely and then reinterpreted in her own expressive art form. Tórtola was an anthropologist of dance. She was profoundly aware of her role as an avant-garde artist and spoke to her audience in a universal language. Among her extraordinary creations were: the Danza del incienso, La bayadera, Danza africana, the Danza de la serpiente and Danza árabe.

Tórtola made her first public appearance in 1908 at the Gaity Theatre in London, as part of the show Havana. The Morning Post of London described her as a "handsome lady who dances with great animation..." That same year she was invited to dance at the German Wintergarten and the Folies Bergers of Paris. She quickly became known as the "La Bella Valencia", a new favorite of Parisian audiences along with "La Bella Otero" and Raquel Meller.

The following year she danced in Nuremberg and again in London. She was invited to join the Cirkus Varieté of Copenhagen
with Alice Réjane. She performed in Greece, Russia and India. Her Spanish debut took place in 1911 at the Romea Theatre of Madrid. She danced again in Madrid at the same theater in 1912. In 1913 she began a tournée of Spain,which included the Ateneo of Madrid. In 1915 she performed with Raquel Meller in Barcelona. Tórtola's artistic originality was understood only by a minority of the Spanish public. While some considered herto be really talented,others thought he dance was more lascivious than artistic. In 1916 Tórtola was satirized by the Catalan humoristic weekly Papitu and presented as another Mata-Hari. But in spite of her own recognition that the Spanish public dis not understand her art, she kept trying to gain public acceptance on the Spanish stage and eventually she did. Among the many Spanish intellectuals who praised her talent, there were: Jacinto Benavente, Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Miquel dels Sants Oliver, Pio Baroja, Ramón del Valle Inclán. Emilia Pardo Bazán,said that Tórtola was the personification of the Orient and the reincarnation of Salome.

Tórtola was an eclectic and multi-talented artist. In 1917 she acted in the films Pasionaria and the Pacto de lágrimas, both directed by José María Cortina. That same year she traveled to New York where she danced at the Century Theatre. In 1920 the Laietanes Gallery of Barcelona exhibited 45 of her excellent paintings on the subject of dance. The following year she began a series of trips that would take her throughout Latin America. She visited Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, México, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panamá and the Dominican Republic. Between 1921 and 1930 she performed all over Latin America where she enjoyed great popularity.

Her independence, both in her art and her life was often perceived as a menace to the stability of traditional Spanish society. Tórtola had been a pioneer along with her contemporaries, Isadora Duncan, Virginia Woolf and Sarah Bernhardt in advancing women's liberation. She made many unorthodox choices: she became a vegetarian and advocated the abolition of the corset which constricted women's
bodies and impeded their freedom of movement. Although she was known to have taken lovers from among the intellectuals of her time she chose to remain single and lived many years of her life with another women, Angeles Magret Vilá. We know very little about the dynamics of this relationship because Tórtola defended her right to privacy as much as her autonomy.
Suddenly, at the height of her career, after performing in Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, with no explanation or justification, she decided to abandon the stage. She danced for the last time on November 23, 1930 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. In 1931 she declared herself Catalan and Republican and moved to Barcelona with her beloved Angeles. She was then 48 years old and above all a free woman. Tórtola dedicated the last years of her life to reading and collecting stamps. She also became a buddhist. Tórtola died on March 15, 1955 in her home at Sarrià. She is burried in the Cementery of Poblenou of Barcelona.


1. Researching Tórtola Valencia has led me on to fascinating discoveries. Thanks to two Mills College Research Summer grants, I was able in 1997 and 1998 to study the Tórtola Valencia Archive. I addition, I am grateful to Ana Vázquez Estévez, Montserrat Alvarez and Asunta Minguell of the Institut del Teatre, Centre d'Investigació, Documentació i Difusió (CIDD) of Barcelona for their help and permission to examine, and in many cases to reproduce photographs, paper clips and other materials related to Tórtola's life and artistic career. As part of the process of my research, I showed Tórtola Valencia's dances to my students at Mills and a people new to her work. I am indebted to Per Parer for his excellent work as photographer. Thanks to the collection of slides he made for me, I was able to give a well attended talk under the title "Transformismos e imaginarios eróticos en el arte de Tórtola Valencia" at the Conference Imaginarios Femeninos, Arizona State University, September 17, 1998. I am grateful to Iris Garland, whom I met while doing research at the Institut del Teatre, for our conversations about Tórtola. Her essay included in this issue of Corner shows her enthusiasm for the Spanish dancer as well as her knowledge related to the history of dance.

A version of this presentation will be included in the Feminist Encyclopedia of Spanish Art and Literature, edited by Janet Pérez, Greenwood Press, Forthcoming in 1999.


Archives of the Institut del Teatre of Barcelona. Centre d'Investigació, Documentació i Difusió (CIDD), Barcelona, Spain.

Caulfield, Carlota. "Tórtola Valencia." Feminist Encyclopedia of Spanish Literature. Janet
Pérez, ed. Greenwood Press, (Forthcoming 1999).

De Burgos, Carmen. "Tórtola Valencia." Confidencias de artistas. Madrid: Sociedad Española de Librería, s.d. 185-191.

Murias Vila, Carlos. "Tórtola Valencia: La Sphynge Espagnole." Pour la Danse 164 (Novembre 1989) 36-37.

Peters, Kurt. "Die Legende einer Ballerina: Ausstellung uber Tortola Valencia im Theatermuseum von Barcelona." Ballett-Journal/Das Tanzarchiv. Koln. Jahr 34, Nr 3 Juni 1986. 76-78.

Peypoch, Irene. Carmen Tórtola Valencia. Barcelona: Editions de Nou Art Thor, 1984.

Solrac, Odelot. Tortola Valencia and Her Times. New York: Vantage Press, 1982.

Tórtola Valencia. Catàleg. Barcelona: Congrés Internacional de Teatre a Catalunya, 1985.