On a Sunday evening in Buenos Aires, you wander past Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo neighborhood. Suddenly, you hear music. The rhythm is contagious, and resistance is futile. You follow it to its source, and end up in Plaza Dorrego, where a crowd gathers around a makeshift dance floor. The handsome couple, locked in a tango embrace, glides across the floor, oblivious to their surroundings. You have entered La Milonga del Indio, one of the primary cores of tango Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires moves to the rhythm of tango music. Its melodies emanate from shops and apartment buildings and its dance movements can be seen on the streets of the San Telmo and La Bocca neighborhoods, at late night tango clubs, called milongas, or at elaborately choreographed theatrical performances.
If you visit the milongas of Buenos Aires, you will see the Milonguero, or “close embrace” style performed. This style supposedly developed as a means of accommodating large numbers of people dancing in exceptionally small spaces. In the Milonguero style, couples maintain close body contact throughout the entire dance.
You will see a different type of tango if you attend a theatrical performance. The subtleties of the Milonguero style would be lost in a theater large enough to host 500 people. Performance style tango, while based on the close embrace form, enlarges the movements, and at certain points, move the dancers away from each other.
Tango La Boca
The subject of what constitutes “authentic tango” in Argentina triggers lively controversy, but many would argue that one need not look any further than Caminito Street in La Boca. During the years 1880 and 1930, about six million immigrants entered Argentina. Most of them were from Genoa, Italy, but some came from other countries. Many made La Boca district their home.
Unfortunately, by the turn of the 20th century, there were not enough houses to accommodate the incoming immigrants. The Italians used left over materials from the shipyards to build conventillo or tenement housing. These long houses were comprised of small rooms, which opened onto a central outdoor common area.
Within these these immigrant-packed conventillo houses, different cultures shared their musical styles. Since nobody had enough money to afford a bucket of paint, the workers used leftover paint from the shipyards to paint their houses. Despite the poverty, the different musical forms, combined with the colorful houses, created a festive ambiance.
Soon, a dance was created to match the musical styles. Ironically, since few ladies were present, much of the dance evolved while men danced with each other. Realizing that the best dancers would attract the attention of the ladies, the men honed their dancing skills to perfection.
The female shortage in Buenos Aires triggered a thriving prostitution industry, but the shortage of women meant a shortage of prostitutes. Consequentially, potential brothel customers faced long queues. Christine Denniston, author of The Meaning of Tango, compares the development of tango music in the brothels of Buenos Aires to the evolution of Rag Time and jazz within the brothels of New Orleans. In both cases, the brothel owners employed the musicians as a means of entertaining customers while they waited for their lady of the night.
By the 1920s, the tango dance had moved off the streets and into the milongas, whose distinctive features include their marble floors and gold-framed mirrors. The word milonga also refers to a specific tango partyA typical milonga might begin with a tango lesson in the earlier part of the evening. Here are some classic Buenos Aires milongas:
An evening of performance tango is a theatrical event, which usually includes dinner and drinks. Some theaters even include pick-up and return to your hotel. As you can imagine, performance tango can be touristy and expensive, but some of these events are worth a splurge.
Piazzolla Tango Show
Astor Piazzolla was an Argentine musician who specialized in a type of accordion called the bandoneón. During the 1950s, he broke away from the traditional tango music forms and created Tango Nueva, a musical style that blended tango with jazz and classical music.
The Galleria Guemes, an elaborate Art Nouveau building, hosts the performance. The theater, with its burgundy carpets, velvet curtains and gold embossed balconies, evokes images of the turn-of-the-century, when tuxedos and gowns were de rigueur for an evening at the theater. Choose between the performance, accompanied by champagne and appetizers, or go all out and opt for the performance plus make a three-course prix fixe dinner.
Broadway-inspired choreography blends with traditional tango dancing at this popular tango performance. Don’t be surprised when a group of horses join the performance. Dinner choices include steak, chicken, or fish.
Esquina Carlos Gardel
Tango aficionados will always remember the baritone voice of tango singer and lyricist Carlos Gardel. The theater is housed in Chanta Cuatro, a restaurant that Gardel was known to frequent.
Even if those with the proverbial two left feet should not miss out on the tango experience. You don’t have to dance. Just watch and enjoy.