The Church of Tango
Buenos Aires, Argentina
It was known as La Catedral. Not easy to find in Buenos Aires’ dark side streets at three in the morning – no signs, no cars, no people in front. But once I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old warehouse, I could hear the siren call of tango music. It was eerie and scary, mounting those stairs, but I was helpless to do otherwise, a pilgrim drawn to the altar of Tango.
Cherie and Bill
The room was huge, like the inside of a barn, all wood. It was barely lit by large candelabra with most of the candles melted down, votive flames, and a few strings of fairy lights. A bar ran the width of the room in back, with gigantic paintings hanging over it all the way to the rafters. I could just see the outlines of people sitting around the room on the lumpy funky old couches and broken chairs, their conversations punctuated by the smoldering ends of their cigarettes moving in the dark.
At first I could only see the silhouettes of dancers through the smoke. Three or four couples on the warped, uneven wooden dance floor, moved, not to Pugliese or Tanturi, but to Louis Armstrong’s “Kiss of Fire.”
A tall figure approached out of the gloom. Quieres bailar? He was young, muscular, handsome, with black rimmed glasses framing eyes that sparkled with cocaine excitement.
He was so tall I had to reach up very high to wrap my left arm around his neck. He held me tight and led me with brute machismo, so unlike the subtle leads of the old milongeuros I had danced with at Club Almagro earlier that night. When I leaned against him in the traditional tango pose of female trust, he dragged me across the floor, lifted me back on my feet, turned and twisted me, giving me no opportunity to embellish or decorate his steps. I simply obeyed the movements his body ordered. It was different, exhilarating, exhausting.
“You don’t really need to work out at the gym, do you?” I asked during a break in the music.
“No, I eat red Argentine beef full of blood! Blood! To make me strong!”
His eyes glittered, muscles rippled under his tight t-shirt, testosterone energy creating an almost visible aura around him.
Breathless, I had to sit out the next set and recover on an old velvet sofa. I watched people arriving and leaving in the candlelight, with their high heeled tango shoes and backpacks. The informality of the setting and the dancers’ attire and attitude clashed with the formal tango they danced so seriously. It was like watching a play: pure mesmerizing theatre.
Armed with two years of tango experience in Los Angeles, New York and Amsterdam, and with knowledge gleaned from a trip to Argentina last year, I had flown off to Buenos Aires alone. I had no plans to connect with a group or to take any lessons. I simply went to dance tango.
I rented a room in the middle-class neighborhood of Caballito. Three other rooms in the apartment were rented to dancers, and the vivacious landlady, Maria Teresa, was a tanguera too. So whenever we met up with each other in the kitchen or the lone bathroom, we had plenty to talk about.
You can dance in Buenos Aires from after lunch until five in the morning. In the afternoon, the tables in the Comfiteria Ideal – an elegant Belle Epoque ballroom of marble and mirrors – are littered with the cell phones of businessmen and of housewives, also frosty ice buckets with bottles of sparkling cidra, the Argentine apple-cider champagne.
Evenings you can go to practicas or take lessons until midnight. Then everyone hits the tango halls until the sun comes up. Repeatedly I went to bed with birds chirping and sunlight brightening the curtains of my room.
Every day, my friends and I discussed who danced where and with whom as if tango were the most important subject on earth. If I lived in Argentina, I would never work. I surmised that the dancers of Buenos Aires don’t keep a 9-5 schedule. Either that or they never sleep.
One night Maria Teresa drove us to Sin Rumbo. The historic milonga is far out of town, but famous as the “birthplace of tango.” Maria Teresa called it the “church of tango,” the genuine tango cathedral.
It was very different from La Catedral. The harsh overhead florescent lighting illuminated a dozen people seated at tables and a few couples on the small, black and white checkered floor. The dancing style was more open, less crowded than in the packed town clubs. One couple caught my eye: a middle-aged pair a foot apart performing complicated figures with bored faces.
“Married too long,” observed Maria Teresa, whose day job is as a psychologist.
Torquato Tasso was another small, cramped, inelegant tango hall, yet famous nevertheless. At first I couldn’t see why. Jetlagged and tired, I wanted to leave by two a.m. But when twelve white-haired portly men in tuxedos took the small stage, I hung around. Luckily for me, because they were the original members of the famous D’Arienzo Orchestra. With five bandoneons (Argentine accordions), a piano, violins, and double bass, they recreated the fabulous music of the 40’s and 50’s that all tango aficionados cherish.
I asked my hostess, Maria Teresa, “Do you agree that the bandoneon is the sexiest instrument a man can play?”
“Ooh yes!” she laughed. “Just look where they hold it!”
Eduardo and Cherie
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I went to Pavadita on Avenida Corrientes. It too was upstairs, and after parting the velvet draperies at the top, I smelled the incense, burning to mask the musky stale odors of the windowless hall.
At Pavadita, the men sit on a kind of stage at little tables, and the women sit in front of the bar and scattered around the room. Each time the music begins, men and women stare at each other across the empty dance floor. The women select the men they want as partners, and the men respond – or not – with raised eyebrows and inquisitive looks. After a woman nods affirmatively, the man gets up, crosses the room, and, when he’s close to her, she stands up and meets him ready to dance. These nogotiations are invisible to all but the participants, and serve to prevent the embarrassment of public refusal.
It’s a heady thing for us female tango tourists who are not used to it. We catch the eye of a man who has just lit a cigarette and crossed his legs in a pose of relaxation…but suddenly he stubs it out and arrives in front of us to dance just because we looked at him.
I had already learned the infamous Code of Tango, and so I knew what was expected of me and how to behave. It’s all about invitation, wanting, rejection, needing, appearance, sensuality, attitude, sex.
I saw that young women are constantly invited to dance, no matter their skill levels, and old women hardly ever receive invitations, unless it is as favors from a friend or husband. And all the men wishing to dance, no matter their age, looks, or status, can tango as much as they liked.
Men wanted good-looking women; women cared more about the tango skills of their partner. That’s unfair, but it is a man’s world on the tango floor, always.
It is difficult to sit at a table with a man you like while he’s searching the room for prospective dance partners. Too, if you sit with a man, other dancers will ignore you, not wanting to infiltrate another guy’s “territory.” But the fellow at your table can catch the eye of any woman in the room and leave you to dance with her. That’s the Code.
The milongueros (tango hall habitues) of Buenos Aires are not young. They have had many years to perfect their art, are always formally dressed in wool suits and ties no matter the weather, and invariably smell of soap and French cologne. I love dancing in their traditional close embrace. For the milongueros there is only the milonguero style.
On my first trip I was absolutely petrified every time I was asked to dance. This year Carlos Gavito, Omar Vega, and other tango superstars approached me as if they were just anybody – or I was really someone.
At Club Gricel, I was afraid to look at Gavito for fear that he would think me too aggressive. I had taken a few lessons from him in Los Angeles when he was on tour with “Forever Tango,” so we knew each other a little. At the milongas, Gavito only danced with the best and the youngest women. Yet, from the corner of my eye, I saw him stand up, button his jacket, and walk around the dance floor to my table. Oh my gosh, I thought, glancing behind me in vain for the woman who was the object of his invitation. When he brought me back ten minutes and a tango tanda later, the local women sitting at my table were astonished. I could just hear the buzz: “Who is she?”
On my last day in Buenos Aires I danced an impromptu demonstration in the park with Antonio, a handsome milonguero who owned only the elegant suit of clothes on his back. We tangoed beneath a huge fig tree to music from a boombox tied to the bicycle of a grizzled old man. Elderly couples, young children, even a woman in a wheelchair, all cheered and threw money and candy at us while we danced. It was a miracle that I could glide so gracefully over the rough bricks in backless high wedgies with rubber soles.
Thank goodness I had prayed at La Catedral.