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Time to tango in downtown Buenos Aires


When you live somewhere, you tend to look down your nose at the ‘tourists’ who are just here to enjoy the shiny surface of the town you know so much better. ‘I know the real Buenos Aires’, I think. These baseball cap wearers – cameras swinging from sunburnt necks – are taking up precious pavement space as they admire the Italianate balconies and Parisian shutters. I need to hurry to work, or to a café where the menu doesn’t come in English, pointedly ignoring the lovely Art Nouveau facades that attracted me here in the first place. Only tourists coo over the architecture; locals like me give them a knowing smile as we pass – ‘if only they knew’, we think.

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

But I am still new in Buenos Aires; a mere babe in arms compared to the residents, the Porteños, who have lived in the city their whole lives. I haven’t even been to Recoleta Cemetery to see Evita’s grave yet, because I feel like I have infinite time to tick off all those things that mere tourists cover in a whirlwind 48 hours. As a result, I take sightseeing at a snail’s pace: it’s six weeks before I try Mate, Argentina’s national drink, and a full two months before I venture down to the district of La Boca to wander around the brightly coloured houses of Caminito. And so it is with apprehension that I receive the first visitor from my native UK, knowing that my Buenos Aires knowledge (which buses go to the business district, rent prices, the incredible abundance of public holidays) is not exactly tourist friendly. Fortunately, Steve takes matters into his own hands and booked us tickets to one of the dinner/tango show/tango lesson combos that a local wouldn’t dream of going to. I accept, embracing my inner tourist and silencing my fledgling inner Porteño.

I met Steve at the hotel he was staying at with the rest of his five travel companions. There was a birthday, so a hastily bought bottle of Malbec is produced and distributed amongst the plastic toothbrush cups to toast Katy the birthday girl. Bottle drained, I follow everyone out into the street to hail a taxi, revelling in the holiday spirit of the group. We head down to Puerto Madero, the city’s most exclusive district, on a warm Friday night. At 8pm, Porteños are starting to drift home from their after work drinks, before heading out for dinner at around 10pm. It’s something I’m not sure I will ever get used to, with my Northern European urge to eat at 7pm. But tonight I don’t have to pretend; our laughing, joking, English-speaking rabble arrive at the Tango show venue in plenty of time to photograph the sparkling lights of Puerto Madero reflected in the water, the iconic Women’s bridge in the background.

“Time to go in” says Steve, ushering us inside to our table, where a pair of dancers soon join us for the obligatory photo opportunity. The menu, of course, is in English and Portuguese as well as Spanish, offering such temptations as “Northern Deliciousness”… I can hardly guess what it might be, but I feel confident that whatever it is, it’s probably delicious. But the food hardly matters: chatting our way through the starter and guzzling down the (included) wine, I realise just how much I have learned since moving to Buenos Aires. The dog walkers, with their 20 dogs! The incredible pizza! Epanadas! Soon, the main course arrives and, as it does, the lights dim and a screen slowly unfurls from the roof. We’re shown a film recounting the history of Tango: the origins in Buenos Aires’ working class dance halls in the 1890s; the explosive rise to the dizzy heights of fashion across the world in the 20th century; and tango’s current position on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Practised to this day by rich, poor, young and old across Buenos Aires, Porteños’ love affair with tango is far from over.

Tango sign, Buenos AiresThe screen returns to the gloom amongst the lighting rigs, and the spotlight is switched onto a platform to the right of the main stage. Coloured lights pick out the band, each musician playing merrily along to a typical tango tune on piano, violin, accordion and double bass. Meg, sat next to me, stares spellbound at the whole thing. Her fork hovers a couple of inches above her pasta (Italian Deliciousness) – she hasn’t touched her main course and the dancing hasn’t even started yet! But wait – while our eyes were fixed on the musicians, a group of men, sharply dressed in 1920’s suits with their hair slicked back, have taken to the stage. Now, the show has really started. The men make it look casual; I assume this is how the original tango moves were refined, with young men trying to outdo each other in the street as their friends egged them on from the side-lines. Next is the turn of the women, looking poised and graceful as they move smoothly across the stage in time with the lyrical accordion. A few mouthfuls of my chicken later, and the dancers make way for the next spectacle: the singers. Tango is as much about the music as the dancing, and the male and female vocalists give just as much heart and soul into the performance as the dancers.

Back to the dancing (Meg has still yet to begin her dinner), and it’s time for the men and women to pair up for the first time. Not for nothing is tango referred to as ‘the vertical expression of a horizontal desire’: you can feel the passion between the couples, but also that they’re having fun. It’s not all smouldering looks and lips-so-close-as-to-be-practically-touching (although there is plenty of that, too); it’s also flirty and fun, with little stories built into the dances. By the time Meg manages to successfully transfer part of her dinner from plate to mouth, the show has once again transformed. A solo male dancer takes to the stage, moving with furious intensity and whipping his waist length hair from side to side at lightning speed. His moves are reminiscent of the Flamenco and we’re all spellbound, though slightly critical of the open silk shirt he’s been given as a costume. The solo dancer (and his bare chest) seems to signal a change in pace. The music ups the ante, with traditional tango melodies continuing over the more frantic backing of 21st century dance rhythms. Now, the stage is lit hazily in red and the women are back, this time in corsets. Meg lays down her fork. I refill my wine glass. Is it just me, or has it suddenly got a lot warmer in here?

Tango street art, Buenos AiresI have no idea how long the show lasts. Meg finally allows the confused waitress to take away her half-eaten dish of pasta and dessert is served quietly, by candlelight, as we continue to take in the next act and the next. One of the pairs of dancers turn their hand at circus acrobatics, spinning pointy-toed through the air on red, silk ribbons suspended from the roof. Then, the spotlight makes out the female singer, wearing the latest in a series of ever more sparkling dresses. She sits on a high stool at the level of the audience, far from the stage. As she sings the delicate love song, the blinds behind her are raised to reveal the view of Puerto Madero’s lit-up skyline and its mirror image in the water. The brief interlude of calm has the audience just as spellbound as the bombastic crowd-pleaser don’t cry for me, Argentina.

The empty plates where our Dulce de Leche cheesecakes used to be are cleared without me noticing, replaced by an espresso cup. By the time I’ve finished the coffee, the grand finale is underway: all the couples on stage together, dancing in unison, but each adding their own flair to the steps. The solo flamenco dancer has his own section of the stage, the singers are belting out the final chorus, and the band crescendo to full volume. Finally, the performers make their final flourishes – the last sweep of the violin bow, the final lifts and spins, the last vibrato syllable – and the audience react immediately. We’re clapping and cheering, while everyone on stage is smiling and panting, the whole room thinking of nothing else but tango, tango, tango!

The show is over, and we’re all tourists, but I don’t care. We stumble to the stage for a half-hearted tango lesson, spending around twenty minutes treading on each other’s toes before the dance teachers haltingly read out our foreign names written on paper certificates. OK, so no self-respecting Buenos Aires native has an ‘I went to a tango lesson and survived’ certificate hanging proudly in the hallway, but you know what? It was fun. The show was great, the wine flowed and we tumbled from the venue in high-spirits.

“What do you want to do next?” I asked, ready to switch back into host-mode.

“Should we go somewhere for a drink?” asks Steve.

“Sure,” Meg replies “but can we go somewhere that serves food… I’m still kind of hungry…”

Katherine Walker is travel blogger at SouthAmerica.travel, specialists in 4* & 5* custom South America tours to Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia and more.

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