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 , 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.