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.
Buenos Aires is so many things. It’s tango and parrillas. It’s chic shopping districts and gritty neighborhoods. It’s outdoor markets and live music. It’s riding the subway and late nights. When I lived here before, Buenos Aires was almost exclusively about those late nights. I didn’t even see the tango scene. I think my eyes are a little more open this time, even if I’m not able to explore as much. Buenos Aires is such a massive place and seems to have something for everyone. Sheena found ballet classes and I found a black and white photo lab. I think for a city lover, it doesn’t get a lot better than this.
Walking in this city is a sensory overload. Look down so you don’t step in dog poop or that hole where a stone tile is supposed to be. Look ahead so you don’t crash into others on the crowded sidewalk. Look left and right so you don’t miss that great bakery or cool-looking bar. Look up so you don’t miss the beautiful architecture. But don’t look up at the wrong time and get water in your face, dripping off the air-con units. I’ve walked many streets multiple times, hoping not to miss anything.
Notes: there are a couple wonderful city-guide websites out there. Rather than try to recreate a little of those, I’ll just share what I’ve found. This one is the most comprehensive and has awesome guides to each neighborhood (you know it’s good when they include Boedo). This one has some nice articles. And this one is perfect for finding a nice place to eat – the parrilla guide is particularly good.
Buenos Aires is often called the “Paris of South America”, and after being here for a little more than a week, I can say that is has felt more like “home” than any other city we’ve been in since we started this trip. We just bought our return tickets back to the States, and so I’ve been looking at our BA stop as a kind of travel-reprieve before we get on with things and head through Uruguay, Northern Argentina, and Bolivia before finally returning home in January.
Our hostel is a quiet place in the Boedo neighborhood–just two block from two subway lines, which makes it incredibly easy to get around the city. There are, of course, exotic things about BA–their strange Spanish accent (they use an “sh” sound for a “y” sound–for the word yo, they pronounce it sho), dancing the tango, drinking maté… but I think I like BA because it reminds me of home so much.
Here, I’ve been able to take a ballet class, which strikes me as something akin to going to Mass–it’s always the same, no matter where in the world you are. This is lucky, since the retired ballet teacher in her 60s didn’t speak any English. But ballet moves are always in French–the universal language for classical dance–and the only trouble I had was with trying to get my muscles to do things they haven’t done in months.
We’ve found dim sum in the Barrio Chino, as well as some much-missed Asian foods. There’s McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway. Good wine is readily available. I found an area in Barrio Villa Crespo that had lots of yarn shops, so I decided to indulge there as well. In fact, our whole stay in BA has really been about indulging… we’ve only three more months of traveling and tempers have been starting to fray. It would be great to recharge our batteries on good food and home comforts before we go off again.
So we’ll spend a lot of money on seeing a professional tango show, we’ll eat at a nice Italian restaurant, and we’ll drink wine and cider. I keep thinking to myself, “What would I do if I went back to Seattle for a week?” And it’s been surprisingly easy to do all of it.
Raindrops on alfajores and fernet & cola
Bright malbec wines and warm fugazzeta pizza
Brown media lunes tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
I think the only feeling that compares with coming back to Buenos Aires is when, during the first couple years after I graduated, I would head back to the University of Idaho campus for a weekend. I had my favorite spots and almost from the first moment I arrived it was nothing but fun and nostalgia. It’s a welcome feeling after staying in countless cities, having to ‘figure out’ each one in succession, to arrive here.
The first couple days have been a blur, mostly fueled by those delicious items I mentioned above. We went back to my old neighborhood (the infamous Once) and I shared some of my old haunts with Sheena. She got to see those Jewish families walking down the sidewalk in formal dress, walk into the china grocery store I used to frequent, cheek-kiss Lio from Pizza Papá, and listen to the ridiculous things we used to do. I took her to the Hippie Fair in the Plaza Francia, and then the antique market in San Telmo – some of my favorite places.