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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

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Published on November 02, 2010 with 4 Comments

The conection through tangoThe conection through tango

The sun had set. I was tired and done with work, but I was in Buenos Aires. I couldn’t possibly go to bed. As a good “milonguera,” a woman who dances the tango, I started preparing for a night of Argentinean tango.

I put on my six-inch lace high heels, a short black outfit, and a headband embellished with satin gray flowers. My hair was held in a ponytail. My lips had turned bloody red from the a sheer lip gloss and my eyes looked darker than usual, covered with black eye shadow that I never use, except when it is a “noche de tango”—a tango night.

Covering my bare legs and shoulders with a black raincoat, I left the hotel to catch a taxi.

“Where are you going?” asked the taxi driver. He breathed heavily and with difficulty.

“I am going to Sunderland, in Villa Urquiza,” I said.

“That far? That’s across town! What are you doing there?”

“I am going to a milonga to dance some tango.” I jumped into the small cab with Horacio, the 55-year-old taxi driver from Buenos Aires.

As we crossed the city in his tiny, noisy cab, I looked out the window and stared at the old beautiful and baroque architecture that makes Buenos Aires look and feel more European than Latin American.

“How long have you danced tango?” asked Horacio.

“For about three years,” I said.

“I like tango and all sorts of music, but lately I have been listening only to romantic songs,” he responded.

“How come? Are you in a romantic mood?” I thought he was just in love.

“No, my wife left me a year ago. We weren’t doing well, but I love her. What hurts most is losing my kids!” Suddenly his cheerful tone turned grave. His voice was breaking, and his eyes watered.

I turned my head away from the window, looking at Horacio and listening to his story.

Horacio had had a tough life. He not only lost three of his kids and his marriage during the past year; he also lost two sons from his first marriage. One died of cancer at age 36, and the other in a car accident at 27.

Horacio’s heartbreak and tough life suddenly seemed like a tango song.

IMG_3404Tango music is passionate, but also melancholic. It is about love, but also about loss. Perhaps the themes that we all can identify with, and the lyrics’ intensity, make this music so universal. Who hasn’t been heartbroken? Who hasn’t missed the “good old times”? Who doesn’t want to love and be loved in return? Who hasn’t lost someone?

Although it originated in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Montevideo (Uruguay), the tango’s music and dance have crossed borders and spread worldwide, last year becoming UNESCO’s declared Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“Here we are!” Horacio pointed at a bright sign that read “Sunderland.” I had made it to the most legendary milonga in Buenos Aires! This was where the “grandes”—the best dancers, or masters of tango—gather and dance.

Although this was supposed to be the Sunderland milonga’s best night, it looked like a quiet restaurant from the outside.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to wait so you can make sure there is a milonga?” asked Horacio. He was worried that I wouldn’t find a cab in a neighborhood so far from Buenos Aires.

“Don’t worry, Horacio. I am sure there is a milonga. Thanks!” I wished him luck, gave him 40 pesos and got out of the cab.

A hallway next to the restaurant led to the ballroom’s entrance.

Wearing a strapless multicolored dress, a petite woman with platinum blond hair and an orange tan smiled at me and asked me to follow her. She seated me at a table with two chairs.

She and a white-haired man wearing a formal suit seemed to be the Sunderland milonga’s hosts, welcoming guests warmly, checking on tables and seating newcomers in the few non-reserved tables.

It was an unusual ballroom, as are most of the tango ballrooms in Buenos Aires. Not only the quality of the dance, but also these places’ “character” and uniqueness, make the milongas of Buenos Aires a magical experience.

Dancers in Sunderland, a former gym
Dancers in Sunderland, a former gym

Sunderland’s legendary milonga was formerly a gym. The old basketball court still had its baskets. Instead of players trying to score, however, this center now awaited tango dancers. Instead of bleachers, the court now was encircled by white-clothed tables and “milongueros” eager to dance.

It was almost midnight, but no one was dancing yet. People enjoyed their food and chatted loudly.

Suddenly another lone woman sat at the table next to me. She removed her flats and put on a pair of sexy Comme Il Faut high heels (the Jimmy Choo of tango) with red stripes around her ankles.

Her name was Chantal, a tall, slender and attractive French woman in her 50s with short black hair and a bright white smile. She said she came to Buenos Aires every year for a month to dance tango.

Gradually more people, mostly locals, started arriving.

An Argenitean milonguera
An Argenitean milonguera

Flaunting exuberant hairdos and tight lace dresses in black and red with sharp openings and naked shoulders, Argentinean women—some of them in their 70s—walked into the milonga confidently in their high heels. Argentinean men posed elegantly in their neat suits, vests and glowing dancing shoes. They all seemed to know each other and sat with their partners or with groups of friends.

Meanwhile, Chantal and I both sat there, alone and lonely in our suddenly not-exuberant-enough outfits (at least compared to those the Argentineans wore), waiting to be asked to dance.

At exactly midnight, the DJ pumped up the music and couples started to take over the dance floor.

But the tango is not a structured, social dance—it is about improvising, playing and connecting with each other, and with the music.

Moving in a counterclockwise direction, the couples walked softly and elegantly around the room with their eyes closed and their heads touching softly. In a close embrace, chest-to-chest, they looked as if they had been transported to another world, giving themselves completely and unquestioningly to each other. Perhaps they were couples, or total strangers, feeling the music in their bones and expressing emotions in a series of sensual moves.

A woman in her 60s with bright red hair caressed her partner’s leg with her right foot. A much younger woman moved her legs and hips sensually side-to–side, and then backward with a pivot. A tiny girl executed a sharp “gancho,” or hook, flicking her leg between her dancing partner’s legs. An old man danced with a young girl. A young gentleman danced with a woman who looked like she was old enough to be his grandmother. Regardless of their age, all of the dancers made a connection.

pareja bailando The tango is the clearest expression of foreplay, but on a dance floor!

More than half an hour had passed since the milonga started, and Chantal and I were still seated. We looked at each other, eager to join the dancing crowd; but most people had come with friends or their own partners. It was going to be a tough night for two lonely milongueras…

We looked around, trying to see if a man would make eye contact with us. We were not trying to “pick up” a guy; we actually were trying to see if anyone wished to dance with us. To tango, specifically in Buenos Aires, a man doesn’t ask, “Do you want to dance?” Instead he makes eye contact with the woman he wishes to dance with, and nods slightly toward the dance floor. If the woman wants to dance, she just smiles back.

IMG_3305 A man in his 60s, sitting at the table in front of me, turned back and looked at me firmly. He nodded toward the dance floor; I smiled. I finally was going to make my debut at the Sunderland milonga! I knew that the other dancers would be watching; if I screwed up, I would spend the rest of the night sitting. If I danced well, however, I would dance again. As a newcomer, I had only one chance to prove myself to the Argentineans.

With a heavy Argentinean accent, the man asked, “Cómo te llamas? Y de donde eres?” (“What’s your name and where are you from?”) as he walked to me to the dance floor. “My name is Ruben,” he added.

Maybe it was my six-inch heels, but Ruben seemed a head shorter than I. I leaned toward him and placed my head next to his. He held me tightly against him and started leading me around the dance floor.

As I do in every tango, I closed my eyes and let myself be led, forgetting that I am in a stranger’s arms doing every move, not as any technique, but rather as a response to what I feel.

No matter who you dance with, the tango is about finding a connection with another person through music. Sometimes the connection is immediate; sometimes it requires a bit of attention and effort from each side; and, on some occasions, it doesn’t happen at all, no matter how hard you try.

Although this was our first dance, I managed to follow Ruben well.

After that first dance, I didn’t stay seated at my table for long.

Throughout the night, I danced with a variety of men: a charming Frenchman, a young Uruguayan, a picky Argentinean dance teacher, a very tall Argentinean, and a short old man. With each I felt different a level of connection, but I danced well…and then I met Rodrigo.

Waiting to be asked to dance
Waiting to be asked to dance

Wearing a soft pink, long-sleeved shirt, black trousers, white suspenders, and black dancing shoes, Rodrigo was a young Argentinean with almond-shaped eyes and an elegant pose. Although probably in his early 20s, he dressed and carried himself as an old-fashioned gentleman.

I met Rodrigo when he “asked” me to dance, making eye contact with me from across the dance floor. I looked side-to-side, to make sure his gesture was intended for me. He nodded and I smiled.

“I am sorry. Sometimes the tango etiquette is confusing,” I said.

“I know,” he smiled.

I placed my left hand around Rodrigo’s shoulder and my face next to his. His stature was perfect for my height. He was young, but his embrace was as strong and tight as the old veteran dancers’. “So far, so good,” I thought. But you never know about the outcome or the connection until the song starts. I closed my eyes.

He made a long movement to the side, and I followed. We started dancing and, from that moment on, all the moves flowed effortlessly and spontaneously. I needed to make no effort to read Rodrigo’s moves; I didn’t even feel like I had to follow. It wasn’t him or I; it was us and that single dance. Each movement—giro, gancho, sacada, or poleo—came out naturally, making this not only just another tango, but the true essence of this dance: the connection between two people through a passion and through music. I felt as if I had danced with Rodrigo for a long time, but I barely knew him.

“Wow; you danced beautifully. I thought you were Argentinean,” said Rodrigo when the first song finished.

Rodrigo came from a family of milongueros. All his parents and grandparents danced tango. He was born and raised in Argentina, but now lived in Shanghai where he taught and performed tango.

“I have seen Asians dancing and they have an impeccable technique, but I am not a very technical dancer. I learned to tango by dancing with different men, and each man is a completely different experience. I just feel each of them and the music,” I explained.

“And that’s how tango should be danced. Some dancers focus on step names and perfect technique. It might be technically perfect, but it’s also passionless. The tango is all about emotions and relating through the music,” he responded.

Another song started and we embraced each other closely again. With our eyes closed, we continued to share a magical moment of passion and music through tango in the most legendary milonga in Buenos Aires…

The First: Falling in love with Tango and with John in La Viruta

IMG_3448 It was 3 a.m. on a Wednesday. Marcos and I had just arrived in La Viruta, a well-known tango venue located in the basement of Club Armenio in Palermo, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Having come from another milonga, I thought that La Viruta’s milonga was almost finished for the night as it was a weekday, but I was completely wrong. The milonga was alive, leaving no doubts that for passionate milongueros it doesn’t matter the time or the day of the week to dance tango!

My dear Argentinean friend—who looks like a clone of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—and I sat at a table that faced the dance floor. With our jaws dropping, we were mesmerized looking at the couples dancing on the dance floor.

It was a public milonga, not a tango show, but each couple danced with such grace and power, and performed each movement so perfectly, that it was like seeing the best group performance.

I watched these couples and the passion they inspired. It was contagious! IMG_3452

I couldn’t help but think of my first night at La Viruta and my first time in a milonga in Buenos Aires. That was also on a Wednesday, but in October 2007, two years earlier.

That night in 2007 is when I fell in love with the Argentinean tango…and also with John.

I met John at the airport in Buenos Aires. We were both on the same flight from Peru, and we both had come to Buenos Aires for work.

We started chatting while waiting for our luggage to come out on the carrousel.

Tall, slender and with clear blue eyes, John was an all-American boy who spoke Spanish as well as a native. As we talked, I was impressed by his Spanish, but also shocked by all the coincidences between us.

“Do you want to join some friends and me for dinner?” he asked me.

I already had plans.

“I am sorry. I have a tango class tonight, but do you want to come to a milonga with me afterward?” I asked him just in case he wished to explore the tango scene of Buenos Aires with me.

“I don’t know how to dance the tango, but I am a good dancer,” he said. “This is my number.”

The more we talked, the more I realized that we had more than just coincidences. Although I first hesitated to call him, I decided to give it a chance. It is easy to have chemestry with someone, but it is rare to find someone who you can coincide in more than one level…

That Wednesday John and I explored Buenos Aires at night in a taxi –which can be a very romantic experience in a city like this one- and ventured to La Viruta, where I would experience for the first time an Argentinean milonga. Laughing and chatting, we came downstairs and got into the large, barely-lit basement.

When we arrived, the classes had almost finished and the orchestra was ready to start.

John asked me to teach him, but I had been dancing for only less than a month. I was just good at following the lead. I placed my chest against his and leaned my chin into his. I could feel his breath in my ear. Having him so close to me felt suddenly so right. I tried to teach him the basic steps, and we thought we were ready for the dance floor.

The orchestra started with Osvaldo Pugliese’s “La Yumba,” a song that, to this date, is still one of my favorite tangos.

I embraced John and we started walking around the room, trying to mix with the rest of the milongueros.

An old Argentinean asked, “Pero qué pasa con ustedes chicos? ¡Están interrupiendo la milonga!” (“What’s wrong with you guys? You are obstructing the milonga!)

I later would learn that when the milonga starts, then it is unacceptable to teach or practice on the dance floor as it does interrupt the flow of the dance.

Knowing about salsa but nothing about tango, John was leading me in the wrong direction. We laughed at the Argentinean man’s sudden reaction and moved away from the crowd.

“I cannot impress you with tango. I am sure I can do that with salsa!” said John.

Before we left in the search of a salsa place in Buenos Aires, I watched the passion, the connection between the couples, the sensuality of the movements…and the passion transcended the dancers. All the orchestra’s musicians—the singer, the violinist, the accordion player—were in another state of mind. All and each of them were united through music, through the old classic tangos of Astor Piazolla, Oswaldo Pugliese, Francisco Canaro y Carlos Gardel.

I didn’t know then that I would (or could) become a milonguera. But that night a mere curiosity turned into one of my life’s biggest passions.

The Backpacker dancing tango in San Telmo
The Backpacker dancing tango in San Telmo

People say that we find love when we least expect it. And that night at La Viruta left two loves…

I fell madly in love with John, with whom I had a romance that lasted on and off for almost a year and a half after that night in Buenos Aires. Sometimes someone can be perfect according to your “check list”. Sometimes you can share a life of coincides, but I learned then that was not enough…

My love story with John ended sadly. As in many tango songs, I had my heart broken by a love that wasn’t returned equally; and as painful as it was, I had to let him go…

…but that night I also fell madly in love with the Argentinean tango. Our mutual love has become an affair that has intensified throughout the years. This dance taught me about myself and enabled a rarely visible soft and vulnerable side of me to surface in every tango; I discovered a passion and dancing abilities I never suspected I had.

That night in 2007 in Buenos Aires changed my life, and I owe that change to the Argentinean Tango.

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There are currently 4 Comments on IT IS ALL FOREPLAY IN BUENOS AIRES’S MILONGAS. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. As someone who doesn’t/can’t/won’t dance, I can really appreciate folks who do it well. Seeing a couple in sync, their movements so fluid, it’s really a visual treat.

    Nice to be able to do this after work. Get the company to pay for the trip, do your work, and then get to have fun with your passion.

  2. Tango -or any dance- is magical when a conection is made. I just happened to loveeee tango.

    It is not easy to work all day (especially with my full time job that implies a lot of event logistics and stress) and to keep on going at night, but when you have passion for something, energies come from nowhere 🙂 I always travel to Latin America, I wish my company needed me to go to other continents 😉

  3. Hola, Daniela. I am a photographer preparing to go to Bhutan in mid-April. Lotay Rinchen suggested I contact you for ideas. I would love to be in touch by email or phone if possible. Gracias mil.


  4. Very nice vidps3atxvipx

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