onAir - Global Culture
October 2004
Getting There
Dance fever
By Kevin Carrel Footer

Buenos Aires’ jam-packed dance halls hold the secrets of the tango.

After two years of tango lessons in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Avik Basu has finally achieved the tango lover’s dream: He’s sitting at a table in one of Buenos Aires’ famed dance halls, watching some 100 couples locked in passionate embrace. The 27-year-old engineer is on a month-long pilgrimage to the cradle of tango culture. He marvels at how the couples sweep across the crowded floor within inches of each other, skirting collision with fluid precision.

Basu isn’t alone in his fascination. Starting at 3 p.m. and stretching until dawn, several thousand souls — locals and visitors alike — gather at sweltering dance halls called milongas. Like Basu, who got started in tango to help him get over a failed relationship, these people are not professional dancers. They are taxi drivers and students, factory workers and physiotherapists, all drawn together by a shared passion for what is often described as “a vertical expression of horizontal desire.”

Buenos Aires’ milongas range from grimy to chic; some are housed in former cafés and community centers, others in abandoned churches and even old basketball courts. Authenticity often weighs in on the side of the gritty, echoing tango’s roots in the brothels of 1880s Argentina, where Italian and Ukrainian immigrants found fleeting respite from loneliness. While smoke-filled, the sites are kept well lit so prospective partners can size each other up.

Tango is stubbornly nostalgic — just think of all those lonely immigrants pining for home. The milonga crowd isn’t interested in the latest hits; disc jockeys generally oblige by spinning the old, traditional recordings. (A live orchestra may perform on rare occasion, but the standard five-peso entry fee — approximately $2 — doesn’t leave much margin to pay musicians.) Even the milonga beverage of choice is nostalgic. A bottle of local champagne in an ice bucket reminds dancers of the good old days, when destiny smiled on Argentina and Buenos Aires was full of bon vivants. (Tip to neophytes: Tango’s intricate steps don’t mix well with alcohol. Sip, don’t guzzle.) At many milongas, the only concession to the modern world is air conditioning.

Tourists visiting Buenos Aires are inundated with hard-sell campaigns for corny Broadway-style “tango” stage shows that, although sometimes fun, reduce a century-old ritual to a spectacle far removed from its gritty bordello roots. Tango is about participation, not glitz. “In most shows, one goes to watch as a spectator,” explains José Garófalo, a dancer and impresario. “In the milonga, you are one of the active characters of the evening.” Fortunately, the visitor craving the true essence of tango need look no further than one of the countless milongas.

To the uninitiated tango may seem like little more than a bunch of people walking around together. But Avik Basu knows how to divine the dancers’ emotional state from the way their bodies surrender to each other. He stares in wonder at the effortless grace of one of the seasoned dancers. The man is well into his 60s; a paunch strains his traditional dark suit. Upon first glance, he and his partner — slender, bare midriff, cargo pants, one-third his age — seem to be an improbable match. But this is no act of charity.

“Check out the look on the girl’s face,” Basu says, as the man guides his partner with the most subtle of touches. “She’s in ecstasy.”

Watching two people dance together is to become privy to an intimate secret, but milongas aren’t carnal free-for-alls. Elaborate codes of conduct control the discharge of all that raw emotional energy. Instead of explicit communication (which is verboten), a man invites a woman to dance from across the room with a glance and a nod of the head; if the woman isn’t interested, she pretends she missed his signal. Forbidden from initiating contact, women deploy flirtatious stares and other subtle signals to “persuade” a man to ask them to dance — unless, of course, he doesn’t want to.

Basu is still seated at his table with that beatific smile. He marvels at the way the best dancers, most of them over 60, accentuate their languidness by dancing a bit behind the beat. He has also caught the eye of a woman across the room. She accepts his nod. And so Basu, too, becomes one of the characters of the evening.

Getting there
Gotta shake it? Air Canada can scratch your tango itch. We already have Canada’s only scheduled service to Buenos Aires — and starting in November, we have flights leaving Toronto six days per week!

Opening hours vary from dance hall to dance hall, but hot tango action can be found every night of the week in Buenos Aires. There are dozens of milongas to choose from. Here are few of the best:

Porteño y Bailarín
Two dance floors make this a favorite spot for tango show-offs
Riobamba 345

El Beso
A great place to see traditional tango at its most refined
Riobamba 416

La Marshall
Buenos Aires’ first gay milonga.
Yatay 961
54-11-4774-5470, 15-5406-9784

La Confitería Ideal
A must-see old-school milonga, housed in a stately but crumbling building.
Suipacha 384, 2nd floor

Tango Tours and Guides
For the visitor looking for an experienced hand (and pair of feet) to lead them through Tango Town.

Sharon Hillman
This dance teacher and physical therapist knows the city’s milongas inside out.

Tanguera Tours
Sorry gents — these tango tour packages are for ladies only.

What's Inside
Food & Drink
Montreal’s wine bars
Feature Destination
Weekend in Chicago
B.C. spas
Global Culture
Buenos Aires’ dance fever