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el tango May 12, 2006

Posted by tangoandthecity in Buenos Aires, Tango.
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Before coming to Buenos Aires I thought that tango, like all ballroom dancing, was kind of naff. My only experience of the dance was via television – the Australian ABC's Strictly Dancing which, with a nod to the fabulously camp Strictly Ballroom, treats all ballroom dancing with a kind of wry tongue-in-cheek humour. And since the only tango dancer I ever met was also writing a romance novel, well…

But tango in Buenos Aires is a completely different deal. It has it’s naff elements – the glitz and glam of performance tango, the tango buskers who descend on San Telmo and La Boca of a weekend and willingly pose for tourists and with tourists for a few pesos, the tango-themed paraphenalia that lines the Plaza Dorrego market – everything from Carlos Gardel mugs to fridge magnets and snowdomes. Milongas attract their fair share of over-made up women who should have put their fishnet stockings out to pasture years before, and their partners, whose ancient suits barely do up over their paunches. For all this, it still possesses a timeless, indefinable beauty.

On my first weekend in Buenos Aires, after the antiques traders had packed up for the day, I walked down to the Sunday night milonga in Plaza Dorrego. There, under pale lamplight, on a makeshift dancefloor of cardboard laid out over the cobblestones, I watched couples of all ages and from all walks of life dance to the haunting strains of the tango emanating from a beat up old stereo. There were tourists there, like me, watching. There were tourists dancing as well. But this was no spectacle. Couples danced with their eyes closed, in tune with the music, and with each other. It was at once unpretentious and classic. And impossibly romantic. I was determined to try it for myself.

As I did, soon enough, in a class in a local arts centre in San Telmo, with wooden floors and ample amounts of atmosphere and French doors opening out on to the Buenos Aires night. And I felt it, that very first night, the thrill of not thinking, of letting go and just doing. For someone who lives almost exclusively in her head, it was a revelation.

But I had so many questions: how does a woman retain her independence, her identity, in a dance that requires total submission? When a couple dance tango is that all it is or is it something more? What is the essence of tango – is it the music, is the connection with another, is it all about the steps? Is there such a thing as modern tango? Everyone you talk to seems to have a different opinion, some held more firmly than others. True to the nature of any genre, the old timers seem to have a strong sense of the tradition of tango – they know what it is, and what it isn't. But for the younger generation tango is more fluid – something to be fused with other forms of music, electronica for example, a foundation on which to build upon.

And so, after 4 months of travelling around South America, dipping in and out of Buenos Aires and the world of tango, I've decided to stay for a while and attempt to unravel a bit more of this mystery. And learn to dance, of course.

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