When you observe Indio Belavente look on the scene he orchestrates each Sunday night, you see his satisfaction. Belavente organizes a free celebration of Argentina’s national dance, the tango, in San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in this city known for its cultural might in the Spanish-speaking world.
Tango, according to Belavante, was in decline before advocates for the dance pushed its importance to political leaders. The tango lobbyists succeeded in receiving permission to stage public dances in Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo’s main square. Each week, dancers from the city join tango enthusiasts from around the world and curious spectators who gaze on this activity that is the heartbeat of Argentine culture.
The turnaround in the dance’s popularity is as dramatic as one of its theatrical maneuvers. A highly improvisational dance, tango encourages the two engaged partners to move as one unit as often as possible. This creates intimate poses where women embrace their male leads who endeavor to sidle their partners around the dance floor with creativity, discipline, and flair. Meanwhile, the women, their chins tucked against the chest or shoulder of their partner, are charged with intuiting the man’s next move but never outpacing him.
Step Into the Mesmerizing World of Tango
Tango is arguably the sexiest and most romantic of popular dances. What you don’t realize until you start to do it is it is also extremely physically demanding and psychologically challenging. In order to give the woman the signal she needs to prepare for the next step, the man must push forward with his chest and torso a millisecond before moving his foot. To remain tightly aligned with her partner but also giving each of them enough room to maneuver, the woman must lean into him, straining the muscles in her calf and lower back.
Like any physical pursuit, tango can become addictive once you get into it. Among its devotees in Argentina are a number of expatriates from Canada, the United States, and elsewhere who have come to chase perfection in the dance.
I met a handful of tanquerinos and tanquerinas who spend most days of the week at milongas, which are tango dances held in halls, clubs, or community centers, most often very late at night (2 am is the hour when most dancers typically arrive). Argentinian tango also has a unique etiquette that can be intimidating for newbies. When a woman accepts an invitation to dance, she is expected to dance with the same man for three consecutive songs. Partners are supposed to talk — but not touch — between songs and their conversation is expected to be about topics other than each other’s performance on the dance floor. Men are to lead the women in a circle but the moves they use vary from the other male leads, which can cause some chaos, especially for novices.
Buenos Aires Seduces With Its Dance
If you want to just see tango, La Boca, the area where tango reputedly started, features daily shows at its bars and restaurants along famed Caminito Street. It is a touristy place full of buses and street hustlers, but it’s very colorful and picturesque as well. There are also multiple tango shows at theaters around the city.
If you want to dance, however, San Telmo is the place to start. The milonga Benavente stages is an outstanding introduction for both viewers and participants. Nearby is the Buenos Ayres Club, home to the twice-a-week Maldita Milonga. A bilingual couple teaches students the first steps they need to know and then lets them give it a try while a wonderful 10-piece tango orchestra called El Afronte, which includes an operatic singer, churns out music that is beautiful and certain to tear into your heart.
To tango in Buenos Aires is as culturally immersive as picnicking with locals in Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower with foie gras, baguette, and Camembert in front of you, or indulging in jazz and blues that pours out from bar after bar on Frenchman Street in New Orleans, or dining on cuttlefish pasta, al fresco in San Lorenzo, Rome’s artsy district. You find the beat of the place when you do as its residents do. If you connect strongly enough with their favorite activity, perhaps a piece of your destination will remain indelibly with you once its song has ebbed and your feet have moved on to another shore.
MORE ABOUT VISITING BUENOS AIRES
Getting Around: The city’s subway system, called Subte, is reliable and trains run frequently. Uber operates in the city but drivers tacked on extra fees for heavy traffic use during the entirety of my stay. A taxi was more expensive but the drivers were much more knowledgeable and friendly. Buenos Aires is easy to walk as it’s flat and its distinct barrios meld into each other. There are areas considered high crime and dangerous for tourists, however. If traveling from San Telmo westward to La Boca, hire a car or take public transit.
Tango Milongas: Maldita Milonga typically takes place on Wednesdays and Sundays, with classes beginning at 9 pm and the orchestra starting its set at 11 pm. Entry costs about $8 USD per person. The Plaza Dorrego tango on Sunday is free and runs until about 10 pm. The website Hoy Milonga lists dance events in the city.
Where to Stay: Buenos Aires is home to some of South America’s most magnificent hotels. Luxury options include Four Seasons, Buenos Aires, the Park Hyatt’s Palacio Duhau, and the historic Alvear Palace. All are in the Recoleta neighborhood, the most upscale part of the city. A forthcoming article on VacayNetwork.com will include more information about these properties and other tips for visiting this energetic city.