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Love Affair With Tango

By: Andrea Gourgy, Toronto, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

We were positioned cheek-to-cheek on a Buenos Aires dance floor. My eyes were closed, my arms wrapped tightly around his neck as I followed his every delicate movement almost instinctively. After a six-week extended stay in Buenos Aires, it wasn't until this evening, my very last evening in the city, until I met Paulo, that is, that I finally understood the tango.
Tango, a dance that was born of immigrants in the city slums, is now in the air all over the capital: the music blares from restaurants and canteens and one can see couples performing expertly in the streets. I had never even heard a tango melody when I decided I would travel to Buenos Aires to learn the 19th century dance. After a 25-hour journey south from Canada, I finally made it to the dance studio where I would spend the bulk of my trip.

Claudia, a world-renowned tango dancer and teacher, sat across from me on a worn couch in her downtown Buenos Aires studio. 'First, you must learn the rules of the dance,' she told me as she took a sip of Mate (typical Argentinean tea) from a large silver thermos. 'First and most importantly,' she continued, 'the man must always invite the woman to dance. And the woman should never say no.'

A lean, dark-haired woman, Claudia was obviously seasoned by years of late nights and shady men in the tango scene; she looked significantly older than her chronological age of 34. She proceeded to explain the following rigid, but essential tango protocol: (1) A man makes eye contact with a woman and nods ever so subtly to indicate that he would like to dance with her. (2) The woman then nods in assent. (3) The two get up to meet on the dance floor.

Argentinean men have very fragile egos and, according to Claudia, if you turn down even one potential dance partner, no others will risk your rejection. Should the woman not wish to dance with the man who is nodding to her, the events should proceed as such: (1) A man makes eye contact with a woman and nods ever so subtly to indicate that he would like to dance with her. (2) She pretends not to notice.

After this frightening lecture, Claudia paired us up with partners. I was paired with a tall, stern-looking, German ex-pat who I furtively named 'Schvitz' because he arrived to class directly from work without stopping at home for a shower. Schvitz insisted on dancing cheek-to-cheek, which, considering our difference in height meant my cheek to his armpit. Unfortunately, my German cohort had not caught on to the subtlety of the dance.

'Turn to the left,' he urged me in an aggravated tone. 'But you are pushing me to the right,' I contested, too polite to point out that Schvitz had never advanced to an intermediate course despite having taken eight months of intensive dance classes.

For a woman, tango is about more than following your partner. It's about being able to understand his interpretation of the music through non-verbal cues. I knew I was not going to find what I was looking for in Claudia's studio, so it didn't take me long to cut class to head for the milongas. A milonga is a dancing den; it can be held virtually anywhere: a bar, a community center, even outdoors. Drinks are usually served, but the main event is always the dance. The atmosphere ranges from chic to casual and one can witness expert dancers of all ages. What counts here are your dancing skills, though I tried desperately to compensate with heels that got
progressively higher.

At first, my luck was not much better than at Claudia's studio. My nerves caused me to fumble and step on the toes of my unsuspecting partners. They all seemed annoyed. One even abandoned me on the dance floor. Until my last evening, that is.

I was taking in my last bit of tango music and ambiance when a handsome,
dark-haired man of about thirty made eye contact and nodded from a distance.
I nodded back and we met on the dance floor.

He put his glasses in his back pocket and held me close. We started swaying back and forth to the music, barely moving at all. He alternated the pace, from standing still to performing fast, leg movements. I didn't step on his toes once. After a couple of hours, we were sweaty, tired and drained; but we persisted. I executed ovements that Claudia would have never guessed I was ready for. I learned to flick my leg sensually between his legs. I learned to arch my back and be dipped. I learned to add in my own freestyle embellishments.

I later found out Paulo was a tango photographer; he spent his time interpreting the dance visually. So I suppose I should not have been surprised that his dancing was so fluent and his interpretation of the music so smooth. The truth is, all it takes is one good leader to show you what the dance is about. And Paulo did that for me. In fact, with the loud music in the background and my elementary Spanish, I can't even be sure that was his name -- but I suppose that's irrelevant to the lessons he taught me. My love affair was not with him, it was, after all, with the tango.

For More Info:
You can go tango dancing any night of the week in Buenos Aires. Since milongas come and go, your best option is to check out either of the major tango magazines in the city, BA Tango or El Tangauta.

The web site www.tangodata.com.ar is dedicated entirely to tango events in Buenos Aires and around the world. Let'sTanGO! is a web site conceived of by a staff of experienced journalists that promotes Buenos Aires culture with Tango as a thematic core. Travelers can learn which dance dens are recommended for beginners (some milongas are only for advanced or intermediate dancers), which ones serve dinner, etc. Doing your research before you travel will add to the success of your experience.

If you're starting from scratch, you'll need at least a handful of classes before you'll feel ready to strut your stuff in public. These are a few tango teachers who can help you get to that point:
Carolina Levin: Tel. 4784-2968 or tangoargentino@argentina.com
Marisa Galindo: Tel. 4543-0018 or migalindo@ciudad.com.ar
Marcelo Gutierrez: Tel. 4601-3421 or pechelo@hotmail.com

Safety for Women in Buenos Aires:
While Argentina does not have as high a rate of violent crime as some of its South American neighbors, precautions are in order, especially in Buenos Aires. The current economic and political crisis has unfortunately led to a rise in both poverty and crime.

During the day, buses and the subway (called the "subte" by locals) are perfectly safe. Don't ever walk alone at night, especially in areas such as La Boca and Retiro. Never take taxis off the street; always call a Radio-taxi (Tel. 4922-9999), or even better, take a remise car where a driver will take you to your destination for a fixed rate. My personal favorite is Remises Hola S.A., (Tel. 4786-5333),

Women travelers will find men in Argentina slightly more subdued than those from other Latin American countries. They are unlikely to squeeze your buttocks or harass you in public; they will, however, hold you tight for a tango or yell out "mamacita" to you from a car window. Just take it in stride and you'll be fine.

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