The Dance Buenos Aires Locals Are Doing in the Streets

October 15, 2018

It’s not something staged for slick marketing campaigns. On summer night in Buenos Aires, porteños (local residents) really dance tango in the streets. And in public squares. And under gazebos. Tango, born in the port cities of Uruguay and Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is no longer the craze it was from the 1920s to 1940s—between 1955 and 1960 the dance’s popularity declined so much it almost disappeared—but it has been enjoying a resurgence since the late 1990s. Buenos Aires remains its beating heart, but “it has been expanding massively to the world” says native porteño Alejandro Puerta, who eight years ago left a lucrative career in microbiology in Japan to return home and focus on tango. Even though there’s a tango scene in Japan—“I didn’t experience it, but I know there is one,” Puerta says—and Moscow, and Berlin, and Sydney, Buenos Aires is undoubtedly tango’s true home.

It’s fine to wander around this European-feeling South American capital city and watch local dancers in the street. Or you could hit a milonga, an event where people gather to tango, and enjoy some local beef and wine while watching local dancers. Going to a professional tango show is exhilarating too. But Puerta encourages you to try it yourself. He teaches private lessons at a bright and airy studio in Buenos Aires’ Jewish Quarter and says, “it’s not just teaching tango and doing what I’m passionate about and making a living. It’s about making a difference, hug by hug. It’s about changing the world.”

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I’ve lived in Buenos Aires for 10 years and have tried tango, but never taken a private lesson. I’m ready to have Puerta change my world. Taking the B line subway train to Carlos Gardel, named after tango’s most legendary crooner and, appropriately, the closest station to Puerta’s studio, I’m glad I don’t need to wear heels to have my world changed. Tango shoes—strappy, often glittering, and with substantial heels—are undoubtedly sexy, but sporting them when dancing tango, at least when you’re just starting, isn’t obligatory, or expected. (But, of course, if you want to, there is no shortage of stores selling bespoke tango shoes; and “tango shoe shopping is a very special experience,” says Sasha Cagen, an American who has lived in Buenos Aires since 2012 and has led tango tours here since 2014.) I figure tango shoes can come after I’ve gotten over my problem of having two left feet.

Inside Puerta’s light and airy studio where the new wood floors are polished just so, I stand tall, my stockinged feet together. Cagen earlier described tango to me as, “a dance of hugging and walking,” and said, “a lot of Americans may find that discomforting, so you need to have some courage to try hugging a stranger.” But the thought of body contact doesn’t faze me; greeting friends new and old with a kiss on the cheek is the norm in Argentina. If it did faze me, I think as soon as I met Puerta, a 41-year-old trilingual (including impeccable English) doctor of microbiology overflowing with charm and good manners, my mind would be at ease. During our hour-long lesson, Puerta takes matters, literally and figuratively, step by step, and, along the way, teaches me about the history of tango dance and music.

Born in the rough port neighborhoods of Argentina’s capital in the late 1800s (it also emerged on the other side of the River Plate in Montevideo, Uruguay), tango was the pastime of young migrants looking for a good time. Tango music and tango dance evolved simultaneously, but Puerta says this dual evolution “is a super-tough topic and several books could be written about it.” Because tango started with the lowest classes, “there are no written accounts of what happened in the beginnings of tango.”

African and European immigrant musicians likely playing by ear mixed different rhythms popular in their cultures. (The term “tango” might have its roots in a Niger-Congo term that slaves carried with them to Argentina.) Dancers at the time probably knew a little bit of the dances that went along with the different styles of music; they mixed dance styles until, like the musicians, they felt comfortable improvising. By 1913, tango, likely via Argentine soldiers passing through the port of Marseilles, France, had taken Europe by storm. In numerous cities, tango balls were the events of the season. London’s Waldorf Hotel hosted Tango Teas (high tea with tango dancing). Once tango had gotten popular in Europe, Argentina’s upper classes finally took notice of the dance that had begun in their backyard.

Puerta, who grew up listening to his grandmother’s tango recordings, says the “official history is that the heyday of tango [in Argentina] was the ’40s—they’re actually called the “golden ’40s,” but new studies show that tango seems to have been significantly more popular in the ’20s. Unfortunately there is a very distorted official history and there are many myths that need to be corrected. That’s why I think it’s so important to teach tango history in my lessons.”

Tango’s intimacy and sensuality—partners are enveloped in a tight embrace chest to chest with foreheads almost touching—make it different from any other type of dance. But the close contact isn’t what Puerta thinks makes it intimate. “Tango demands us to be connected in the present and with our partner,” he says. “In tango, not listening is disconnection, and disconnection is trouble, so tango forces us to stay present in the eternal here and now—no past, no future.” Puerta explains that tango is built from the inside out. “In other dances it seems to happen from the outside in; students copy the movement and the more precise the copy, the better it looks and the better the dancer,” he says. Puerta likens tango more to meditation than to other types of dancing.

I leave Puerta’s in a decidedly non-meditative state; this is the most tango-y I’ve ever felt. An immersion in tango music seems a good next step, and I ask Facebook friends for their favorite tango tracks. I get more than 100 recommendations. These include crackly gramophone recordings from the 1920s and early ’30s of superstar Gardel, the French-Argentine baritone known as el zorzal (the thrush) warbling about lost loves and also contemporary upbeat, instrumental pieces. I learn about composer and bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla, who, in the 1950s and 1960s developed a new style of tango, tango nuevo. Recordings of Aníbal Carmelo Troilo, whose tango orchestra was popular in the 1940s and 1950s, transport me back to the genre’s golden days. In Roberto Goyeneche’s early music, there is a bit of the style of Gardel, but, by the time he launches his solo career in 1963, there’s no doubt he’s his own musician.
I learn tracks too—there’s La cumparsita—“the little parade”—written in 1916 and recorded by various artists hundreds of times since. And Troilo’s 1956 La ultima curda, “The last drunkenness.” The Troilo piece is heart-breaking—a man disillusioned with the pain and briefness of life, finds comfort in liquor and considers death the ultimate drunkenness.

But my favorites are Cacho Castaña singing Garganta con arena, the traditional Taconeando by Anselmo Aieta, and Astor Piazzolla’s instrumental, emblematic, Adiós Nonino. I put these on a new tango playlist, and also (guiltily) add some electrotango tracks by Bajofondo and Gotan Project, whose contemporary beats bring the genre into the 21st century and, for me, are more relatable.

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Armed with the basic history and moves Puerta taught me, and bolstered by hours of listening to my curated playlist, I’m excited to get back to dancing and sign up for a group tango class, Tango 1, at DNI Tango school. Tourists and porteños alike take this weekly initiation class that promises to introduce the dance quickly in a relaxed environment. You don’t need to attend with a partner, but, just in case I do need one, whether for physical or moral support, I invite my friend Eugenia to join me for the free 90-minute session.

After stretching—yes, you want to stretch before tango—we’re shuffling in pairs around the studio in a counterclockwise circle, me wearing alpargatas (similar to espadrilles and common footwear for beginner tango-ers to wear). I start paired with Eugenia, but we’re soon changing partners after each song. I dance with a handsome Swede, who towers above me and is totally focused on his footwork, then with an Argentine who chews gum more rhythmically than he dances. Thinking back to Puerta’s lessons on the importance of connected- ness with your partner, I do my best to connect—to be fully in the present and aware of my body and my partner’s body—but it’s not as easy with a fellow beginner as it was with Puerta. Tangoing with these men is clunky and heavy going. (I’m sure the feeling is mutual.) I don’t learn as much as I did in my session with Puerta, but the class has a huge advantage: I’ve now got a tango social network.

My next lesson is at the Néstor Kirchner Cultural Centre, a stunning, recently renovated Beaux Arts building in the San Nicolás neighborhood. (It was formerly Buenos Aires’ main post office; as the Cultural Centre, its nine floors are home to the Argentine National Symphony Orchestra, five auditoriums, 18 intimate performance spaces, and 40 galleries. It is the largest cultural center in Latin America and you should check it out whether you’re interested in tango or not.) When the class is separated into levels, I side with the beginners. I partner with a woman whose name I never get, but with whom I connect; as a pair, we’re fast- tracked to an advanced beginner group. I wasn’t aware that my basic steps had improved much, but evidently they have.

It’d be easy to continue taking lessons forever. There are hundreds of tango studios in Buenos Aires and a couple dozen organizations like DNI Tango and the Cultural Centre that do regular group lessons. But my goal from the beginning has been to achieve a base level of proficiency that will allow me to enjoy a milonga. Milongas aren’t places, but events: they are to tango like a jam session is to jazz. There are more than 150 places in the city that host milongas. They’re in all neighborhoods and usually open into the wee hours of the morning. (Milongas usually don’t start until 10 p.m. and some don’t really get going until 3 a.m.) Milongas are not to be confused with the ritzy dinner tango shows ubiquitous around the city. Yes, you can go to a milonga and not dance—order wine and dinner (usually bar food) and watch—but the dancers at these are generally not performing for spectators. Milongas are for the participants.

Even with lessons under my belt, going to a milonga and waiting for a man to ask me to dance sounds terrifying. Also, it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. In tango, men don’t ask women to dance (and women don’t accept) with words but with subtle eye contact; this ritual is called cabeceo. Understanding cabeceo is another part of tango I’ll have to learn. In the meantime, Cagen suggests I hire a “taxi dancer.” The idea—hiring a professional dancer by the hour—sounds naughty and illicit, but it’s not at all unusual. From Cagen’s recommendations, I settle on Leandro, a charming, good-natured 30-something who, when not dancing, is a DJ at the city’s Café Vinilo. We decide to go to La Catedral, a milonga housed in former grain silo that’s decorated with mismatching chairs, crooked artwork, and fairy lights. We pick La Catedral because it’s a beginner- friendly tango institution with a relaxed feel. (It offers hour-long beginner classes almost every day, starting between 6 and 7 p.m.) I won’t see any top dancers here because the dance floor itself isn’t in the best condition, but that’s fine by me. I’m here with Leandro to work on my tango, not watch others.

I had thought hiring a dance partner would be awkward, but it’s not, especially once we’re on the pista (dance floor). The benefits of Leandro are endless. When we’re dancing, he has eyes only for me, and by dancing with me, he’s also showing me off to other leaders, upping my chances of a cabeceo from a non taxi dancer. Most importantly, following his lead, I am dancing tango! In a milonga! The icing on the cake comes when the first chords of a Piazzolla song strike up, and I recognize it.