Take a stroll down the colorful, bustling streets of La Boca and you'll be sure to spot a sultry restaurant performance or dance pair in fiery red costumes soliciting touristic photos -- because in Buenos Aires, tango is everywhere.
Believed to have been birthed during a transformative era in the Rio de la Plata region (Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina), the original sound of tango music represented the sound of immigrants in the 19th century.
With European and African roots, tango music was "traditionally played on a solo guitar, guitar duo, or an ensemble, known as the orquesta típica, which includes at least two violins, flute, piano, double bass, and at least two bandoneóns." (source: Wikipedia)
In Argentina, the provocative music became a salon and brothel favorite, bringing the lower class together to dance and enjoy the music as a local secret -- far removed from government and high society judgement.
Soon enough, it is said those higher up tried to outlaw and restrict tango, prohibiting locals from playing in public. It wasn't until tango dancers left to Europe and popularized the dance and music in Paris during the early 20th century that what we now call "tango" returned to Argentina as a highly acclaimed art form.
Beginner Tango Class in San Telmo:
I was curious to try tango dancing. Hesitant, yes. But it sort of felt like a must-do activity if I was going to be in Buenos Aires. I knew one thing for sure, though -- I had no desire to wear one of those flashy dresses! So as long as I could come in pants and flats, I was all for it.
We found Lucia and Gerry (our tango teachers) on TripAdvisor and scheduled a "Tango Night Out" class in the neighborhood of San Telmo for a Thursday evening. The booking included a tango class (about 90 minutes), a visit to a Milonga (taxi included), dessert, and drinks at the venue.
The class that night was small: including two women from Australia, a male tango dancer (to partner with one of the women), Alex, and me (plus Lucia and Gerry, of course).
Lucia and Gerry (a couple) were charming and hilarious but most of all, really good teachers.
They demonstrated the traditional way men are to ask a woman to dance from across the room (men sit on one side of the dance floor and women, on the other) and about four or five basic tango moves: including the standard tango walk, cross stepping, some turns, and a small kick. Lucia and Gerry used simple, clear (English) instructions and were extremely patient.
Tango was challenging to learn at first because the dance required me to walk backward and trust Alex the entire time -- which was a bit difficult for this independent woman! No, really: he's stepped on my foot a few times in the past (I think I actually had a broken pinky toe) and I've never let him live it down. :-)
But the teachers helped me loosen up and put my weight into the dance properly -- in a trusting, manner -- and soon enough, I found myself even gliding with my eyes closed. And no, he didn't step on my foot the whole night!
Visit a Buenos Aires Milonga:
After the dance class, we went to test out our moves at a milonga.
Milonga, which is also what you call the "club" that people dance tango and milonga at, is a type of dance similar to tango that incorporates looser, more relaxed movement. Though the faces of the dancers still have dramatic, soap opera expressions (and the costumes, ornate and sexy) the movements themselves are faster and more rhythmic. (See video clip below)
Okay, total disclaimer: I actually chickened out and didn't even hit that main dance floor (except for one non-tango song) because I was terrified and felt like everyone would be looking at me and judging (no one was looking at me at all).
Instead I went to the second dance floor on the side of the room where there was less of a crowd and practiced my moves there. Eventually that dance floor filled up, but since we were already dancing, I was happy to continue. We only collided with another couple once.
Soon after, the night's highlight -- a milonga performance -- began (see the previous video above). During the dance we drank wine and enjoyed a delicious dulce de leche / flan dessert.
The night ended around 1:30 am for Alex and me, likely an early bedtime for Argentina's late night crowd. But the tango night out lived up to the hype and certainly encouraged us to keep exploring the art of tango.