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Flamenco dancer is appointed Roma's ambassador to the EU

Barcelona, 9.2.2007 15:01, (Independent )

In the stuffy confines of the European Parliament, he cut an unlikely figure. A strutting peacock of a man, Joaquin Cortes is normally to be found stripped to the waist, dancing Flamenco in front of thousands of mostly female devotees.

This is the dancer who almost single-handedly used his talent - not to mention his looks - to make Spain's most famous art form a must-see among the fashionable classes. But, though more used to hearing excited female fans shouting guapo (handsome), the one-time model for Giorgio Armani now wants to use his fame for a very different end.

Roma by birth, Cortes has become the new European Union ambassador for his people, in an effort to end decades of discrimination and xenophobia.

Dressed in more sober attire than normal, the dancer recently addressed MEPs in Brussels. "The main reason for my presence here is that I am of Roma origin and I understand that this institution is known as the champion of human rights in the EU," he said.

"I am one of the rare European Roma to whom fortune has been kind, as I am able to proudly assert my identity without fear of being persecuted, humiliated or being made a scapegoat." He added: "We all have to fight for the integration of the Roma nation, and hope that in the near future a new generation will live a better life."

An EU report in 2005 on racism and xenophobia stated that: "Roma are often stereotyped as criminals. The reality is that many Roma are the victims of crime." Many, particularly women, are marginalised by society, living in an underclass from which it is hard to break out. An EU resolution last year said Roma women suffered high levels of exclusion, particularly from access to health services.

There are now believed to be 14 million Gypsies in Europe, with at least nine million of those living inside the expanded EU. The largest contingent of two million live in Romania, but the Roma have perhaps the highest profile in Spain, thanks in part to Flamenco, the art whose origins are credited to them.

Cortes, who is currently dancing in Moscow for Russia's new super-rich, has been fighting hard for the recognition of the Roma. He launched his own campaign, called Stop Anti-Gypsyism, seven years ago. One ambition is to try to rid the word "Gypsy" of the negative connotations which it sometimes has in the popular imagination.

He agreed to be the new ambassador for the Roma nation as the EU declared 2007 "the year of equal opportunities for the Roma". He is to head a series of initiatives to try to get Gypsy artists equal billing with leading singers, dancers and artists throughout Europe. Away from the arts, the broad initiative aims to integrate the Roma in society.

His people's cause is close to his heart. Growing up Cordoba, Andalusia in the 1970s, Cortes watched as many of his contemporaries struggled to find jobs or often slid back into the murky world of drugs and petty crime.

About 800,000 Gypsies live in Spain, and they have been persecuted for much of the past 300 years. A series of laws and policies tried to rid them from the country altogether.

Gypsy settlements were often broken up and the residents dispersed. In some cases, they were forced to marry non- Gypsies. They were banned from using their language, which is a mixture of Andalusian Spanish and Romani, and prevented from taking up public office or joining trade organisations. Under General Francisco Franco's dictatorship, Gypsies were harassed or their children forced to attend school. They became a permanent underclass.

Conditions for Spain's Roma have improved considerably in the 30 years since democracy was re-established, with special state education programmes operating, and social services becoming more geared to their needs. But recent reports on Gypsy life have found high numbers are still illiterate and living on the periphery of Spanish society. Many run their own small companies, dealing within their own communities. Gypsy-run building firms mark their sites with the blue and green Roma flag as a warning that if anyone breaks in, they may have to reckon with reprisals from Gypsy "security".

Huge slum dwellings like Los Tres Mil (The Three Thousand) in Seville and San Cosme in Barcelona were traditionally used as dumping grounds by local authorities to separate Gypsies from the rest of the community.

A dancer with Gypsy roots

* Joaquin Cortes is a native of Andalusia, the birthplace of flamenco. He was born into a Gypsy family in Cordoba on 22 February, 1969.

* The Cortes family moved to Madrid in 1981, where at the age of 12, Cortes began to take formal dance lessons. He was invited to join the Ballet Nacional de España in 1984, taking to the stage in venues as diverse as the New York Opera House and the Kremlin.

* His wild, passionate approach to flamenco earned him worldwide recognition and controversy. He once said, "In classical ballet they still dance with a nude torso. Why not in flamenco?"

* In 1992 Cortes founded his own company, "Joaquin Cortes Ballet Flamenco". A starring role in Pedro Almodovar's 1995 film, La flor de mi secreto, brought him a new audience, as did Carlos Saura's film, Flamenco, and he regularly tours worldwide.

By Graham Keeley in Barcelona
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