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If there is a single image of Buenos Aires before you actually get there, that would seem to overshadow everything else about the city, it is tango. “Don’t miss going for a tango show when you are in Buenos Aires”, urged my son, who had been there before, “They also teach you to tango, so you can enjoy the fun”. A friend of his who had also been there sighed about the “drop-dead gorgeous women” of that city, and told me how jealous he felt that it was I who was going and not he! Both the young men went into a trance when talking about their memorable time there – the liveliness of the city, its friendly people, the active night life….

Permanently in sneakers and trousers due to still-healing fractures to my feet, I couldn’t imagine myself tangoing in Buenos Aires.  Particularly, since the image of tango (or what is generically known as ‘Latin American Dance’ outside of Latin America) that I had was inseparable from the image of seductive and nubile women in impossibly high heels and unbelievably minute dresses, effortlessly executing impossibly difficult dance steps! But I knew that I wasn’t going to miss watching a tango show for anything in the world.

When I actually got to Buenos Aires, I realized that signaturing the city with tango (and fun) alone – or gorgeous women – was doing it injustice. Of course, the friendly people with their cosmopolitan outlook and pride in their city, whose standards of hospitality could give Arabs and Indians a run for their money, make one feel like a very specially invited guest. And of course, there are olive-skinned beauties whichever way you look. And of course, it is the tango capital of the world, no doubt about that. On my very first evening in Buenos Aires, I met a very senior American academic from New York who told me that she was spending the last four months of her sabbatical year there – the city she said she feels happiest in – learning tango and Spanish! There is tango everywhere – for straights and queers; in open-air plazas; in restaurants in the old district of La Boca, where tango shows are offered as an add-on; everyday tango nights in traditional tango restaurants (‘tangerias’) to which locals flock, the interiors embellished with old fashioned wrought iron work, beveled glass and mirrors, and large dance floors; tango seminars, networks, workshops, magazines and maps, and online communities; tango classes for visiting tourists…the options are endless.

Tango show at San Telmo

The public squares and gardens come vibrantly alive in the evenings, and during weekends craft shops and flea markets sprout, in sudden but orderly rows, all along these green spaces. At several squares and plazas, particularly in the old quarters of San Telmo and La Boca (the former genteel and bohemian, the latter colourful, working class, and  along the docks) – both now tourist hubs, music strikes up and tango performances have audiences sitting around watching graceful dancers display their formidable skills, with the hat being passed around at the end of the show for contributions.

Street art in La Boca

Street in La Boca

On my first night there, I was taken out by my local hosts to a tangeria. When we – a group of seven women with different coloured skins – settled ourselves in at our table, it was around 10.30 p.m., and there was just a handful of couples dancing to recorded music. A couple of single middle aged men in tuxedos, and two single women (in dance attire) – both also on the wrong side of middle age – completed the number. Two of the women in our group – one of them our host, and the other, the visiting American academic, both mad about tango – were also appropriately dressed for dancing. There followed a nuanced drama in which the two single men needed to be attracted to try out the single women as partners. Apparently, a woman needs to be a good dancer for a man to want to dance with her. But she needs a chance to show off her skills! Well, both the women in our group received invitations to dance…And so did the other two singles…The American colleague tells me that, surprisingly for a dance form that is supposed to be all about gender and seduction, tango is actually a liberating social space, particularly for a single woman. You can visit any tango bar as a single woman – in Argentina or in the U.S. – and all that you need to carry you forward through the evening is your desire to dance, and willingness to wait it out until you get a chance to display your skills…

By 12.30 the large hall was full of people. As if on cue, a silver haired man in a tuxedo and a deep baritone stepped to the head of the room, a younger man with an instrument that looked like an accordion materialized, and soon live music was flowing out fast and furious, and most people were on the floor dancing, while the rest of us in our group sat and passed wise judgements on the skills of the dancers. Suddenly, the space on the dance floor cleared, and a very young and handsome couple, in the trademark dark-striped suit and black charmingly provocative tango dress, respectively, stepped into the centre, and for the next hour or so we were treated to the most fantastic and fast paced dancing skills that we had hoped to see. When we left, tired and jet lagged, the evening of dancing had just begun for the citizens of Buenos Aires. In the days that I was in the city, I was to encounter tango at several places, including open air dancing in squares, and dancing sponsored by restaurants in La Boca, the original quay-side scene where tango was invented, by the women of the bordellos into whose arms the poor Italian and Spanish immigrants arriving by boat in the ‘new land of opportunity’ flocked…

The last thing I did before I left Buenos Aires was to take my first and only very enjoyable  tango lesson in the tango studio of my hotel, from a lovely and kind instructor who taught me some basic steps with some twists and turns and a few milonga steps, and kept saying “very good, very good” to my clumsy attempts in my sneakers, and made me feel nice!

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