JOAQUIN CORTES, Spain's new dance star, has put the sex back into flamenco. Critics see him and weep. Giorgio Armani saw him and designed his summer collection with the dancer in mind.
In the fashion pages of magazines he can be seen draped in Louis Feraud or Paul Smith. Forget the fusty folk dancing image - even on stage Joaquin wears Dolce & Gabbana. For centuries, the gypsies of Andalucia have used the dance to communicate the passion and misery of life (and what else is there?). Now the dance, song and music, which make up the art form, look set to become a summer craze, so it's time to get in training.
Who started it all?
Some say it comes from the early Arabic word felahmengu, meaning "a song of countrymen" or "of loneliness". Another idea is that some Spanish Jews, forced to leave Spain during the Inquisition, settled in Flanders and developed their religious songs there. Their relatives in Spain took up the Flemish songs and they became known as "flemenco". But the most likely origin of the term is from the Moorish Arabic words felag and mengu, meaning outcast and peasant. This became corrupted in Andalucia to form the word flemenco, used by the persecuted gypsies to describe their unique method of self expression.
What should I look out for?
The best classes tend to use a flamenco guitarist to accompany their pupils, so if you find one that does, you're probably guaranteed a decent quality of teaching. La Joaquina, a flamenco teacher and enthusiast, says: "The whole point of flamenco dancing is that the music follows you. You don't dance in time to the music - you should not be restricted in that way.
"The guitarist will speed up if your movements get faster and should slow down if you do. If you dance to a tape, you might be able to get a feel for the basic rhythm but there is less chance that you will reach a stage where you can interpret the movements to suit your own personality."
But I have two left feet
"Anyone," says Juani Garcia, a flamenco artiste and teacher, "can learn flamenco. The whole point of flamenco is that bit is an expression of yourself, so whether you are 18, fiery and energetic, or 65, laid back and gentle, you need no qualification except enthusiasm to start out."
And I've got nothing to wear
Low-heeled shoes or Cuban heeled boots are a must (flat shoes or trainers are only for complete beginners and bare feet are out of the question). Women should wear a flared skirt and T-shirt; men, a waistcoat and tight trousers.
Won't it cost a packet?
Classes around the UK are usually pounds 5 to pounds 7 for an hour to an hour and a half if the teacher is hiring a studio and a guitarist.
If the classes or workshops are subsidised at an adult education college or community centre, they can cost as little as pounds 2 to pounds 3, with further reductions for concessions. If you get hooked and feel you can't possibly go on without a pair of authentic Spanish dance shoes, they will set you back anything from pounds 46. Men's boots cost from pounds 100, practice skirts start from pounds 70 and the luxury of a full dress will cost from pounds 200.
What's in it for me?
"Women blossom and young men become more confident about themselves and their passionate nature," says Juani Garcia. "You get relief from a heavy- duty life, from all your worries," says Joaquina. "You learn a physical vocabulary to explain what's going on in your life, and when you learn to interpret the movements in your own way, you gain a sense of your own identity."
"I love it," says Helen Smythe, 27, who has been going to flamenco classes for six months. "It makes me feel sexy, passionate and alive."
I'm still not absolutely sure...
For details of your nearest classes and workshops, contact Bill Harvey on 0181-650 1728. For the Spanish Dance Society, which runs regional, classical and flamenco dancing, contact Cheryl Wexler on 01784 466318. For details of shows, clothes, music and teaching, call El Mundo Flamenco on 0171-493 0033. For flamenco show details, telephone La Joaquina on 0171-358 1140.
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