The tango is quintessentially Latin American, and especially Argentinian. There are Uruguayan and Brazilian variants – tango and maxixe – but just as the samba is thought of in the same breath as Brazil, the tango belongs to Argentina. Arising in the working-class districts along the Rio Plata which separates Argentina and Uruguay, the tango has become a form known and recognised the world over, both its dance and its music.
It isn’t difficult to see a tango show in Buenos Aires: the ticket sellers are almost as prolific as the money changers (“Cambio cambio!”) on the main pedestrian thoroughfares. The most ‘authentic’ show is said to be the performance in the back room at Cafe Tortoni, one of the oldest established cafes in Buenos Aires.
Tortoni opened its doors in 1858, as the tango was beginning to emerge from the Porteno workers’ dwellings in La Boca. Judging from the early photographs, the cafes were a home from home for working men, offering food, warmth and relaxed company, in much more comfortable surroundings than the crowded wooden shacks they called home. (See https://theproverbial.org/2013/07/11/cafe-life-in-buenos-aires/ on Buenos Aires cafes.)
The Tortoni show is intimate, but it is nonetheless a performance for a seated audience. To understand the social meaning of the tango, you need to see a dance session at one of the many milongas or dance halls around the city. Not tourist destinations, these are more a dance school and tea dance venue.
There are more than 60 milongas in Buenos Aires alone. (Listings at http://hoytango.com.ar/) We went to El Arranque, which shares its name with a famous tango orchestra. On the afternoon we went, there had been a class, with a dance session for students to follow, the music provided by a DJ. A large dance hall in a nondescript modern building, it had an array of tables with checked table-cloths around a large dance floor, and a stage occupied only by a large banner. A simple menu and a rudimentary bar suggest that dancing is the main attraction.
Despite the cavernous interior, the dancers moved with fierce concentration, not to say passion, following the musical format and the conventions of the dance with close and sometimes rapt attention. Pairs of dancers take a turn counter-clockwise around the outside of the floor, for a bracket of three or more dance tunes. Each bracket is separated by a section of faster music, allowing partners to return to their own, separate tables. Invitations to dance are made by eye contact and an inclination of the head or the lift of an eyebrow. Not that I saw any – it’s done with subtlety.
We saw couples form and dissolve with easy formality. Some longer partnerships were evident – a teacher dancing with a number of pupils, and executing more showy leg movements in the space left for him in the middle of the floor; younger couples honing their skills for competitive dancing; some couples who danced only with each other, and had perhaps been formed on this dance floor.
Personal styles were also evident. Traditionally the woman follows in tango. The moves are signalled by the man’s hand on her back, pressing and lifting to indicate direction. Some danced loosely and fluently, others with greater attention to formal steps. One woman danced in the Argentino style with all her partners – leaning into the contact at chest level so intensely that if he had moved away, she would have fallen – and dancing always with eyes tightly closed.
And just as the camera does in this footage of a tango competition at L’Arranque, your attention is drawn to the feet, partly by the intricate steps, but also so as not to intrude on the peculiarly public intimacy of the dance. It becomes clear that tango was a social dance before it became a show. And in the milongas, it remains so.