Buenos Aires is a city that moves to the rhythms of tango, so what better way to discover a new side to the capital than by joining the dance?
Our taxi had just pulled up outside the Buenos Aires tango school of Dante Sánchez – winner of the World Tango Dance Tournament 2007 – when I made up my mind to confess a nagging worry to my dance teacher, Laura.
“I’m an absolute beginner,” I told her as we made our way up the school’s stairs. It was then that I caught sight, through a narrow window, of a couple executing exquisite pirouettes, both of them stern-faced yet sensuous, formal but fluid. “A total beginner, really!”
Once we were in our hired room – a proper dance space with a polished wooden floor and ceiling-high mirror – she asked me, “But you lived here for ten years, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and I got into the music,” I said, embarrassed. “But not the dance. I was too young. I was too tall. None of my partners were dancers. It was sort of uncool.”
Excuses, excuses. The fact was: when I worked in Buenos Aires (1991-2001), I just hadn’t got round to it. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing out. In a city where the streets are named after tango musicians and songs, walking the barrios (neighbourhoods) can feel like a musical education. Tango rhythms permeate the geography and history of Buenos Aires, and in many ways I felt as if I was missing the pulse of the place, a step out of time with the locals. I had come to rectify that, but before I could join the dance, first I needed to learn to walk.
Gently, Laura guided me through the basic moves. You can’t really write a tango class – it’s too tactile; you have to feel the music and the body – but the basic process begins with learning how to walk like a cat: stealthily and with intent, backwards as well as forwards, and feeling gravity working through you.
Then, once you can do that, you – as the male, and hence the leader – have to learn how to walk as if into a woman, hinting with slight moves and the merest signals of pressure from your upper body, that now you will lead with your right, that now you want to turn, and now you’d really like her to do a skip over your leg and then twirl and realign. You need to show her how to be your mirror.
“It’s a non-verbal dialogue,” said Laura. “It’s not about leading and following so much as waiting – the woman waits for a signal.”
Laura, 35, lithe and lissom, has been dancing since her teens. The irony of my leading her, or anyone still bodily alive, was not lost on me.
“You are so light,” I said. “You feel so easy to move around.”
“That’s because I’m doing all the work with my calves,” she said, smiling. “Tango is about giving the impression of lightness and ease.”
I can’t say I achieved that during my first class, but I was delighted when Laura said I was not entirely “pata dura” (“hard-footed”), the local expression for having two left feet. She also talked to me about howtango was a mix of styles, just like the people of Buenos Aires are a mix of ethnicities, and that it was geometrical, like the city, and for some it was even a philosophy of life.
But when we weren’t talking, we embraced and we danced. Something clicked – and it wasn’t my knees.
A couple of days later, I was walking through Buenos Aires’ throbbing, polluted downtown at rush hour, barely able to think amid the clamour of a city where the car is king. Then, from an old banger with its window down, came the unmistakable strident beat and straining accordion of a tango song. Even in the midst of a million angry souls racing home, the 2/4 pulse rose above the din. It was a balm to the soul.
The late poet and lyricist Horacio Ferrer once called Buenos Aires a “tangopolis”. What he meant was a city that lives and breathes tango. It’s true, sort of. But some barrios are arguably more tanguero than others.
In Abasto, just east of the imposing 1930s Art Deco building that used to house the city’s central market – now a shopping mall – is a street dedicated to Carlos Gardel, the legendary crooner who dominated the golden age. His first tango record, 'Mi Noche Triste', was released in 1917, and this year has seen a number of celebrations marking his 100-year legacy, along with the refurbishment of a new museum in his honour in the same area. I spent a happy hour there looking at old posters and sheet music, listening to some of the 800-plus songs he recorded and watching clips from his movies.
The nearby subway station is named after Gardel. I rode up to Chacarita and its namesake cemetery to see his resting place, where stood another statue – of the grinning Gardel holding a cigarette placed there by some loyal pilgrim. It was then that I recalled the words of my favourite Gardel lyric, from the song ‘Volver’ (‘Going Back’):
‘Going back, with my brow wrinkled,
The snows of time silvering my temples,
To feel that life is a heartbeat,
That twenty years is nothing...’
In the world capital of nostalgic longing that is Buenos Aires, Gardel can bow and snap the heartstrings. There are stations or streets here dedicated to poet Enrique Santos Discépolo, pianist Osvaldo Pugliese, and Aníbal Troilo: the most famous player of the bandoneón – the button-accordion that’s long been the signature instrument of Argentine tango.
The most touristy street in the entire city – Caminito in La Boca – is named after a celebrated 1926 song. There are tango-themed hotels (I stayed at Legado Mitico in a room dedicated to the musical genre), a newspaper kiosk selling only tango books, an FM radio station playing tango (La2x4 on 92.7FM). Specialist stores sell strappy shoes with French heels and funyis, the fedoras beloved of tangueros back in the day, and there are not just one but two major annual tango festivals.
But Ferrer was alluding to even more than all this. Few Argentines can dance tango really well, but most know the celebrated quips and definitions: ‘A sad thought danced’, ‘The vertical expression of a horizontal desire’, ‘The lament of the cuckold’. The refrain, ‘Gardel sings better every day’, is often quoted, tacitly acknowledging the fact that in a country where leaders and legends are routinely recast later as tyrants or figures of disdain (think: Maradona, Juan Perón, all those jackbooted generals), Gardel is eternally a dude.
Thinking psycho-geographically, I sat in Roberto’s café in the Almagro neighbourhood – far less gentrified than neighbouring Palermo – and contemplated. Emotionally speaking, Porteños – the residents of Buenos Aires – tend to be outspoken, passionate, opinionated. They are also given to formal declarations of love and devotion. They are prone to attacks of hysteria, and they will often hysterically confess this to you. All this can be channelled into a dance that entraps chaos inside a kind of delicate order.
I asked for a glass of sweet Legui liqueur (named after Gardel’s favourite jockey and close friend Irineo Leguisamo) and studied the passers-by. Did the women have a sway about them? Was there an innate upper-body stiffness in the men? It might sound rather fanciful, but you can probably find evidence of such latent tango-esque motions if you look for them. Porteños are, after all, famous for posing and strutting and, also, coupling in the streets – kissing rather than the full act, of course. In the right mood, and right clothes, they often shimmy down the pavements as if coursing across a dance floor.
But sitting in caffs wasn’t going to make me move like that. Off I went for another tango lesson at La Ventana, a lovely old venue in the distinguished neighbourhood of San Telmo, a low-slung barrio of cobbled streets and blank facades that likes to style itself as the venerable seat of tango.
Where learning with Laura felt mutual and supportive, Facundo and Sophie were more your classic demonstrators. They showed me and a group of French travellers how to do a basic movement through a kind of invisible square. Here was Laura’s geometry made flesh. Or rather, made wobbling flesh, crushed toes and random collisions. When I did the steps with Sophie I was fine. When I did them with another beginner I was pretty hopeless. Ergo, Sophie was brilliant and I couldn’t lead for toffee – or dulce de leche, at any rate.
Tango shows are all the rage in BA. As the city has joined the mainstream of travel destinations, more and more costumed extravaganzas have opened, from the erotic to the dramatic, to the daringly modern. They are a wee bit cheesy and it’s easy to be cynical about them. But if you’re trying to get into tango, it’s all grist to the mill. After all, if you were on a football holiday, you’d surely go and see the local Boca Juniors team.
The class at La Ventana was followed by a cabaret in the basement, but first came dinner. A glass of red and a small plate of chips and milanesa (breaded veal) was plenty, what with me being a dancer now. I was happily listening to the piped tango and starting my dessert when Facundo showed up and gave an impromptu class to some Brazilian women who had come for the show. They were beginners but got the feel of tango immediately – annoyingly.
Then the lights were dimmed, the curtain went up and a quintet blasted out the first plangent chords of old-time tango. Made up of guitar, violin, double bass, piano and – of course – bandoneón, the band were shimmeringly good. They could deliver the percussive bop of classic dance numbers, take the more angular, experimental turns demanded by Astor Piazzolla’s jazz-inflected Tango Nuevo, and stroll through the swooning swing of tango waltzes. Throughout, bemuscled male dancers in double-breasted suits and shapely women in skirts split up to their armpits performed extraordinary feats of balletic derring-do, simulating knife fights, romantic quarrels, first dates, last dances, seduction and, of course, sex. The imagery of the set and get-ups varied from standard tango iconography – bordellos, lamp-lit street corners, the races – to swaggering gauchos on ranches, to a ten-minute Evita-themed extravaganza of jiving jingoism, with the flags flapping above the dining room serving to cool my café cortado.
The gap between ‘ballroom tango’ and ‘show tango’ is wider than a dancer’s legs when she’s doing the splits. But I enjoyed even the sheer energy of the show, and my eyes could not help but boggle at the timing, precision and sheer physicality of the dancing.
Tango began in the margins of Buenos Aires and then gravitated to the centre, then to Paris and on to the world. These days, its finest expression – from a dancing point of view – is the neighbourhood milonga. It takes the form of a ‘night’ rather than a venue, and this social gathering is the authentic milieu for a tango experience that is both contemporary and rooted in the past. (The translation ‘ballroom’ doesn’t quite capture it; a milonga is a unique mix of formality and informality, youth and age, talent and tenderness).
At the La Viruta milonga, which takes place at an old Armenian Community club, I ordered a cold glass of the local sweet cider and studied the rituals. There are dozens of these ‘nights’ but I decided on coming to this one because, way back when I wasn’t a dancer, in my ignorant twenties and early thirties, I had come here and watched, and sat, and gone home.
I was watching now, but with a plan. I studied the way an old fella in a dusty black suit walked up to a table and gestured with his eyes; I saw the manner with which two middle-aged dancers – pairings are often strangers, and if known to one another it may only be as dance partners – came together with barely a word, found each other’s hands and then coolly, lightly embraced, keeping a balloon’s distance between their chests. I watched as two young women, smiling like beginners, found the courage to stand and try their steps out on a tanda – a series of three or four tango songs.
Then, as the music picked up, these and perhaps a dozen other couples swirled anticlockwise around the wooden floor. Milongeros – regular social dancers – tend to dance al suelo (‘to the floor’). One teacher explained this to me as: “Imagine you’re sweeping up using your feet.” You gently brush the surface with your heel, resisting clumsy or sudden moves and – chance would be a fine thing – repressing overly artistic flicks and kicks with your feet and legs.
Tango makes you think. It made me realise that when I lived in Buenos Aires back in the 1990s, my life was as amorphous as everyone else’s. Residence as an expat is similar to that of a native in that life is a messy sequence of work, fun, sleep, eating, travel and falling in love (or not), all existing alongside the extra (rather tango-esque) feelings of missing home, friends and family.
But on repeated returns I have had to accept that the singular experience of belonging to the Argentine capital goes beyond having lived there. This visit, with its focus on tango music, dance and the sights its rhythms and heroes have inspired, led me to see Buenos Aires in a way that I’d never done before, as I finally began to move in step with the city – and its people.
So, did I get up? Did I find my feet and my huevos and glide confidently across the dance floor, offer a gentle nod and take my ‘waiting’ partner into the expert heart of the vortex of the milonga? To find out, you’ll have to go to Buenos Aires and hit the tango classes and take yourself to the milongas, too. But, rest assured, ‘Volver’ gets me every time. And now that I’ve found my feet, I’ll be going back very soon to perfect my ‘backwards-eight’ and lose myself in the music of the dance of time.
Journey Latin America (020 8600 1881, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) can arrange a ten-day tango-focused trip to Argentina, with three nights in Buenos Aires at Hotel Clásico, including excursions, transfers, breakfast, a tango show at La Ventana (laventanaweb.com) and return flights from London.
Palermo Viejo’s Legado Mitico (legadomitico.com) is a smart small hotel, with its 11 rooms paying homage to national icons – the ‘El Tanguero’ is full of Carlos Gardel memorabilia.
Recoleta Grand (recoletagrand.com) is basic-looking but decent, and handy for downtown and Recoleta’s cemetery.
Palermo Hollywood’s funky 32-room Hotel Clásico (hotelclasico.com) is good value for money and has fine breakfasts.
Buenos Aires highlights
1: Cementerio de la Chacarita
This is the ‘people’s necropolis’, as opposed to the Recoleta cemetery, which is where nobility and military generals are entombed. But make no mistake: this site is a city of death, complete with roads and parking spaces. Gardel’s grave is here, as is Juan Perón’s. Further tango tombs can be found in a special artists’ corner.
2: The Museo de Arte Moderno (MAMBA) and Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MACBA)
Side by side on the same block as Avenida San Juan (corner of Defensa) are these seriously good public galleries. They cost just pennies to get in and showcase some of the most thrilling art on the planet.
3: Zivals record shop
Situated on the corner of Avenidas Callao and Corrientes, this shop houses a great selection of tango CDs and books.
4: Bosques de Palermo
The lungs of the northern barrios, with a rose garden, boating lake, a great art gallery (Museo Sívori) and picnic spots.
5: Rojo Tango
This erotically-charged tango show at the Hotel Faena (rojotango.com) is great for a final night. Superb music is matched by acrobatic dancing and lots of bare – and muscly – flesh.