We have just returned from Buenos Aires. This vibrant city with its grand architecture, wide tree-lined avenues, café culture and smart shops, is aptly named the “Paris of the South”. Quite aside from soaking up the city, we’d come to dance in the birthplace of Tango.
Dancing Tango in Buenos Aires is like going back in time not least because it is characterised by a sense of courtesy and community. On entering the dancehall, you are allocated a table. Men and women sit separately opposite each other at tables decked with crisp linen tablecloths. Couples are generally seated together at one end of the hall. Women sitting with their partners are considered to be “taken” and sit separately if they wish to dance with other partners. It’s not unusual for the organiser to discreetly whisper in your ear to ask if you’d prefer to sit “solo”.
Some halls are more formal than others but protocols apply. It’s considered bad manners to change in to your dance shoes at your table. So, it’s best to find a chair squeezed in to the small humid bathrooms, where you can also go shopping for anything from fans and dresses to deodorants, lotions for tired feet and paracetamol.
Sometimes men come to tables to ask women to dance, particularly if they know them. Generally though dance partners are chosen by a system of “Cabeceo”, (nod of the head). Women make eye contact with a man to indicate a desire to dance. The man reciprocates and comes to collect the woman. The Cabeceo originated to save the woman the embarrassment of refusing a dance if asked directly. Staring at a bank of men opposite me was disconcerting. Were they nodding at me or another woman? Could they see me through the rays of sunshine streaming in through the window or indeed if they were short-sighted? Perseverance paid off and I danced.
Tango is an improvised dance (only show tango may be choreographed). It’s traditionally danced in close hold with an emphasis on musicality and accurate, elegant technique always mindful of other dancers on the floor. The beauty of dancing so musically far outweighs the visual impact of more athletic and flamboyant steps.
Dances are in sets of three or four (tandas). The “Cortina” (curtain), during which different music is played, marks the end of the tanda and clears the floor ready for the next set.
Couples appear glued together as they move slowly round as if in one continuous human train, to the strains of the melancholic and passionate music of yesteryear. The train is skilfully managed. Couples traditionally chat for the first 32 bars of the music before moving off enmasse in an anticlockwise direction. When the tanda is over, the man accompanies the lady back to her table.
A milonga (a dance) is above all a social occasion. People greet each other enthusiastically and the vibrant buzz of chat pervades the hall. Some come just to socialise. There were always men who seemed to sit throughout the dance deliberately and slowly stirring their cups of coffee.
Only a small proportion of the population tango. Nevertheless you can practically dance 24 hours a day. There’s lots of choice. Anything from the faded grandeur of the Confiteria Ideal (featured in the film Evita) to a bandstand in the leafy suburb of Belgrano or the famous Club Sunderland which is held in a sports hall. We felt privileged to dance in Buenos Aires and I’m sure we will return.