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Breathing tango in BA

February 7, 2011
By

A father/daughter duo searches Buenos Aires for one of the world’s great dances

Acrobatic tango dancers perform in La Boca a working-class suburb of BA.

In Buenos Aires the people live for and by the tango. We went in search of it in this sprawling metropolis of more than 15 million ‘portenos’ on the south shore of the broad Rio de la Plata that forms the border with Uruguay. What we found was the iconic heart of the city.

Both countries claim the tango as theirs and in a recent bid to give the popular dance World Heritage status, the capitals – Montevideo and BA – seemed ready to go to war over which city was the true founding place of the sultry strut. Apparently, they sawed off with Montevideo agreeing to take the prize as the city where the first tango lyrics originated and BA took the mantle for first singer.

We’re talking serious dance here. Long before Al Pacino stepped blindly across a dance floor in Scent of a Woman, the tango was a powerful symbol of passion, sexuality and struggle. In BA, where Carlos Gardel is probably the most famous of all tango singers, it is also a lifestyle and a living for many in the Paris of South America.

The Tango Singer, a novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez, tracks the early wanderings of Gardel, famed writer Jorges Luis Borges and other artistas who haunted the dozens of cafes – among them Café Richmond, London City and Café Tortoni – that make BA an exciting literary experience. Visit any street mercado to see a colourful selection of Gardel tango hats. It is as much a symbol of the city as the tall white obelisco that marks the downtown centre. 

We didn’t know it at first, but we were staying in a bed and breakfast that doubled as a tango club. As it happened, Complejo Tango was more club than B & B, but we soon began to enjoy a free tango show each night by poking our heads through the wallboards.  

We also found the tango in city parks where people danced much like the Chinese waltz in the early morning. At the large gazebo in Barrancas de Belgrano park, for example, we got a free exhibition of local footwork at ‘La Glorieta’. In a seemingly spontaneous affair, we watched dancers of all ages and abilities moving their bodies beautifully to the sound of a ghetto blaster. Asked to join in, we were too shy and I was too left-footed.

Another chance soon arose at the Confiteria Ideal, a classic old milongas (dance hall) in the heart of BA. Founded in 1912, the rather jaded old restaurant/bar offers three-hour lessons for the willing and those anxious to emulate Al who, by the way, won an Oscar for that role.

This time, one of us got up the courage and soon a new form of tango was being created with the patient assistance of the dashing Eduardo. At the end of the lesson, it wasn’t quite the Scent version, but not bad for a start.

Perhaps the most in-your-face tango experience came in La Boca, a working-class immigrant district that has become tourist trap numero uno. On arriving in this multi-coloured bohemia, someone offers to snap your picture as you pose with your head stuck through a cardboard painting of two tango dancers. Soon, you are watching agile young tango artists toss one another skyward at several open-air cafes that beckon to passers-by to have a cool glass of chope (the traditional draft beer).

For the grand tango finale, we had dinner at the Osvaldo Pugliese Tango Club in Boedo, a district where poets, novelists and tango singers once held court on the issues of the day. A similar crowd hung out around the famous Avenida Florida, a high-end shopping street, and the two engaged in intellectual duels led by one of BA’s most famous literary figures, Jorge Luis Borges.

A man dressed in the penguin costume donned by most BA waiters escorted us to a table, then signaled to a man in jeans and T-shirt to serve us. It was a classic case of ‘you get what you pay for’. The meal was as mediocre as our badly dressed waiter’s English and the floor show was a mix of salsa and tango singing that left us uninspired.

Still, the club is named after one of the top five in tango history and we were happy to have had one or BA’s quintessential tourist experiences at half of what it would have cost at Complejo Tango.

Gardel, the most enduring tango icon, once quipped that “the tango is like a lullaby that gets in your ear and never goes away’. We are still humming and swaying to its intoxicating melodies while BA keeps up the tango tradition to help save its life in tough economic times.

Versions of this article have appeared in the Vancouver Sun and at rabble.ca.

Acrobatic tango dancers entertain passers-by in colourful La Boca, a working-class neighbourhood of Buenas Aires where tourists can shop for curios, gawk at street sculpture and sip mate (tea) from gourds.

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