OBITUARY : Antonio

Antonio, El Bailarin, was Spain's most important male dancer this century, a judgement he would have endorsed, since modesty was not among his virtues. "I already form part of the history of Spain," he said shortly before his death.

One of his most memorable performances was at Picasso's 80th birthday party in 1961. The painter was so delighted that he jumped over the table that separated them, using one hand to help him over, started to dance rumbas with Antonio, fell upon his knees, kissed him on the cheek, then got up, seized a pencil, sketched a portrait of the dancer and dedicated it to him.

During the open-air filming for television of his version of Falla's Three-Cornered Hat in 1972, at the height of his fame, Antonio uttered an obscenity, the untranslatable "Me cago en los muertos de Cristo". An assiduous policeman reported the blasphemy, made in the town hall square of Arcos de las Frontera, to the mayor and he was clapped in jail for 16 days until Franco pardoned him.

But Antonio was never a fan of Franco. "Franco used me. We had to perform gratis for him. To flatter me, Franco once said that I danced very well and that I seemed like rubber, as if I were a piece of chewing gum."

Antonio Ruiz Soler was born in Seville in 1921, the sixth son of a poor family with an alcoholic father. He struck poses as soon as he could walk, and at the age of four met an organ-grinder in the street and started to dance to the music. His performance prompted such a shower of coins that Juan the organ-grinder suggested they team up and share the proceeds.

At six he enrolled at the academy of the maestro Realito. At eight, he formed a partnership with another pupil, Rosario, and in 1937 they left for Argentina. They travelled throughout North and South America to mounting acclaim and performed in movies as "the best gypsy dancers in the world" with Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland before returning to Spain for Antonio to make his debut in Madrid in 1949.

The pair danced for 22 years before separating in 1952. They attempted a come-back in Paris but had such a row that they had to be escorted from the theatre by gendarmes. As a soloist Antonio made several world tours and numerous films.

Antonio radiated "duende", that stage magnetism that smacks you in the face even at the back of the stalls. Duende is the most prized quality of flamenco and what distinguishes the real thing from the tawdry, simpering imitations that the Franco era tried to hawk in the 1950s and 1960s as part of selling Spain as a tourist paradise.

Antonio was renowned for his precise and elegant technique and for the extraordinary volume of his stamping feet, that hallmark of Spanish dance, the "taconeado".

As for his "vida sentimental", he always denied the homosexuality attributed to him, and was linked to Ava Gardner, Gina Lollobrigida and Vivien Leigh. Most scandalous was his liaison with a grandee of Spain, Cayetana the Duchess of Alba. In the 1980s, Antonio confessed to having had a son, Fernando, by her, something the duchess herself never confirmed. He was shunned by high society for his indiscretion.

In 1980 he became artistic director of the Spanish National Ballet but was dismissed in 1983 for "indiscipline" by a new overall director appointed by the incoming Socialist government. The Supreme Court annulled the dismissal in 1989 and said he could stay on until his contract ran out three months later. But the experience embittered him and he always felt his talents had been insufficiently appreciated.

Illness practically immobilised him in his final years.

Elizabeth Nash

Antonio Ruiz Soler, dancer, and choreographer: born Seville 4 November 1921; artistic director, Spanish National Ballet 1980-1983, 1989; died Madrid 5 February 1996.