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Sure, we've all seen the cliche of it before in the movies, woman with a rose in her mouth, man in a suit, both entwined in one another's arms, exaggerated expressions of passion on their faces. But buzzing around in Buenos Aires gave me the chance to peek into the expansive and amorphous after-hours sub-culture called tango. With many meanings to many people, the single word tango in actuality describes a multitude of styles of song and dance. And, Buenos Aires, with all its nooks and crannies, offers the small time explorer plenty of opportunity to play tango voyeur.
My tango curiosity started with Cafe Tortoni, a low-cost viewing option in an up-scale cafe with lots of history, in the theatre district of Buenos Aires. Despite being tourist-driven, Tortoni satisfies the first layer of my curiosity. Reminiscient of another era, its baroque interiors once served as a home to many of Argentina's writers and intellectuals. Now it's all tourists, but it still feels like a piece of the past delivered on a silver platter.
Tortoni sits on the 42nd St. of Buenos Aires, amidst the city's grand theaters on a wide boulevard with traffic whizzing by. Its front room is huge and its eminence is magnified by gold leaf, mirrors, chandeliers and velvet chairs. Walls are bedecked with portraits and sketches of and by the famous artists who were once denizens of the place. The staff is dressed formally in black and white garb.
Tango seekers are led to a small back room, Parisian in feel. The stage is modest, about 25 feet wide, as is the room, and there are about 10 small cafe tables. A baby grand sits on stage. And the show--utterly entertaining, complete with live band comprised of piano, accordion, and stand-up bass and violin. The encee, equipped with pipes of an opera singer, narrates the different vignettes with dialogue and song. The performers, a couple, move in sync, a tightly choreographed duo, lively and attractive, dancing to the pulsing of the acoustic music with its Italian undertones. It is a touch on the cliched side, but I am entertained.
After this tango appetizer, I want more. Roberta, a Buenos Aires local and my acquaintance recommends I skip the even more touristy tango dinner show and instead, we head straight for the source--the Milonga.
Roberta takes me and two of my American friends to our first milonga, located in a plaza abutting Buenos Aires' Chinatown. Milongas are basically informal gatherings of tango junkies who congregate for one purpose and one purpose only: tango. There are occasionally lessons, but typically the scene is strictly for diehards and the moves are old-school. At the Chinatown milonga (my informal dubbing) there are approximately 50 people, all locals, who congregate at 8:00pm on weeknights to dance. They set themselves up on a large, elevated gazebo. Someone has thrown a cloth down for the ladies' handbags, and another has brought a boom box blaring scratchy old tango music from a time far past.
The crowd's demographic hails from all walks of life. A svelte young dancer in soft-soled dance shoes struts her stuff with an octegenarian whose age has little apparent affect on his dexterity and skill. A respectable middle-aged woman in stiletto heels and her stately husband move effotlesslly in sync. A swarthy latin neophyte eagerly completes each pass and turn with numerous women.
Similar to a cajun waltz, this group of strangers move as individual couples, each with their own levels of complexity in their moves, but in a circular path, within the confines of the gazebo. Each couple resembles a planet moving around the sun.
They dance until 11pm. Some return home to bed. Others stop home merely to change wardrobe in preparation for the next event.
Roberta has given us another gem of local knowledge: the Konex milonga. This milonga is hosted at the Konex Centro Culturale, which appears to be a former factory or industrial space. Similar to PS1 in New York City, it was at some point taken and converted into an art space. In Konex's case, little was done in terms of major renovations, other than clearing the space of all machinery.
But the transformation to an improvised ballroom is seamless. Cement columns are bedecked with facades giving them the appearance of decadence. Red curtains mark the stage area. An extensive network of lights create the mood of a grand social hall. Concrete floors serve perfectly as a dance floor. On one of the walls, movies are projected.
And then, out comes the band. Dressed in black button-up shirts, seven men well into their seventies come on stage, fashionably late at 2:30am. Four accordians, an upright bass, a piano, a violin, come together to produce high energy tango songs. They look like the Buena Vista Social Club.
The dancers are nothing less than fantastic. Dressed to the nines, these people treated this Wednesday as if it were Saturday night at the Ritz. Women in dresses and stilettos; men in button up shirts and ties.
And not a sole save myself was ignorant of the intricate moves, the aesthetic etiquette of tango.
Like many arts of tradition, the story of modern tango, as I later learn, is the story of revival. Brought in some primeval form to Buenos Aires by Italian immigrants in the late 1800's, cultural blending created a whole new Argentine tradition. At that time, tango was the habit of ne'er-do-wells such as itinerant sailors, prostitutes, and the like. As Italian customs found their various niches in Argentine culture, tango found a home in South American.
Like many of its geographic neighbors, Argentina has changed hand between numerous political idealogues. By the 1930's, the Great Depression and the fall of Argentine leader Hipolito Yrigoyen marked one of the first periods of decline for tango. Later it was revived as part of a nationalist campaign of the Peron regime, but again fell into obscurity with the Peron overthrow and following dictatorships, some of which considered it a threat to law and order as a relic of a degenerate past. In the wake of oppression was rock n' roll, further distracting many Argentines from their own rich past. Tango was banned and abandoned, by some estimates, for at least two to three generations. It now enjoys a second renaissance which began about 10 years ago, and in 2009 was declared a part of the "world's intangible heritage" by UNESCO.
And here, before me in 2010 at the Milonga Garufa, in this former factory, on the concrete floors, is a snapshot of tango's past and present. I listen to the power chops of four accordians and a violin, the splendor of a piano and the reverbrations of an upright bass, emanating from a stage populated by septegenarians who likely were young men when they first learned these tunes. And I see dancers, of all generations, moving in tandem to the beat of this once-abandoned drum.
From the market-oriented tango shows, to the casual neighborhood milonga, to the diehard milongas with first-rate musicians, Buenos Aires is a vast buffet for the tango voyeur such as myself. Here I must confess that I more of a musician and less of a dancer, yet still, I am a glutton in this feast of the senses, enjoying the strange rhythms and syncopations, appreciating the art of the physical moves, like watching a painting with its subjects coming to life. In a country like Argentina, which has suffered repeatedly in the past 100 years at the hands of despots, I am stunned by how vivid the culture is. The state of modern day tango serves as proof that traditions of art and music can prevail, despite a history of political idealogues and repression. Tango is a lesson in the power of art and community.