Buenos Aires (Tango Fever)

“Tango is easy,” said Carlos Darío Landini, an actor who on weekends oversees a museum dedicated to the legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel in Buenos Aires’ Abasto barrio, or neighborhood. To prove his point, he asked for my notebook and pen and proceeded to write out a basic equation: “2 x 4 = Tango.”

“It is the rhythm of tango,” he continued. “It is quite simple.”

Sure, and “E = mc²” looks like a piece of cake, too.

Landini was referring to the tango rhythm based on two strong beats on four, and I kept the equation in mind later that day as I watched a handsome, dark-haired couple perform the physics of tango on Plaza Dorrego in the colorful, semi-bohemian San Telmo barrio.

The square was lined two- to three-deep with spectators for the free Sunday afternoon show as the male dancer cued the boombox for the music to start and pressed his chest against the woman’s. He wore gray pants, a tan jacket and two-toned beige dancing shoes; she sported black high heels, fishnet stockings and a black coat over her red dress to ward off the late-autumn chill.

They danced through the square in a loose embrace marked by long graceful steps, quick and cutting leg crosses and athletic twirls in a whirlwind of motion that was punctuated by dramatic pauses, when the man halted the woman’s movement by gently resting his foot on hers and staring intently into her eyes. Even in the cool of the outdoors, the dancers’ energy exuded sexual heat.

And somewhere in the swirl of their artistry, the 2 x 4 rhythm seemed to disappear.

I didn’t come to Argentina to tango——in fact, I can’t dance at all. If anything, I viewed tango as an Argentine national cliché and a sort of must-see touristy thing to do while in Buenos Aires.

But I was hooked after my first tango show early in my two-week visit to Argentina and Uruguay, which unexpectedly launched me on a quest to see tango in its various forms in the clubs and dance halls in the city of tango’s birth. In the process, the search for tango provided a compass for exploring the sprawling capital city of about 3 million people.

Far from being a cliché, tango has been revitalized in Buenos Aires and abroad in recent years. According to one published report, tango is roughly a $450 million a year industry and comprises 10 percent of entertainment spending in Buenos Aries. Every August, the city hosts the tango world championship that draws competitors from about 30 nations.

Perhaps the best introduction to tango in Buenos Aires is at Café Tortoni, an old-school, European-style café built in 1858 on Avenida de Mayo in the Monserrat barrio, just a short walk from the salmon-hued Casa Rosada presidential palace and adjacent Plaza de Mayo that hosted some of Eva and Juan Perón’s political spectacles. Tortoni possesses a formal ambience with its stately pillars, old chandeliers with tiny lamp shades on the bulbs, and waiters in black suits with white towels draped over their left arms.

But the tango that’s performed there nightly is anything but stuffy. I caught the early 8:30 show in the downstairs salon. A quartet at stage right——piano, violin, upright bass and bandoneon, the latter an accordion-like instrument——set the mood, while a sharply-dressed singer set the scene about tango’s early days more than a century ago in the low-rent districts and bordellos of Buenos Aires. The show’s stars were the young, athletic dancers who did a bit of nonverbal acting and a lot of fancy footwork that choreographed the rise of tango as Argentina’s version of dirty dancing.

Tango’s complex and inexact history began sometime in the late-19th century with Spanish, Italian, African and other influences that reflected the country’s massive immigration of that time. Men seeking fortune in the new land settled in the lower-class outskirts of Buenos Aires, and their musical and dance traditions came together as they soothed their loneliness by cavorting with the women they met in cafés and bordellos. From that, an Argentine cultural institution evolved.

The Tortoni show was a gussied up CliffNotes version on the rise of tango. But really, who cares when it’s the dancing that carries the show, and on this night the final dancers——two couples in succession——danced in close contact with hips a-swiveling and legs a-kicking and wrapping around each other at such speed it was a wonder how they didn’t bang their knees.

I was awed, but one of tablemates told me he saw even more intricate dancing the night before during the dinner show at El Querandí.

Tango in Buenos Aires comes in many flavors at venues scattered throughout the city, particularly in the San Telmo, Monserrat and Palermo barrios. Places such as El Querandí offer pricey dinner shows (ranging from US$60 to US$140) that are highly theatrical spectacles with orchestras and elaborate settings that some locals deride as “tango for export.” Some venues offer more low-key performances with dancing and singing in intimate settings, while other clubs place more emphasis on tango music with one- to three-piece bands and a singer.

One of Buenos Aires’ classic tango halls is Confitería Ideal in the Microcentro barrio, traditionally the city’s main shopping and entertainment district. The roughly century-old building is a time capsule of faded elegance with empty, gold-trimmed display cases in the foyer that hark to its past as a fashionable café, while the marble columns, chandeliers in need of a good polish, and well-worn tiled floor in the downstairs dance hall speak of an unpretentious place that’s equal parts dignified and frumpy.

The show I saw featured three couples in their 40s and 50s taking turns on the scuff-marked stage as music from orchestral tango records filled the cavernous hall. Their dance steps were much slower than the performers at Café Tortoni——yet skilled and graceful, and evidence that tango isn’t just for the young and lithe.

As the show wound down, a steady stream of folks entered the front doors and went upstairs to the second floor dance hall for a late-night milonga, a form of tango with smaller steps and syncopated rhythmic footwork that is performed in informal, participatory gatherings. Milongas are dance parties and a favorite pastime for many porteños, as residents of this port city are known.

Numerous venues across the city offer tango classes and milongas, and Confitería Ideal has something going on most days of the week. I stopped by there again the following afternoon and walked upstairs to a tango class being taught by Fernando Llanes, a trim young man with dark hair and goatee and dressed in a black outfit.

“When I see a tango couple closely embrace and set head-to-head in dance, it expresses a lot of emotion,” he said. “Tango is the poetry of Buenos Aires made to the movement of music. It is poetry based on life’s experiences of the immigrants from Europe. Sometimes I hear a piece of my grandfather’s Italy in the tango.”

As we spoke, six couples practiced their tango steps and their feet made gentle sweeping noises as they made their moves. There were two young couples in the mix, and I asked Llanes if Argentina’s young people are into tango.

“Young people are interested in experimental tango,” he said. “Tango Nuevo represents the newer tendencies of tango with techno and electronica.”

Llanes suggested that I come back for a lesson, but my time in Buenos Aires was growing short. Still, I had time for one more tango show at another venue called Café Homero in Palermo, the city’s largest barrio and home to an abundance of gourmet restaurants, trendy night spots and hip shops. A balcony with grillwork railing rings Homero’s small stage, and tables surround the stage at floor level. Tango-themed paintings and photos of Carlos Gardel and other tango notables adorned the walls.

The performance consisted of a tall singer who belted out his tunes with emotion. At times, he was joined in the chorus by audience members. A two-piece band with guitar and bandoneon provided the soundtrack for the lone dancing couple——the musicians never flinched when the dancers came oh-so-close to whacking into them a few times during their routine.

At show’s end the dancers had three quick spins each with audience members from the small Thursday night crowd of four men and six women. I was passed over, much to my relief.

After the show, I spoke briefly with the female dancer, Elisabet Magnetto, and praised the brilliant performance given by she and her partner, Luis Bustos. I also thanked her for not picking me for an audience participation dance.

“Don’t be afraid,” she told me. “I would have led you. Tango is not that hard.”


Places to tango
Café Tortoni

El Querandí

Confitería Ideal

Café Homero

House Museum Carlos Gandel

Places to eat
Grass-fed steak from the Pampas is king in Argentina, and there are numerous parillas, or steak barbecue joints throughout the city ranging from basic to hip, such as Miranda (http://parrillamiranda.com).

For something completely different, Olsen in Palermo offers seafood and creative fare with a Scandinavian vibe.

Places to say
Located in the city’s San Telmo section, Hotel Mansión Dandi Royal is 30-room boutique hotel in a century-old mansion (and an adjacent building) restored to period elegance and decorated with tango-themed murals. Tango packages are available that include lessons and milongas in the hotel’s dance studios.

248 Finisterra is a sleek, affordable boutique hotel in the fashionable Las Cañitas neighborhood.

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