Joaquin Cortés: 'Dancing is my wife, my woman'

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Beneath the sex-god image is a shy, sweet man who only wants true love. Best not mention the string of supermodel liaisons, then...

It's always a bit scary interviewing a sex god. And when Elle Macpherson describes a man as "sex on legs", you can be pretty sure he's a sex god. When Emma Thompson prostrates herself before him, and when Madonna adores him and so does J-Lo, and when Naomi Campbell and Mira Sorvino are among the women whose hearts he has (allegedly) broken, it's probably safe to say that he has a little bit of – well, je ne sais quoi or, perhaps more appropriately, atractivo sexual. Male fans include Tarantino, Armani, Bertolucci and Sting. For Joaquin Cortés isn't just a sex god. He's the most famous flamenco dancer in the world.

When you watch one of his shows, you can see why. In Live at the Albert Hall, for example (also available in an unlive version, for repeat viewings and lingering close-ups), when he appears in a pool of light, his perfect physique encased in a T-shirt and trouser combo you can only describe as a second skin, and when those bulging arms (surely the Platonic ideal of arms) flex and those taut thighs bend, something is unleashed that feels like the dance equivalent of a volcano. The figure stamps and bows and leaps, at times galloping like a horse, at other times shimmying and quivering. At a certain point the black skin is replaced by a black suit, black shirt, white tie and pink shoes, like an extremely lithe Mafioso. Later, the black suit is swapped for a red suit. Later still, the shirt disappears. By this time, the long hair has escaped from its neat bun. We are watching a tap-dancing Christ – in need, perhaps, of a little Timotei – a tap-dancing Christ with, now, a naked torso. The torso, it goes without saying, is a thing to behold. Ecce homo.

The torso, however, is covered when I meet the real, live Joaquin Cortés, in a posh hotel in Kensington. Cortés is draped on a chaise longue, posing for the photographer, and when I smile and wave, he smiles and waves back. He doesn't – I realise instantly – have a clue that I am here to interview him, but he smiles and waves back because he is polite. He is also, it becomes clear when he emerges from his session with the photographer, extremely sweet. Shorter, slighter and altogether less imposing than that messianic figure on the Albert Hall stage, he is less sex god and more nice young man obediently undertaking the tasks his agent has set him; nice young man who's rather touchingly eager to please.

What he isn't, however, is a linguist. After 20 years on the international circuit, including a six-month spell in London, Cortés still feels unable to conduct an interview in English. "My English is terrible," he announces in a heavy Spanish accent. "No speak English. I think this year, practice every day. No time for working, going out for lessons, but now maybe in the future." Well, maybe, but it's not that bad. Let's have a go, I suggest. Let's take the, er, bull by the horns. "No," he says, but in English. "I'm very shy." And actually this man who has performed to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, who has been in a number of films, including Almodovar's The Flower of My Secret and Carlos Saura's Flamenco, and who has danced at the Kremlin and for President Bush at the White House.

A slightly hesitant ambassador, perhaps, for flamenco – and a real ambassador, too, for Joaquin Cortés, the most famous gypsy in the world, is also the EU Ambassador for the Roma. Having been in Italy at a time last year when the Roma appeared to be the scapegoats for an entire nation, I can see the need for a Roma ambassador. "Terrible situation," says Cortés when I mention it. "Terrible!" Does he feel he has been able to achieve anything in the role? He nods vigorously. "The only way is to show them that they are not complicated people," he says. "The gypsies can live together with everybody without any problems. All the cultures have a problem with individuals, but not gypsies in general. Being a gypsy is not problematic." Er, right. And how is the situation with the Roma in Spain? "The situation is very much better because I think the flamenco culture and the flamenco artists change the mentality of the people in general about the Roma people. It has to be a revolution to integrate all the people."

For Cortés, flamenco was in the blood. Born in Cordoba, he moved to Madrid when he was five, but his family retained the flamenco traditions of their Andalusian roots. Joaquin was dancing and singing as a small child and then, inspired by his uncle Cristobel, a well-known flamenco dancer who danced with Nureyev, started dancing professionally at the age of 12. "It was surprise for me," he declares. "Dancing is my wife! My fair woman!" When he was 15, he joined the Spanish National Ballet, where he became principal dancer, performing all over the world. And then, when he was 18, he started experimenting with a fusion of contemporary dance, classical ballet and flamenco. And all hell, or the flamenco equivalent of it, broke loose.

"It was shocking!" says Cortés. "It was a surprise. Flamenco critics, more academic, didn't like it. They have the tradition, it's like ballet, it's academic city. The flamenco has one academic city too. They had a problem with a person who is young and came with new things, or a revolution. In the beginning, they didn't understand."

What they didn't understand, it seems, was the wilful violation of a tradition that had endured for centuries, a tradition that was all about dignity and pride. For a start, in flamenco you wore lots of clothes. You didn't bare your torso. Cortés did. Why? "Why not?" he replies. "Many dancer dancing nude! The gypsy culture originates in India," he explains, "north India, when many centuries ago the gypsies hunting the witches. The ancient traditions of the gypsies dancing around the fire, dancing without clothes and with one skirt." At this point, English fails him and the room erupts into a blizzard of Spanish. It sounds like an argument, but in the end Cortés's manager, Monica, translates. "He really wants you to understand why he went back to his origins," she explains. "He thinks that to be a dancer in your own style, it's very important to find out where you're from. And when he was criticised for coming out, with his chest bare, he was criticised by a lot of the traditional flamenco people, but he says that they were criticising themselves, because that's how we started. You either stay like that, with that small frame of mind, or you open your eyes and find out what it was."

Well, I think that's cleared that up. I'm beginning to see, in fact, some of the gypsy passion that inspired Pasion Gitana ("Gypsy Passion"), the second international tour by the Joaquin Cortés Flamenco Ballet company he founded in 1992. At the heart of it, and at the heart of the flamenco experience, is duende, that hard-to-define state which has something to do with authenticity, something to do with emotion, something to do with soul. What does it mean to him? "Duende," he says, opening his hands as if to a god, "is the magic moment, the magic mystery moment, a special moment" – and then, once again, English words prove inadequate. "For him," says Monica, "it's when he's on stage and it's like he's levitating. He's in his own world, and it's like he's creating at the same time." And isn't this rather hard to achieve somewhere like, say, the Royal Albert Hall? Cortés looks baffled. "No!" he says. "I prefer a big audience! You feel the heat and the roar of the crowd more, so you get deeper into your art."

If he prefers a big audience, he's certainly got it. In Spain, he can't walk down the street without being stopped. How far, I wonder, is that a pleasure and how far is it a problem? Cortés frowns. "It's a pleasure [to stop] for the Roma people," he says, "but I no like the paparazzi. They no respect my private life." And, er, how shall I put this: how does he feel about his reputation as a sex symbol? "I like," he replies "when in general women come to my shows to watch Joaquin Cortés, sex symbol, Latin lover. It's nice because these women..." But what these women do is clearly beyond his English and Monica once again takes over. "He's saying," she says, "that people like seeing him as a Latin lover and maybe come and see the show for that reason, but then they get into the dance form. To see that playboy side of him is not what he's interested in. What he's interested in is his dance."

And has being, um, commodified in this way made him feel any different about his dance? Cortés again looks baffled. "Tell me, tell me!" he begs as I explain to Monica what I mean. When she translates into Spanish, he looks horrified. "He doesn't," says Monica "think of himself as a commodity at all. Those things usually only last for a short period of time. He has created his art, he's very thankful that he's been able to take it out to most of the world and that people have accepted it and enjoyed it. So that's what he focuses on."

Cortés has been quoted, amazingly, as saying that he doesn't think he's particularly good-looking. Is that true? "No handsome!" he says fiercely. But he's always known he's attractive to women, hasn't he? "No!" he shrieks. Monica intervenes again. "He really does think he's been misquoted. He says, 'I look in the mirror every morning and know I'm not. It's just the way it is.' What he said was that he prefers an attractive woman to an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous woman. He's much more interested in an attractive personality."

Of course. That would explain why he has dated so many models. At this point, however, Monica has to leave, so I have to address the question to Cortés via his Spanish production manager, Fernando. Neither of the two men looks amused. "Relationships with models," says Fernando after a torrent of Spanish that seems to go on for a very long time, "are by chance". But surely he must meet some women who aren't models? Would he, for example, consider dating an intellectual woman?

Cortés, smiles, leans forward in his chair and gives me a high five. Oh my goodness. I think he thinks I'm asking him out. The truth is that Cortés, who will be 40 next month, dreams of true love and a family, but so far has failed to find them. And, just before Christmas, his mother, his real true love, died. There are, he says, "no words" for his grief. His soul, says Fernando, has gone.

And as I gaze at the sad, sweet man whose smile has faded, I find myself hoping – praying even – that we might start seeing less of Joaquin Cortés sex god and more of Joaquin Cortés's soul.

Joaquin Cortés performs at the Roundhouse, London NW1 on 4 and 5 February (0844 482 8008;

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