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la ciudad May 16, 2006

Posted by tangoandthecity in Buenos Aires.
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Buenos Aires. They say it's more European than Latin American. They say it's the fourth noisiest city in the world. They say a lot of things about Buenos Aires and I'm sure much of it is true. But though the classical buildings of microcentro, and the French-style departmentos of the innercity barrios lend a kind of European appearance to the city, in my opinion, like all cities of its size and import, Buenos Aires is very much her own. She may not be typically Latin American but she's not exactly European either. And as for the noise, well, I don't know where they get these statistics from, nor how they calculate these things, but it doesn't really matter: with collectivos careening down the narrow city streets from early in the morning until late at night, and portenos' propensity for animated, exuberant conversation regardless of the hour, noise is a constant feature of the city. And without a doubt, part of her charm.

A flat sprawl of concrete spreading westwards from the muddy Rio del Plata, criss-crossed by a web of autopistos, with no real icon to speak of (one could hardly consider el Obilisco in the same class as Sydney's Opera House or Paris's Eiffel Tower) she isn't the most beautiful of cities. Her charms lay instead in the living culture of the city – the vibrant cafe life, the endless night, the weekend ferias and of course, the tango. Just being in Buenos Aires puts a spring in your step, despite the late nights and subsequent late mornings, despite the pollution and the noise. The artistic life extends from the hallowed halls of Teatro Colon to the neighbourhood arts centres and cafes of the city's barrios, and out onto the streets. You are surrounded by it wherever you go.

The city has its quirks of course, as all cities have. The obsession with keeping massive dogs in tiny inner-city apartments, the sight of the paseaperros walking the streets with up to 20 dogs of all shapes and sizes in tow, or the owners taking their mutt for a stroll themselves at 3am, always confounds and amuses me, even if the ever-present dog turds don't. Portenos' addiction to sugar, their horrendous driving, their ability to linger over a single coffee for hours on end, their generally lax approach to time…it can be infuriating but at the same time it's all part of what makes this city tick. And for me, part of the appeal. I couldn't live here forever – the natural beauty of Sydney, and family and friends, will always call me home – but for a while, for six weeks at least, I'm happy to experience what it's like to be a porteno. To stay up late and sleep until noon, to put up with the bags under my eyes, to somehow get by on a diet that consists almost entirely of carbs (pizza, empanadas and pasta) Malbec and cigarettes and, of course, to dance tango.

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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.