It’s just before dawn, and our small group of Argentines and Americans are tired and filled with reverie after a night of tango. We’re drooped over cafés con leche on an old wooden table in a run-down nineteenth-century coffee shop. The large party over by the dark windows also look like they’ve been up all night having a good time. The men are wearing jackets, the women décolletage, all somewhat portly and of a certain age.
Suddenly one of the men stands up and begins to sing, loudly, proudly, passionately. Heads nod with approval. A woman in gold beads joins in. Several others, our table included, brighten with the music and begin to clap along. I don’t understand the words, but I know it is Tango – love, life, disappointment, desire, joy and sadness.
Marcello can not resist the siren call of the emotional song, even after dancing all night. He’s an Argentine. He looks at me purposefully, and we tango on the cracked black and white marble floor around the men having breakfast with their newspapers on their way to work.
It’s a normal morning in Buenos Aires.
What is tango, anyway? I had danced other dances all my life, both ballroom and theatrical, but I really didn’t know the answer to that question. I knew Tango meant more than a dance, certainly more than a (slow slow quick quick slow) ballroom exhibition, a campy movie moment, or a Broadway show. Because I wanted to experience the legendary dancers’ dance and all that Tango meant, I made a pilgrimage to Buenos Aires.
Knowing no one in Argentina and no Spanish, I was lucky enough to hook up with a tour of dancers who I found on the Internet. But it didn’t matter, I would have gone anyway. Tango is addictive and I already was a junkie after only three months of tango dance classes in L.A. Besides, being alone after the death of my husband, if I waited to find a traveling companion, I would never go anywhere.
Tango permeates the air of Buenos Aires – tango art and history, the dance of politics, the music of extinct German bandoneons, a 24 hour Tango TV channel, tango dancers on the streets, tango clubs two per block, curios and postcards, altars to Carlos Gardel. The city could just as easily be called Tango Aires. For a tanguera wanna-be like me and the other American women I met on the trip, it was paradise.
Buenos Aires is often called the Paris of South America, perhaps because a lot of the city’s architecture emulates La Belle Epoque and if you squint your eyes it is possible you could be in Paris: the French windows, balconies, wrought iron, sculptures of large buxom women over doorways. Elegant cupolas pop up on rooftops all over the city’s skyline, stamping the city as somewhat European and indefinably Buenos Aires.
But the Argentines are not sitting for hours in sidewalk cafés discussing and arguing and philosophizing like the French so love. Despite the city’s mild and sunny weather, Buenos Aires has few sidewalk cafes in which to have a cafe con leche and people-watch, to observe that the Argentines are slim, stunningly beautiful, well-dressed, and have perfect posture (due perhaps to their dance-charged culture).
Instead of sitting and talking, the people of Buenos Aires are dancing. They go to practicas and even milongas (tango clubs) by day, and fill the dance halls from midnight till dawn every night of the week.
During my stay, I didn’t shop, sightsee or sleep more than an occasional nap. I lived on cafés con leche, little croissants called medialunas, chicken empanadas, and vino tinto, all on the run. At midnight I would wrap my feet and pad my toes before stuffing them into spike-heeled pointy-toed tango shoes, and then hobble down the hall to the elevator. I suffered until blessed numbness set in an hour later. Then once the music began, I would float on air across the hard cement and tile floors of the tango halls.
After one milonga closed, I went to another one, and when it closed, I had breakfast. Then I soaked my bloody feet in the huge lavender bathtub of my room at the Hotel Continental, throwing in as much salt as I could beg from the kitchen. I fell into bed each day at 6:00 a.m., smelling of men’s cologne. I was deliriously happy.
Why is this city dancing? Tango was born a hundred years ago in Buenos Aires, its direct lineage a bit mysterious. The name may be derived from “tangle,” as the couples’ legs seem to indeed. Tango, by its nature of leading and following, could only have originated in a country of overtly macho, strong men and responsive women.
There are no real “steps” in Argentine tango, but a walk forward, back and side. It is improvised. The man leads with his mind and body, and the woman follows with hers. She does have the choice of adding adornments and embellishments, but the control and responsibility are the man’s. The couple dance as one in a tight embrace, cheek to cheek, chest to chest, but their legs do different things.
I had to learn not to avert my eyes from a man’s direct gaze if I wanted to dance at the Buenos Aires milongas. It wasn’t easy for me at first to stare at a man from across the room, too forward for women here in the U.S. But it is considered rude in Argentina for a man to approach a woman’s table without permission, and so a woman gives her permission silently with her eyes. Often that’s all that passes between a man and a woman before meeting on the dance floor, simply a look that says, let’s dance together.
Then after the man opens his arms and the woman walks into them, they hold each other wordlessly for a moment before beginning to dance. One of my teachers there said, “The way a woman walks to me when I ask her to dance tells me if it will be a good tango or not. And at the moment when I first embrace her, I know all I need to know.”
Argentine Eduardo Arquimbau confided, “I decided when I was young that I had to be a good dancer so that women would dance with me.” The pioneering dancer, choreographer and international stage star who gave our American group a Master class, continued, “I look at a woman in the street and compliment her and she won’t even return my gaze, but at a milonga I can ask her to dance with my eyes. Then I can hold her in a deep embrace, our breath mingling, our faces touching.”
American women, myself included, flock in droves to the romantic allure of the tango and the macho men who dance it in milongas all over the world. The deep embrace, which is the norm in Buenos Aires, both seduces and frightens us.
We are so thrilled to be held in a close embrace and led strongly around the dance floor in a dance of beauty and passion, that sometimes we confuse the dancer with the dance. It is easy for many of us to fall in love with the dancer. However, the sensuous communication and intimacy of the Tango is traditionally over once you leave the floor. Argentines know this, but Americans can be disoriented and befuddled after a sexually-charged dance.
I saw how attractive are strong men who know where they are going and what they want and who never doubt themselves – even if they are old with missing teeth (often due to dance hall brawls in their youth), or are young and skinny boys just out of their teens.
American men are different, a bit unsure of their place in the world today and what women expect from them. It’s a cultural thing. Perhaps we American women have brought it on ourselves with our race to equality.
All of this naturally in both cultures, translates to the dance floor – and perhaps the bedroom.
It’s possible that American women don’t really want a romantic relationship with a macho man, but many are starving to give up control – at least for the time it takes to dance two or three tangos. And to be held so close that your breath combines and your legs tangle and you dance as one… well – some of us lust for that in our lives, not just for ten minutes. On my trip there were a lot of tears shed by my American traveling companions in the Ladies’ Rooms of the tango halls. And I admit, even though I knew better, to having a crush on one of the teaching assistants and being disappointed that all he did was dance with me.
It’s more comfortable to have our personal space, to keep a lack of commitment that prevents our being hurt, to not press our breasts against the chest of a stranger who we may never see again and whose name is unknown.
It takes courage for Americans to be close physically, and to embrace a stranger like a lover for whom we have no expectations. Holding someone “at arm’s length” is a lot easier, after all.
It’s just not Tango.
Juan Bruno, another Master teacher I studied with, described the physiology of Tango as “the brain sending a message to your feet through your heart.” And el corazon, the dominant phrase of tango song lyrics, is also the soul of Tango as well as the heart of its dancers.
I learned that Tango is music, a mystique, a way of life, a people, not only a dance. My dancing improved after dancing twelve hours a day with strong leaders, and now that I’m back home again, I’m haunting the milongas of Los Angeles looking for the perfect dance experience as I found it in Buenos Aires. And if I also find tremendous pleasure from a man’s deep embrace with no strings attached, well, who can blame me?
However, along with all of its other qualities, a tango can also be just a dance. At a milonga I remind myself of that each time a man takes me in his arms to dance, and before I go home, alone.