“My father, who is the person I’ve admired the most and who has influenced me the most, taught me to respect others”.
Antonio Esteve Ródenas, known by his stage name Antonio Gades, was born on November 14, 1936 in Elda, a province of Alicante, and moved to Madrid immediately after the Spanish Civil War. His family is a family of blue-collar workers. His mother works in the footwear industry and his father, a mosaic floor layer, is a diehard communist who signed up with the Republican forces a month before Antonio was born. His father leaves his mother and the newborn Antonio in Elda to volunteer in Madrid and join the October Battalion.
Antonio used to say: “When I was born, my father had traded being there for the birth of his son to be with the people, with a rifle in his hand, something that filled me with pride”.
His father, a man of the people with a strong political conscience, instills the values of solidarity and respect for human dignity in his son, leaving Antonio, according to his own words, “a marvelous inheritance, which is summed up in two rules: if you’re not appreciative you weren’t raised right, and you’re in charge of your hunger. Thus, Gades will be most influenced by and show the greatest admiration for his father, a decisive force on his distinct class consciousness.
Gades continues: “After the war there was no way we could stay in our province, and we moved to Madrid. We lived in a superintendent’s apartment in the Pacífico neighborhood. At that time, superintendent’s apartments were given to wounded men from the regime. The three of us lived there, my father, my mother and I, in two very small rooms; the bed was tucked under the stairwell. And one day my father brought home a pregnant woman and her husband who had been kicked off the building site, and they lived with us”.
Antonio starts working at age 11. He worked as a bellhop in the late forties and did small jobs for the photogravure department at the ABC newspaper, working a four-hour shift at dawn, when the paper came out, earning 3.70 and 4 pesetas a week. He also works as an assistant for Gyenes, a photographer, at his studio, where images of artists of the time lined the darkroom wall. He would go from the lab to the newspaper, located at Serrano 61, and from there to a fruit shop across the street to start his second delivery job. “We knew that the woman on the fifth floor didn’t tip, that the one the third did, that the one on the second weighed the bag. It was our intelligence service, us poor kids. I worked in a lot of places because I was fired from all of them after refusing to obey orders because I didn’t feel like it”.
Antonio likes to study, but he has to drop out of school to help his family. “I tried everything, cyclist, bullfighter, what they let us poor people do, make fools of ourselves, basically. Even a boxer, but I told the first guy who punched me that I’d give the next one to his mother and I threw the gloves away”. There is a barrel-maker opposite the house where they live, on Avenida Ciudad de Barcelona, where the workers are bike enthusiasts, and it’s here that Antonio picks up his greatest hobby: cycling. Even when he starts dancing he hesitates: “If I start to dance, I have to leave the bike”. Back then he dances like the other boys, with the music of the mechanical pianos that pass through the streets. A neighbor notices him and suggests that his mother put him in classes. So he begins studying dance “for no other reason than to escape hunger. There was no passion for dance running through my veins, but rather anemia from hunger. That is, I started dancing because of hunger. Hunger, it either destroys you or awakens your intelligence”.
He pays for his first dance classes at an academy with teacher Palitos with the money he earns working. He walks into the academy for the first time in what he describes a hypnotic state. Antonio adds: “I was a kid from the slums. I was interesting in discovering something new. I was afraid it wouldn’t do any good”. He does fairly well and starts to visit other academies, one which was located on a small street opposite Puerta Cerrada, below the Cava Baja on the left. Every day, he parks his bike there and goes inside. And it also there where he meets the person who would be his guitarist until 1981, Emilio de Diego; the two are also seen at another studio on Calle Miralles.
After a few months he’s hired to dance Pittaluga’s Mambo, Olé and the Danza del Chivato, as well as other cabaret dances. His stage name at the time is Antonio Ródenas, and he dances to the orchestra in the cabarets. In 1952, at the age of 16, he dances opposite a ballerina in Santander and Barcelona. According to Antonio: “These shows were foolish”. Fortunately, Manuel Castellanos, who organizes the Festivales de España, sees him dance while he’s working a show at Circo Price in Madrid, and tells Pilar López about him. A new dancer is about to be born, baptized by his teacher as Antonio Gades.