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Strictly Ballroom

Jorge Nel glides across the dance floor, and his partner -- an Asian-American woman dressed in an elegant, tight-fitting outfit of matching black bell-bottoms and blouse -- follows shadowlike. A side step to the left, two steps forward, a side step to the right, two backward. Again and again. For 30 seconds they flow to the strains of ultraromantic orchestral music until Nel stops, claps his hands together once, and declares in his clipped English, "Okay, guys. The idea is to know the steps. The idea is timing. I was doing only the basic steps, but all my concentration was to play with the beat. The lady feels that and says, 'Wow, I feel the tango.' You have to transmit with your body." The twenty other people on the dance floor nod and applaud in appreciation. "That was so beautiful," sighs one woman.

Then ten couples, beginner students in Nel's Thursday-night Argentine tango class at Delray Beach's Empress Ballroom, attempt to duplicate what they've just seen. "Slow-slow-quick, slow-slow-quick," Nel chants as the dancers shuffle around him. Nattily attired in olive-green pants, crisp white shirt, striped vest, and shiny black shoes, the short, compact Nel comes across as a good-natured, no-nonsense drill sergeant as he wanders among his students dispensing corrective tips. "It's like this," he offers, stepping in to take one woman's hands and then slowly spinning around her as she positions one foot just so behind her other ankle. "It's not like this. Very important."

Nel wears a clip-on microphone so everyone can hear him when he demonstrates steps he calls the "basic number one" and "basic number two," or when he explains the nature of Argentina's three "social dances" -- the tango, milonga, and waltz -- and how that nation's tango and waltz differ dramatically from their American versions.

Over the course of the hour-plus class, the Colombian-born Nel, age 41, leads his students through the basic steps of all three dances, then shows them how to embroider on the essential tango moves: Tonight that includes "syncopation with circle," "basic number one with syncopation," and "changing direction with circle." Referring to the third, Nel tells his class, "It looks easy, but it's not."

Yet even in the hands -- well, the feet -- of these beginners, the tango looks kind of sexy. And it certainly sounds sexy. Lusty piano, careening accordion, and lush strings emanate from a CD player behind a podium at the far end of the ballroom.

Nel teaches his class from 7 p.m. to approximately 8:30 each Thursday, after which students can, if they wish, continue to practice for another hour. But tonight's lesson has not quite concluded. Nel wants to review that difficult "changing direction with circle" thing one last time. "Pay attention to the music," he commands. "Ladies! Try to follow the beat."

-- Michael Yockel

Argentine tango classes are held each Thursday beginning at 7 p.m. at the Empress Ballroom, 125 Avenue L, Delray Beach, 561-276-1845. Cost: $10 per session.


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