DANCE: Sex and stamping

FOR many, Joaquin Cortes is famous by association. Everyone knows that the Spanish flamenco dancer with the movie star good looks stepped out with supermodel Naomi Campbell, but for a growing worldwide audience Cortes is an icon in his own right.

Emma Thompson reportedly knelt at his feet in an "I’m not worthy" gesture, while Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci penned a poem in his honour.

Madonna is a fan, as is Jennifer Lopez (or J-Lo, or whatever it is she’s calling herself this week) who hired him for a television special and Cortes performed at last year’s Oscars. What is it about this Spanish stallion that inspires such adulation - and vitriol?

Sniffy dance critics carp that Cortes’ dancing sullies the good name of the traditional Spanish dance, isn’t ‘true flamenco’ and that his one-man shows are exercises in egotism.

In a way, they’ve got a point. Cortes’ performances owe more to rock concerts than to traditional flamenco shows. His band and singers are amped up to the max, while huge video screens enable his adoring audience to view a close-up of his feet stamping out a Latin tattoo with all the relentless energy of a jackhammer.

For his part, Cortes is dismissive of traditional flamenco - "seaside flamenco" he calls it, with all it’s connotations of big shirts, frilly cuffs and tiny black jackets.

Cortes’ flamenco is a more brutal, tribal and energetic affair that allows him to discard his shirt halfway into the proceedings which - let’s be frank here - is one of the main reasons his mostly female fanbase packed out the Royal Albert Hall for a week-and-a-half, as they did at the beginning of the year.

Cortes is well aware of his sexual allure but, rather charmingly, doesn’t flaunt it off-stage. He admits that it is a significant part of his box-office clout, but still believes in what he does.

"The important thing, though, is the combination," he says of his sex ’n’ stamping show. "One of the great things about having that appeal is that while some people may come for the physical part, the fact is that I’m reaching an audience that I otherwise wouldn’t.

"They may come for one reason but if they go away with some knowledge about dancing then I’m opening up a whole world to a sector of the public who wouldn’t normally go."

Cortes’ English is, as he says himself, "a leettle . . . a leettle" so most of this exchange is relayed through an interpreter.

"I should really speak English," he admits. "It’s really terrible that for 20 years I’ve been travelling around the world and most people speak English but I’ve always had people translate for me and it’s the worst possible thing I could have done."

In a way, it’s perfectly understandable that Cortes hasn’t picked up more than a smattering of English. He’s been living the rather cosseted life of the rich and famous ever since he was a teenager. Born in Cordoba into a gypsy family in 1969, Cortes moved to Madrid as a child and started studying dance at the age of 12.

When he was 15 he was selected to join the Spanish National Ballet and was soon promoted to soloist. Ballet, of course, with it’s glacial fluid grace is a world away from the fiery passion of the flamenco, but Cortes never got any stick from his school mates for its effeminate connotations.

"I was very lucky because at the time when that could have become a problem for me I got a job as a child on a TV programme and therefore I became quite ‘famous’ " (and yes, his translator does relay those inverted commas).

"For many of my friends it became quite cool to know me and the fact that dancing was my vehicle for my fame wasn’t a problem any more."

You might have thought that jealously was, though. When Cortes’ school chums were studying for exams he travelled around the world with the national ballet, performing in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York and the Congress Kremlin Palace, Moscow.

Cortes turned his back on the ballet and the grand venues of the world to dance at an intimate jazz club in Madrid when he was 20. It was a gamble, particularly because he was risking ridicule by performing his own style of "flamenco fusion" rather the conventional classical form.

Cortes says that his ballet training is still an influence on his dancing - although you’d be hard-pressed to spot it.

"Coming from the culture that I do flamenco has always been a part of me, so what I’ve learned on top of the flamenco gives me the additional input.

"Flamenco is not really something that you can learn and it’s certainly not something that you can learn as a job of work - that’s not the approach. You have to feel it, it has to come from yourself and if you don’t have that feeling, that heart for it, then you should look elsewhere."

It wasn’t long before Cortes’ small jazz club shows caused a buzz in Madrid and he was snapped up by Spanish rock promoter Pino Sagliocco who had persuaded Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson to play Spain. His first solo show, Cibayi, made him a star in Spain and Portugal; his second, Gypsy Passion, brought him worldwide acclaim - and fame and supermodels.

While his publicists would like you to think that he’s been seeing Campbell again, Cortes doesn’t kiss and tell and the fact that she was recently seen playing tonsil hockey with another Spanish sex symbol, the model Enrique, would lead you to believe that their relationship is even more "casual" than previously thought.

Cortes, for his part, feels as though he has been "single for 20 years" and can’t envision a serious relationship at the moment.

In truth, he really doesn’t have the time for it. He’s toured incessantly since his Albert Hall stint at the beginning of the year. He doesn’t feel the need for any fitness regime because "with this tour I dance practically every night".

At the end of February, he took a break and visited Los Angeles, where he was invited to choreograph a dance number with r’n’b foxtress Alicia Keyes in the Grammy Awards show.

"Dancers all over the world are very open to other dancers," says Cortes. "If you meet people you really want to see how they work and they want to see how you work.

"At the Oscars the four other dancers were Afro-American and to put a Spaniard in there was a fabulous idea. I was expecting the Americans to be quite closed off because of the level they danced at, but on the contrary, everybody was aware of what I’d done and how I’d progressed, which made it a very pleasant experience."

He tried living in America in 1999 but has now returned to Madrid. "I took a lot from living in New York," he says. "It is a very positive city and I learned a lot, but it is not home for me."

His gypsy heritage is obviously important for Cortes. The pride he takes in his success allows him to cock a snook at the "purists" who insist he’s adulterated flamenco.

"The dance critics do not like me, yet I continue to come back and fill the Albert Hall," he says. "The old gypsy thing is: ‘We can’t aspire to those heights, let’s be humble because this is all a gypsy can do,’ whereas I say, ‘What do you mean a gypsy can’t dance for 11 nights straight in the Albert Hall?’

"I am a role model to wear gypsy culture with pride," he says defiantly.

Perhaps one day Naomi Campbell will be best known for once having gone out with Joaquin Cortes.

Joaquin Cortes Live, The Usher Hall, Tuesday October 8, 22.50-30, 0131 228 1155

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