Is the tango really a dance… or just a slow, sexy walk? Ask any tango dancer or tanguero and they’ll probably tell you a bit of both. It’s a walk with a buttery, dancing lilt and a sensual dance that sometimes succumbs to a walk.
That is what’s so enticing about this uniquely Latin American expression. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what is going on as you watch this display of passion, elegance and finesse. You only know that it looks impossible… and that you want to see more. Possibly even learn a little yourself.
Buenos Aires – The Tango Capital of the World
Here in Buenos Aires the tango was born of African, Latino and European rhythms and traditions. The tango culture goes back 200 years to the musical gatherings of slaves. Later in the 19th century it further evolved with the arrival of immigrants to Argentina and Uruguay.
The merging of African music with European stylings created a new kind of dance that became a mainstay in the working-class barrios and brothels of Buenos Aires. Its popularity soon exploded, and the dance found new life in New York, London and Paris in the early 20th century.
Tango orchestras and dance stars from Buenos Aires toured the world’s capitals as the tango craze took hold of an increasingly liberated world.
Through the decades since, the tango’s popularity has ebbed and flowed much like the graceful moves of the dance itself. But its imprint as a cultural marker has remained bound with Buenos Aires. Indeed, the idea of tango and the animated port city where it was born are central to each other’s identity.
If you are at all interested in the world of tango – to observe its devotees express themselves in its steamy embraces, to learn about tango culture or to take the plunge and strap on some tango shoes yourself, then your next stop really ought to be Buenos Aires.
The Four Types of Tango
As an uninitiated tourist wandering the streets of Buenos Aires, you may only be aware of one kind of tango as presented by the colorful street signs and enticements of tour guides – that of the tango show. These glamorous showcases are beautifully choreographed and designed in elegant theaters. The dancers are good… very good… and they dress and look the part.
The performance you will see onstage could well be described as the Vegas of Tango. The dance moves are big and dramatic… even acrobatic. The orchestras are first class and you’ll be feted with wine and a multi-course dinner. And probably pay close to $100 for the evening. That’s for one person.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. You will enjoy a tango experience with these extravagant shows you won’t find anywhere else and you’ll be the richer for it.
But you may discover another form of tango strolling the Buenos Aires neighborhoods of San Telmo or Boca. It’s called street tango. Your first indication that you’re about to get a glimpse of this type of tango will be a crowd gathering ahead. There in the middle of the group will be a nicely dressed couple gliding over the cobblestones to the accompaniment of a boom box. This is a fun, up-close way to enjoy the intricacies of the dance and of course, you can stay and watch as long as you wish. You might even want to give the hard-working couple a tip.
Tango for Beginners
Watching others float to the tango beat you may suddenly feel a desire welling up from your toes to learn a little yourself. Well, you’re in the right place as Buenos Aires offers many private and group classes for beginners. Both have their advantages – group classes are more relaxed, and you can compare notes with your fellow beginners.
An individual class is more expensive, but you’ll have your teacher’s undivided attention to more quickly master that ocho, cotatado or molinete. If you’re looking to learn quickly, a private class with a good tango instructor is your best bet. Just looking for fun? Join a group class for the camaraderie.
And finally, there is the tango that fills the neighborhoods, the bars, the back streets and even the upscale clubs. This is the tango that the portenos (people of the port – those from Buenos Aires) dance. These local clubs are called milongas.
If you look, you’ll find hundreds of milongas throughout the city, from the funky to the fabulous. These are the local dance halls where the milongueros – those that frequent milongas – go to dance, watch others and be seen.
The tango you’ll see here is authentic, accessible (sort of) and a marvel of grace, elegance and flair. Seen up close, the footwork is deft and dazzling, the two dancers moving precisely as one.
Of course, not everyone has mastered these skills as the local milongas are also home to beginners and tourists as well as the experienced maestros.
But if you’re going to make the milonga scene in Buenos Aires there are some important things you should know before stepping into your tango shoes. Here in “BA”, the milongas don’t really get going until around midnight. So, rest up for the long night ahead.
You should be aware that for the aficionados that frequent the milongas this isn’t just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. There are certain forms of tango etiquette that must be followed. Dress appropriately for the milonga you wish to attend. Nothing is worse than showing up in an elegant tango parlor looking like a fresh off the street, t-shirted tourist.
Be respectful of the milonga’s cultural decorum. Requests to dance are done subtly through eye contact and perhaps a soft smile. A rejection is allowed and signaled with a slight turn of the head. This is how it is in the world of tango so get on board and get ready to embrace a new type of culture.
Just remember, for you the tango may just be a diversion. But for the tangueros in the late-night neighborhood milonga, the world of tango with its rules, conduct and drama… is a way of life.
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