As we glided across the floor, I looked down into my wife’s eyes and smiled. “We’re dancing the Tango in a Buenos Aires Tango club”, I whispered. We giggled in disbelief as an experienced local couple Tangoed fiercely past us. At that moment, at 1am on a Saturday night in Argentina, I realised that yet again I had stepped (nay, Tango’d) outside my comfort zone to complete another experience that I NEVER would have tried without My Year In Flux. In 1 week I was able to learn Tango.
Buenos Aires, birthplace of the Tango
Born here in the Argentine capital, forged in the passion and pain of immigrant slums over 100 years ago, Tango is so much more than a dance to the residents of Buenos Aires.
On the streets and subway, buskers are not playing cacophonous Coldplay covers, they’re singing Tango songs; graffiti-clad streets across the city aren’t filled with images of Che Guavara, they’re daubed with the iconic smiling face of Carlos Gardel, the Tango Elvis; and everywhere, in the bars and clubs, restaurants and plazas, are people – ordinary people – dancing the Tango.
Coming to Buenos Aires without trying to learn Tango would be like going to Dublin without gobbling down a Guinness or two. It also marked my second attempt at dancing, following my week Swing Dancing in Portland, Oregon earlier in the year.
Watching a live Tango show
I began my Tango odyssey by taking in one of the many shows on offer in Buenos Aires. Watching the very best Tango show dancers and bands is a great way to experience the very pinnacle of Tango culture. We chose the show We Are Tango because it was different to all the rest, being a little less Broadway and a lot more intimate. Hosted in a small basement, the show only has an audience of 20, giving us all the luxury of front row seats. For the next 90 minutes we sipped our Fernet Colas (a local drink) and watched as the band, singer, presenter and dancers wowed us and weaved us through the history of Tango, sometimes within inches of our faces.
Watching the dancers in such close quarters, you are struck by the danger, breathtaking passion and aggression on show in this dance, as well as the achingly sad stories told through the songs. I left We are Tango positively tingling and, to my surprise, actually looking forward to trying to learn Tango. If it was passion and a bad attitude they wanted, that was something I had in spades!
After a day of listening to a Tango playlist on hard rotation (Spotify excels for tasks like this: no searching and playlist-compiling, I just picked someone else’s carefully honed Tango playlist and I was away) and reading more about Tango history, my wife and I headed into buzzing Palermo Hollywood to find the studio where we hoped we’d learn Tango.
“If you can walk, you can dance” enthused Cristian, our teacher, in a matter-of-fact way, as we began our private Tango lesson. And then we spent the next hour or so doing just that, learning the basic steps which enabled my wife and I to glide across the floor in a Tango embrace. Much like the Waltz – I imagine – Tango is, at it’s heart, a very basic dance, and thanks to the private tutelage and brilliantly easy-to-follow methods Cristian employs, we were managing to walk in very little time.
In our second lesson we began to learn how to move in different directions, turn and – perhaps most importantly – block. The blocking moves are at the heart of Tango: one partner (usually the man) literally sticks his leg out to block the woman’s path. The lady, in turn, responds with an elegant flick of the heel/leg and step-over, giving us the customary flicks, kicks and swooshes of the tango dance. By the end of our lesson we learned a couple of blocks and were feeling pretty confident.
As we thanked Cristian for his brilliant teaching, I mentioned that we were thinking of going to a Milonga (tango dance hall) to try out our newfound moves, and wondered if he thought it was a good idea. He looked at us and said slowly “You are from London, yes? Dancing the tango in a Milonga is like trying to drive in London. Right now, you can drive fairly safely, but I wouldn’t recommend driving in London”.
We left the dance studio determined to ignore our teacher’s advice!
Dancing the Tango
And so Saturday night arrived, as did the familiar gnawing anxiety of knowing that tonight I would HAVE to step beyond the realms of comfort. From the many milongas on offer, we chose the faded charm of La Confiteria Ideal, because it was allegedly Eva Peron’s favourite place and also happened to be walking distance from our apartment.
As we arrived, a glamorous tango show was finishing in the gigantic grand salon downstairs, but we weren’t here to be spectators. “La Milonga?” I asked to the bored-looking door lady. She asked for our entrance fee and then her eyes motioned up a grand staircase. Arriving at the top, we were greeted by a hostess and whisked into another large room complete with fading gilt, pillars and peeling charm. Around the edge, tables sat with black and red cloths, and in the centre, couples danced under a huge vaulted ceiling as the tango music played. I suddenly felt very, very nervous. Perhaps Cristian was right: the floor looked narrow and, though we were early (only 11pm!) there were several couples already tearing it up on the floor. We ordered drinks, and then some more, all the while tacitly allowing the possibility of dancing to drift away, as we watched and marvelled at the dancers (of all ages) who were strutting their stuff in front of us.
As the tempo increased, the floor filled with some seriously gifted couples and the likelihood of us dancing hit an all-time low, and then something odd happened: a suited man in his 60s wandered over and asked me if he might take my wife for a dance! Incredibly, Zoë (easily the most confident dancer of the 2 of us) agreed, protesting meekly that she didn’t know what she was doing. “Nonsense” he said, “I teach you”. In moments she was up and on the floor, being led around by this confident older gentleman. After 3 dances, the music changed and Zoë returned, beaming “Right, now it’s your turn!” she demanded. The spell had been broken, I knew I had to do it now, so I threw caution to the wind, taking Zoë by the hand and together stepping gingerly out onto the floor. The music began, we remembered our steps, and in no time our embarrassment evaporated and we found ourselves spending the next 30-45 minutes strutting around this historic dancefloor, dancing our rudimentary steps in the city of tango.
As we departed, it was early Sunday morning and the Buenos Aires nightlife was only just getting going, but we were on our way home, knowing we had nothing more to prove. So long Buenos Aires, we came, we saw, we tangoed.
My Tango odyssey was a Weekly Challenge. As part of My Year In Flux, I’m trying something new every week for an entire year. That’s 52 new experiences in just 12 months. To see previous Weekly Challenges, quickstep over here.