This is the Milonga

Since we’ve been in Buenos Aires, we’ve gone to two milongas, which are informal gatherings for people to dance the tango. They usually have a cover of about $5-10, and are set up with tables surrounding a dance floor. Beer and wine are readily available, and many people go just to watch. But of course, the main reason for milongas is to DANCE! The tables are lined with ladies, young and old, sitting in a position that is meant to broadcast availability, but not desperation. The men walk the room, looking for prospective partners. A tilt of the head and a gesture are enough to convey an invitation; milongas aren’t for conversation, after all.

Our first foray into the tango was at a local theater/dance hall just a few blocks away from our hostel. They had a beginner’s lesson, but we decided to just watch and see if we wanted to pay the extra money. I’ve always loved watching the Argentine Tango on my favorite show, So You Think You Can Dance, but would I love dancing it?

It seemed very complicated, with a lot of leg flicks and rond de jambes and I couldn’t understand how the female partner was supposed to anticipate the male’s movements. At least it was slow and not a fast, intimidating dance like the salsa, though.

“I don’t know,” I said to Craig, who was diffident to the whole venture. “Maybe we should just skip it.” Perhaps it was enough to just watch… no chance of being made to look like a fool in front of a crowd of people.

But when our Irish friends, Seamus and Claire, decided they wanted to go to a milonga later in the week and invited us along, I was feeling more confident. It was just a matter of following your partner’s lead, right? And when would I ever get a chance to dance the tango in Buenos Aires ever again?

So when an Argentine man asked if I wanted to dance and seemed okay with the fact that I had never danced before, I thought, “This is it!” And it was surprisingly easy, really. The tango is danced with very little space between the partners. Not amazingly comfortable in a hot, sweaty dance hall, but it’s much easier to follow a lead when you have so many signals–the man’s hand on your back, the push and pull of his body. And despite a reputation for being a sexy kind of a dance, it really didn’t feel sexy at all. Even those dancers that were really good; you didn’t feel as if they were broadcasting sex appeal–it was just all about the steps, and the music.

Tango music is just as popular as tango dancing. There are usually live bands at milongas for at least a portion of the night. They didn’t take the stage until 1:30am, but that’s when things start getting really heated up anyway. Porteños keep very late hours. It’s great to see a six-piece band on strings and accordion playing their sad melodies into the smoky darkness. Tango wouldn’t be the same without it.

Craig’s cousin once moved to Buenos Aires and lived here for a couple of years just to pursue his passion for the tango. Where else would you go, after all? You can find at least 20 milongas every night and lessons aren’t expensive. Even a professional tango show isn’t completely out of the picture every few months–only about US$50. And there’s nowhere else that you can live and breathe the tango like you can here.

The most incredible part of its pervasiveness, is that the tango crosses all boundaries in this culture. At both milongas, there were dancers ranging in age from early 20s to 60s. Some people were just wearing jeans and sneakers, others in fancier dresses and high-heels. One guy was sporting a mohawk, tank top, wallet chain, and Converse. It’s fascinating because there isn’t any activity in the States that has this kind of broad appeal. Young and old, alternative and classical, rich and poor… they all interact through the tango and it’s a wonderful thing.

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