Tango in Buenos Aires

June 2, 2012 | 3 minute read | By Kevin Read

To understand Buenos Aires, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start with tango. Every rack of postcards in the city has at least a few with pictures of a performance, and on street corners anywhere there may be tourists there are couples dancing for tips. Both the dance and the music started their evolution here in the late 1800’s as Buenos Aires was growing from a colonial trading post into a regional centre of power, attracting vast numbers of immigrants from Europe. These lower class immigrants would gather in cafes to dance and play music, fusing styles from their varying backgrounds into something unique and new.

Tango is complicated, mysterious and intimidating to watch. There’s an element of violence and ferocity to the movements, and the dancers’ expressions are serious and focussed. The culture around a tango evening is detailed, with subtle invitations to dance and almost imperceptible acceptances or refusals. Only dancing with a partner for one song is an insult, but dance for too many and rumours will start. If a man arrives with a woman, she is his for the evening, unless he asks another woman to dance, in which case his partner becomes available for all. Attending a genuine tango evening is fraught with social dangers: not actually knowing how to tango is the least of your worries.

There are common themes in the lyrics of tango music, like tumultuous romance and nostalgia about the past, and the dance is a dramatic expression of passion and masculinity. And Portenos (people from Buenos Aires, literally “people from the port”) are dramatic. We* got our introduction to tango in a choreographed performance in the historic Cafe Tortoni (not the one in the picture) where the dancers would act out short, exaggerated scenes in between songs. A woman flirts with two men and they fight it out beside the dance floor, or two dancers compete to show off for the attention of someone else. Portenos see themselves as separate to the rest of Latin America, as more cultured and refined, and Buenos Aires as a cultural center to rival any capital in Europe.

Although Tango was a working class pursuit, some of the younger elite spread it to Paris, Europe and the USA where it became famous and returned to Buenos Aires as a respected form of dance (today, Tango is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists to ensure its protection as a piece of world culture.*2).

It’s clear the Buenos Aires looks to Paris for inspiration, with finely decorated cafe’s on every corner and more theatres than anywhere else in South America. It feels like if you are not in a cafe, at a theatre or out socialising in the city you are getting it wrong, and that gets exhausting. Many bars and clubs don’t even open until 1 or 2 AM and it’s not unusual for friend to arrange to meet up at 3 in the morning to begin their night.

It’s hard not to remember Buenos Aires as a blur of coffee, food and piled cake stands, and I think that is most people’s impression. It’s appeal is all at ground level and mostly indoors: there are secret bars with unmarked doors, hidden dances only known by word of mouth, and private restaurants where retired chefs cook for small groups each night. Buenos Aires has a few memorable sights like the Casa Rosada and Teatro Colo, but it felt like those were not the point. Most don’t come to this city to learn about history and visit monuments, they come to dance.

*I say ‘we’ because for the next three weeks I am travelling with my usual travel buddy Taps. Regular followers of my real life will understand that this means three weeks in blog time, which has started to diverge slightly from real time in the interest of maintaining both quality articles and my own sanity. In real life, just to spoil any tension I try to create in the next few entries, Taps made it home safely and I completed a nightmare 24 hour journey to New Zealand where I am industriously trying to write up my notes into something coherent.

*2 The site http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00011, which includes the full list, makes a good few minutes of entertainment. You’ll notice that neither the UK or USA has any intangible cultural heritage and if this blog was more popular I would try to use it as a platform to get at least one on there.  I suggest Queuing Rules at Bars for the UK and Red Solo Cups at Parties (not the cups themselves, they are very tangible) for USA.

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4 responses to “Tango in Buenos Aires”

  1. Matt R says:

    I see you are going for the Pulp Fiction style of chronological order.

  2. Beautiful, evocative photos!

    Nice article, but I have to comment that the “real” social tango of BsAs is not at all “violent and fierce”–that’s stage tango or “tango para turistas.”

    At a traditional milonga you will see passion, sensuality, connection between the couples who are dancing for themselves, not an audience.

    • kevinaread says:

      Hi Cherie,

      I’m sure you’re right – it was a touristy show, certainly, but a good introduction to Tango for a complete beginner like me. It was also easier to hide in the crowd and take the pictures, which are way out of my usual comfort zone.

      I enjoyed your thoughts on the Milonguero Way and it’s a shame I did not discover your blog before I visited BA. It’s a really interesting subculture.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.


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