Get Up & Tango
Men and women gather in a dimly lit salon, chatting casually at round tables before the mournful chords of an accordion echo around the room. The crowd suddenly breaks into a set of couples. They embrace and, cheek to cheek, sweep across the dance floor. Chests together, their legs twirl and invade each other’s space. They pass sultry looks and caresses, accompanied by the yearnful music. The milonga is underway, a tango gathering where anybody can turn up and grab a partner. They just better know what they are doing. The intensity and excitement of this dance are historied, and participants must show their respect.
Tango was born in the late 19th century in the poor barrios that fringed Buenos Aires City. Waves of immigrants, mostly Italian but also Spaniards, Jews, Arabs, French, Irish, and Poles, began arriving on Argentine shores. Though they arrived from all over the world, they had much in common. They were young, single, and working class. They harbored an immigrant’s feelings of loneliness, displacement, and nostalgia. And they all, of course, had a love of music.
A new type of popular culture was born in the city’s bars and bordellos. Tango became its voice, echoing stories of lost loves and sad memories. The music and dance evolved. Some men took it so seriously they practiced together for want of a partner (the girls were just too expensive). Their moves became a source of pride and perhaps a chance to improve their appeal to the opposite sex.
The new dance from the barrios was disdained by the rich establishment. It was uncouth and immoral. They banned their daughters from practicing it. Yet the sons of the aristocracy were attracted by its romance and danger. They slummed it in the arrabales (city fringes) and picked up some steps. Packed off to university in Europe, they brought this new erotic dance with them. It was enough to give a puritan a heart attack. Kaiser Wilhelm banned it. Prince Louis of Bavaria denounced it as absurd. (Strangely enough Pope Pius was unimpressed and called it too languid for his tastes.) All to no avail—the chattering classes took to it enthusiastically and the tango became the music and dance of European high society in the 1920s. The tango craze began.
Europe legitimized the tango. The high-class salons of London, Paris, and Rome reverberated with the music. What was born in rags, now wore a tux. Yet Buenos Aires will always be its center. It is a mecca for thousands of tango dancers around the world who visit the seductive Argentine capital to try their steps in a multitude of venues. Dancehalls vary from elaborate belle epoque theaters with gilded box seats to grungy warehouses with new age wall hangings and tattooed clientele. One of the best and most historied tango shows in the city is El Querandí (Perú 32; 11/4345-0331). The style here now is sexy, with its origins as a bordello with all male dancers. (Call for showtimes and prices.) Another great tango palace is Esquina Carlos Gardel (Carlos Cardel 3200 at Anchorena; 11/4876-6363).
The music is very much alive and evolving, varying from classic instrumentals to crooning divas. There is even a languid modern dance version called tango electronica. —CO’M
When to go: Year-round.