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Previous coverage | Dance lovers try twists, turns of the tango

It is the dance of love, passion and all things sexy.

Madonna is learning it for her role as Evita. Julio Iglesias' next CD will be nothing but.

Dancers swear the tango is the dance of love. If not for lovers, for the love of the turns and the twists.

"I fell in love with the tango, " said Dora Ruiz of Miami Lakes.

"The more you dance the tango, the more you fall in love with it, " said Marlene Garcia.

"As one is practicing, one falls in love more and more, " said Francisco Blanco, 43, a Surfside man who owns a pizzeria and a beauty salon in North Miami Beach.

Ruiz, Garcia, Blanco and often dozens of others -- including Blanco's 13-year-old son -- converge every Wednesday on the Elks Lodge in Coral Gables where Jorge Nel is King Tango.

Nel, 39, has the tango in his blood. His parents were tango dancers in Colombia when a dancing profession usually meant a life of poverty. His father, a national champion of guaracha, also repaired shoes. His mother, a national tango champion, washed clothes for other people.

Jorge was born in 1956 in a dressing room at a cabaret in Manizales, Colombia. Four hours earlier, his parents had performed. A tango tune was the first thing he heard.

He spent much of his childhood in dressing rooms and backstage and joined the act at age 8.

In 1974, Jorge Nel became the national champion of popular dance in Colombia. In 1978, he won the paso doble national title at the big fair in Manizales. He hit the trifecta in 1986 as the nation's best in the tango.

That's when he was lured to Miami, to dance at the former Argentine restaurant Martin Fierro, on the Tamiami Trail at Southwest 124th Avenue. He and dance partner Laura Brondo were soon married.

Though they divorced after four years, they still dance together.

"When we divorced, the only thing that kept us united was the tango, " Nel said. "The tango has so much force in couples that if the relationship falls apart for personal reasons, they stay close artistically."

The couple had founded Club Amigos del Tango in 1991, hosting dances in their living room. Three years ago, they had to move to the Elks Lodge in Coral Gables.

Black-and-white silhouettes of a couple dancing in black- tie garb line both sides of the stage. A large mirrored ball, like those you find at high school dances, hangs from the ceiling. Even when the room is empty, you can almost smell the perfume.

A recent Wednesday night class drew 31 students. It was a slow night. A few weeks ago 46 showed. The record is 72. Records show almost a thousand people have taken at least one class.

"Only the true lovers of tango stay for years, " said Cristina Brondo, Amigos del Tango secretary. "For many of us, the club has become a family, almost a party. People meet each other. They form little groups."

People like Blanco and his son Diego, 13, dancers for three years.

"My father said, 'Let's do something different.' And tango was it, " Diego said. "At first I didn't like it. But then you get used to it and your stress goes away. It goes right out of your body."

Diego said his friends at Charles Drew Middle School sometimes make fun of him -- until they see him dance.

"I'm a hip-hopper too. I don't exchange hip-hop for tango. But I like to be different." Pausing, he said, "It's a passion."

One of those love words again.

His father: "It's a very deep feeling, a transportation to something super high, a higher level. It allows me to express myself as in art."

Joan Christopher of Key Biscayne not only attends the Wednesday classes in Coral Gables, but travels to Fort Lauderdale where Nel teaches on Mondays and her partner is a physics professor from Russia.

"It's a very precise dance, " said Christopher, 39. "It makes me have to pay attention to the details and it makes my body feel good."

For Garcia, a housewife, the tango offers a fun way to stay in shape and a mental challenge.

"It's not a dance you can learn in three lessons. If you want to know how to dance it well, you have to keep going. But once you can dance a whole tango, it is very elegant."

Gil Beltran, a computer consultant, discovered the class "by total accident" about 15 months ago. He was trying to park to go to Alcazaba, a night club on Alhambra, saw the sign, took a peek and "never left."

"What makes it different is a combination of skills, rhythm and romantic interchanging between people, " he said. "But while this looks incredibly romantic and even sensual, sometimes behind it there is a lot of techniques."

Ruiz, a customer service representative for Dorado Furniture, has been dancing under Nel's tango tutorage for five years.

"The tango is never finished. You can always learn something new, " said Ruiz, who like many other students is from Colombia. "In Colombia right now, people are dancing a lot of tango. It's very popular."

Socorro Velez is from Medellin, one of the dance's meccas -- if only because Carlos Gardel, the premier tango singer, died there. Velez has 200 tango records. She and her daughter Tania Zapata joined the class just a couple of weeks ago.

"It's always looked difficult to me, " she said. "Not so much now."

Said Ruiz: "Knowing the basics and two or three figures, you can dance the tango. If you feel the music and have a good partner, anyone can dance the tango."

That's why advanced students -- who learn new steps and hone their skill for an hour starting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays -- stick around for the basic class and dance with struggling students.

In addition to the cutouts and mirrored ball, the tango spills over into more mundane, yet necessary equipment. On sale: videos, books, T-shirts, compact discs and cassettes, magazines, posters and the fanciest athletic shoes you ever saw -- high heel, straps, patent leather.

"The woman is almost always on the tips of her toes, " Garcia said. "If you don't wear heels, it's more difficult."

Nel presents the Grand Tango Festival every June. It attracted 1,700 people last year at the Hotel Intercontinental.

The surge in popularity, Nel believes, stems from the Broadway show Tango Argentino, which broke box office records.

"When people saw that the youngest performer was 50 and they were fat, bald and old and that they danced wonderfully, the American public identified with them and it became very popular."

Less-average movie stars have also given the tango a big boost. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis dancing in True Lies. A blind Al Pacino wooing a stranger in a restaurant in Scent of a Woman.

"People need to feel human warmth. The embrace of the tango, the closeness of the bodies -- they can find it, " Nel said.

"Americans are very romantic. They may not show it, but deep down inside they are. And that's why they have accepted the tango so greatly."

The last tango was not danced in Paris. It hasn't been danced at all.