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Tango in Argentina

Our cover story in the September 2017 issue focuses on Latin American dance — milongas, tango events in Buenos Aires, are where members of the public come to strut their stuff

Tango in Argentina
Image: Getty

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“Noooo… you’d be surprised how good some of the normal guys are at milongas,” says Soledad Rivero, peeling off a glitter-dusted eyelash. I express some disbelief. I’m hearing this from one of the most accomplished, highly trained dancers in Buenos Aires, having just watched her perform as part of Rojo Tango. The show had been impeccable; dazzling and glamorous. Beautiful dancers in lavish costumes who never missed a mark in complex, fast-moving routines.

Keen to try some dancing myself, Soledad has advised me to slip into one of these milongas — tango events, held across Buenos Aires where members of the public come to strut their stuff. “As a dancer, you get inspired by what’s happening on a lower level,” Soledad says. Most milongas are modest affairs, but exciting, I’m told. Live music isn’t guaranteed, and you can forget trendy cocktails. The point is to dance and the vibe is tête-à-tête, not table-hopping.

I hit a tatty athletics club in the Villa Crespo district for Viva la Pepa, a Sunday-night milonga, plus a sink-or-swim lesson. Instructor Jorge Frías — intense but with a forgiving smile — leads a beginner’s class. Unlike the frenetically precise footwork at the top shows, the tango on the milonga level is more intuited than choreographed. You learn to push and pull, coaxing out moves and adding interest to the dance’s walk-forward or -backward, side-drag steps. As a gringo who’s spent years loosening everything up for salsa, now I need to rein things in and be mindful of pace, poised from the awaist up. Final verdict? Much more practice needed, but the post-dance feeling was great.

I join a sexy, hipster crowd in the ballroom. The women are in dresses, with the look ranging from vintage swank to just-rolled-out-of-bed. By day they may be average Joes and Joannas, but the good ones tonight are stars, clinging to partners with silent formality (you never speak or sing along). It’s almost shockingly erotic; a languid slink morphs into a rapid swirl, backward kick or sudden dip, then reassumes its devastating attitude for another trip across the boards. This grandeur and sensuality mixed with melancholy, nostalgia — even neurosis — makes complete sense in haughty, tragic Buenos Aires.

Tango in Argentina

Image: Alamy

A few days later, Teresita Lencina — an expert on Argentine popular culture, especially tango — meets me at dusky Bar El Federal in bohemian San Telmo. We talk about what tango means to the Buenos Aires of today. I wonder if it isn’t a bit of a nostalgia trip. “No,” Teresita insists, “milonga seems traditional, even hidebound at first, but tango is forever.” The dance is woven deep into the city’s cultural imagination, she says, but now it’s something musicians and dancers play with, adding twists and using it as a platform for questioning history and heritage (a tricky proposition in Argentina).

Tango instructor and activist Edgardo Fernández Sesma steers me to Tuesday’s Tango Queer at Buenos Aires Club, an old-school spot now open to alternative iterations. Its organiser, Mariana Docampo, started the event 15 years ago, “for women interested in learning to lead (as well as follow)”, she declares. These days, the crowd is more diverse, with people of all persuasions, young and old. There are men in high heels, but this is no drag show; couples stay serious, focused on their sensual ballet, adhering to, yet defying, gender roles.        

My last stop is working-class Barracas, where Doris Bennan, the owner of Bar Los Laureles, leverages a past life as a music promoter — alongside her love of all things Buenos Aires — to put together one of the city’s warmest, most romantic live-music milonga scenes. A combo of bass fiddle, piano and bandoneón (accordion) back up young singers who belt out classics with a heart that belies Buenos Aires’ sometimes sombre reputation. The dance floor was rescued from demolition by Doris in 2007. “My job was to open the space and listen to what it said,” she recalls of the uncertain early days. “But I knew it wouldn’t fail. Tango was here, as if by a law of nature; other people sensed it.” A warm smile plays across her face. “Now we get a crowd every night.” Michael Parker-Stainback

SOUNDTRACK
Tanguera, Sexteto Mayo

Meet the tango dancer

Edgardo Fernández Sesema, a tango teacher and activist, is famed for his Queer Tango flash mobs, in which same-sex dancers perform with the names of countries notorious for homophobia tied to their backs

Why do you think tango is still so popular after all these years?

The dance is still amazingly sensual, rich, even libertine. To dance it — or even just to watch it — stirs up strong desires. Yet the formalities add tantalising restraint. One dance can be a complete love affair, with no words exchanged.

So the lack of words puts the focus on the dance, not the dancers?

Right. It’s also about what’s going on in your own head. I say tango brings out what you’ve already got inside. Besides being beautiful, and creative, and good for your body, a lot of my students use tango like meditation or therapy, even to get over personal issues.

Tango steps seem so precise, so complex. Is accuracy the hardest part?

The hardest part is improvisation. Steps and postures are a matter of practice, more or less easily learned. Real dancing starts when you loosen up and develop ways of feeling — not just executing — advanced moves. In any case, you never stop learning.

You’re focused on bringing tango into people’s everyday lives, maybe to foster a certain kind of political awareness. How does that play out?

I do classes for seniors, for example, so they resist marginalisation and stay involved in life. I also stage events in streets and plazas. Non-traditional elements (tangos involving three dancers, same-sex couples or costumes using the language of protest) have advocated for victims of Argentina’s dictatorial regimes, women, elder-abuse victims and the LGBT community. We hear from people worldwide, who see what we do online, and they’re buoyed by the fact that someone cares. And since people love watching tango, they’ve been a real hit on the streets. ‘The freedom to dance, the freedom to love’ is my motto — and that’s what I’m after as a performer.

Read more tales from the dancefloor here. 

Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)