Jorge Nel Giraldo, Colombian tango maestro and shoemaker, is something of a living legend. A dancer for over 50 years, he is particularly famous for his milonga style with his partner, tango maestro Milena Buitrago. Well known and loved across North America, he is the creator of some of the most comfortable dance shoes in the world, Mr Tango Shoes.
Jorge Nel, it is an honour to interview you! Your story is well known in the Americas but less so here. Do you mind if we give my readers a little background?
Of course. Well, I’ve been dancing a very long time! I started learning when I was about 7 years old. My parents were excellent dancers of Argentine tango and I followed in their footsteps. I learned by copying my Dad at home.
As a young man I studied physical education and dance at university. This was in the 1970’s. From there was a lot of hard work in teaching and dancing. I set up my own dance company, Tango Fever Productions, and directed it for over a decade. It was very successful. We had great fun touring and performing. I’ve enjoyed a lot of success in tango, with teaching, performing and even being in some tango movies; I’ve been very lucky.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the United States over the years. I go there so often it’s a second home. When tango was coming back up in the late 1980’s and 1990’s I was there, teaching and touring with my production company. I organised some of the first tango festivals in the US. It was amazing to be on the edge of the change like that. A lot of my work has been in Florida – it is well known that I have my own day there! In 2002 the city of Miami denoted 15th May as Jorge Nel Day for me being a pioneer of Argentine tango and promoting the culture.
These days I still teach and perform with Milena and we tour regularly. We do a lot of festivals. The rest of the time I am running the shoe business.
Jorge Nel receiving his 15th May proclamation:
When did you meet Milena? Tell me about her.
It was in 2005. How lucky I was! We became dance partners and toured together. She has been dancing all her life you know, since she could first walk! As a child she studied all kinds of dances, including lambada and salsa, and won her first competition when she was 7 years old. I was only starting to learn when I was 7!
She got into cumbia, which is a Colombian folk dance, as a teenager, and was teaching it for some time. Finally she found Argentine tango in 2002 and joined the famous Danzarte tango company. Since we became partners we have been teaching the milonguero tango style of Colombia across North America, and have appeared at many festivals. We won the national championship for Tango Salon in 2010 and runner up for Escenario, and represented Colombia at the world championship in Buenos Aires that year. In more recent times, Milena did the choreography for a project we did with Andrés Bravo called Three to Tango, and she organises the Colombia Tango Festival which is every February.
Milena of course is also my designer for the shoes and partner in the business. She is very busy! She is amazing; I often say that my business and my dance are the best because of her.
One of my favourite videos of Jorge Nel and Milena is this amusing performance at ValenTango, Portland, USA:
So how did you get into shoemaking?
I was born into it! I mentioned my parents danced, well my father happened to be a shoemaker as well. I suppose it was inevitable I would end up doing both shoemaking and tango! I treasure it though. One of my earliest memories – and I tell everyone this story! – is being in my Dad’s workshop, listening to tango music and the sound of his hammer attaching a sole to a shoe. Sounds are very powerful memories.
So I grew up with tango and shoes around me. Part way through my career in teaching and performing tango I got sick. This was in the 1980’s. I think for many of us, as an adult, sometimes our health goes through a difficult time and it sets you back. Well it happened to me and with a career as a tango dancer this was very difficult. I needed my body to be healthy to work. I had to be serious about finding a solution that was not so dependent on it. It was my father who gave me the idea to make shoes. It took some time for me to be convinced – I only wanted to dance and making and selling shoes is very hard work! But eventually I went with it and started Mr Tango Shoes in the early 1990’s. Looking back, I’m grateful my father pushed me towards it as it has worked out well. The balance of dancing and running the business is good for me.
I’m grateful that he pushed you into it, too! Your creations really are a dream to wear. What do you think it is that sets you apart from other shoemakers?
Well we know tango. We know how to make a shoe for dancers, for very particular requirements. Most importantly, we know how to make shoes that are comfortable but also flexible and durable, and at a fair price. I think the comfort level is definitely one thing that sets us apart.
Do your materials give you an edge?
Oh sure. It is undeniable. Colombian leather is famous. It is so soft yet strong. Designers of luxury handbags, briefcases, shoes etc use it. It is superior to a lot of leathers used in street shoes that can feel brittle or stiff. Our shoes don’t need a lot of breaking in like many street shoes do.
What do you love about shoemaking?
It is in my blood. It is such a thrill that shoes I make end up on the feet of tango dancers. I feel so proud when a good dancer shows the beauty of tango through the shoes I make.
Has the craft changed over time with new technology?
No, we still use traditional techniques from Italian shoemaking that my father used. Our speciality is custom made so making them by hand is very important to us.
Who designs the shoes? Do you or Milena lead the design process?
We have a small team of designers lead by Milena. She oversees the designs and creates a lot of designs herself. Once the patterns are cut our team can make the designs again and again with variation in colour and material. We keep all our patterns since customers often ask for a repeat in a style they’ve had before.
Your shoe styles all have names. How do you come up with them? Does Milena decide?
Most of them are inspired by the names of our tango friends. So either their name directly or their dancing style. It is a collaboration to create the name, we have fun deciding it!
What’s your favourite style in the current collection?
Have you had any bizarre requests for shoes?
Yes some people order crazy combinations. Once we had a request for shoes for a clown.
Yes! Huge shoes and all different colours – yellow, green, red and blue.
Wow. Ok, let’s return to tango. We all have a way of explaining our addiction to it. With so many years dancing and teaching, I’m curious to know, what do you love about it?
Oh that’s simple. I can express my emotions through it. I can dance tango depending on how I feel at that moment.
How is the tango scene in Manizales, where Mr Tango Shoes is based?
It is good, lively. It is a small town in the mountains with a good community feel. Here we dance differently to the traditional Argentine tango; we have our own way to dance what we call Argentinian rhythms like paso dobles, foxtrot, vals and milonga. We also dance traditional Argentine tango salon as well of course.
Do you have a favourite place to dance, teach or perform?
I have one final question for you. Let’s play “Fantasy Milonga”! You can choose a venue and invite whomever you like, living or past – dancers, bandleaders, musicians, singers. Who would you choose and where would it be?
I like this idea! My answer is very simple. It would be great to transport to the past, to the 1990’s in Miami. It’d be at the Martin Fierro restaurant. I’d have Alberto Podestá singing while I dance on the same stage.
Sounds perfect. Thank you, Jorge Nel.
For further reading look for the autobiography The Tango and I: the Life and Loves of Jorge Nel Giraldo written with Phyllis Barash.
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