Wednesday, 1 July 2009


On my way back from Buenos Aires I thought it would be a really good idea to paint a few verbal portraits of the most memorable places/times I had found myself in over the previous few months. This was mainly just to help me remember them as I'm sure no one is reading this blog any more (although, it is also obviously to emphasise what a great time I was having and all the fascinating experiences I had - which is kind of the whole point of a travel blog anyway.)

A few months later than planned, I feel like taking a break from writing about cricket to begin this list.... (in reverse chronological order, let's say.)

Buenos Aires Tango parties

Three nights that stick in my head were the nights I spent with Nira and her friends Roberto, Jan and others in a few milongas. Having learnt a bit of salsa in the past, I imagined that I would turn up, watch the Argies dance a bit, get an idea of the steps and then have a go. How wrong I was.

The first party I went to was on my second night in BA, at Salon Canning. This was an old-school tango hall, named after the original title of the street it stood on, which was, in turn, named after the British Foreign Minister of the early nineteenth century who first recognised Argentina's independence. Apparently, BA was once full of English-named streets, squares, statues etc, but they were virtually all renamed after the Falklands War. Canning was about the only guy to survive with some honour intact. (I realised last week that his statue stands in Parliament Square in London, behind Churchill and next to Lincoln, so he must have been a big cheese).

Anyway, Salon Canning was the most traditional of the milongas I would go to. There was one large, well lit room, with a square, wooden dance floor in the centre and tables around the outside. In Salon Canning, the traditional tango rules of engagement were observed. This means that a man cannot simply ask a woman to dance. Couples make eye contact with one another accross the room and then a nod or a wink will lead to a meeting on the dancefloor. The worst thing you could then do is talk to your partner. You must remain in silence until the end of a song, at which point everyone stops and introduces themselves or has a chat. Then another song will start and the couples will shuffle round in the hypnotic motions of salon tango. After about six or seven songs, the music stops for ten minutes or so and the dancefloor empties. If you invite the same girl to dance after that, you are basically asking to sleep with her.

Tango dancing is clearly a very sensual experience. Women tend to lean in towards the men, usually with their eyes closed, and dance very closely. Serious tangueros do not laugh or make jokes whilst dancing. But it is not just about getting off with each other. I noticed on my first night a pattern that was borne out through the other milongas I attended: I had never seen so many beautiful women dancing with so many bald or fat or old or ugly (or all four) men in all my life. Rather than dancing with the most handsome guys, all the women would go for the best dancers.

Halfway through the night, the band stopped playing (it was mostly recorded music, but a band did play for about 1/3 of the night). An MC came out, thanked everyone for attending and announced the next event at the Salon. He then invited two professional tangueros to come out and give a show for those watching. Out stepped an immaculately dressed man in his sixties and a woman of indeterminate age who probably had the same plastic surgeon as Annakin Skywalker. They danced a song or two and I was mesmerized.

(Below is a video of one such demonstration at Salon Canning. Of course, this isn't the night I was there, but it gives you an idea. This particular couple show what a subtle, un-flamboyant dance tango should really be.)

A couple of days later, I went with Nira to a tango class and learnt a few basic steps. Nira and Roberto teased me for my mirada del tanguero : the look somewhere between concentration and seduction that I kept on throughout my lesson. Later that night (probably about 1am - you never turn up to any place in BA until at least an hour or so past midnight) we went along to another milonga. More modern than Canning, this place was larger, darker and with an average age about five years lower. The style of dance was tango moderno: a showier, more variable form of the dance. It was Roberto's last night in BA and he danced with Nira whilst i photographed them several times from the side of the dancefloor.

Once again, halfway through the night an MC invited one of BA's star dancers onto the floor, and this time I could barely stop myself from laughing a short, morbidly obese guy in a black suit stepped out onto the floor with a stunning, twenty something Argentine on his arm. I actually asked myself for a moment if he had a cushion under his jacket, so absurd was his body shape. But then he started dancing. Not only was he amazing, but his particular style was to make a lot of very quick, very intricate steps. Cristiano Ronaldo, at least 5 inches taller and 50 pounds lighter, could not have matched this guy: it was remarkable.

As I watched him dance to two songs, I became conscious of how dreamlike this setting was for me. I was so far away from any of my previous experiences and from my own culture and completely captivated by this new art form I was discovering. I understood a shred of the reasons why the people i had met there from ths USA, Turkey, Germany or Italy, went to such lengths to come to Buenos Aires and dance tango. It was a world within a world that Nira had drawn me into.

(This photo actually is the fat man dancing that night)

After another hour or so of my usual routine of sipping a beer, chatting on the sidelines and enjoying the dancing and music around me, i decided, after my one lesson, that I would have to take the plunge and try it myself. Nira was pleasantly surpirsed as I invited her onto the floor and then fumbled around, moving with the most basic steps and doing my best not to bump into anyone. Nira had been dancing constantly for a few months at that point, and was no slouch on the floor herself. But, as in all Latin American dance, a couple is only as good as the man who leads. So we struggled round and i achieved my objective: by concentrating hard enough I didn't bump into anyone, didn't knock Nira over, and didn't look a total idiot for two songs. I must say that it didn't help when I looked to my right at one point and saw the chubby chavo who had given the demonstration earlier. After one lesson, I was dancing next to one of the world's greats. I was the caveman rubbing two sticks together, whilst some bloke walks past with a Zippo.

Soon afterwards we moved on to another, ultra late night after party, where I met my instructor from earlier in the day and some friends of his. The place was like a disused theatre with bizarre statues hanging off the walls and an empty dancefloor. Every so often, one of these professionals in our group would pick a partner and dance a song or two on the empty dancefloor. needless to say, after my achievment earlier in the night, I was happy to stick and not twist. N, R and I stopped for coffee and croisants at 8am on our way home and another BA night ended.

The next milonga I went to was on my last night out in BA: on Friday 13 February, my birthday. We had tried, unsuccessfully, to locate a viable kareoke bar in St Elmo, BA's trediest district, and ended up going instead, to the free milonga at the Armenian cultural centre (yeah, i don't know why Armenian either...) I chatted to Jaime from Harvard and Jan and Nira and eventually danced the far easier steps of some merengue as the lights went up at the end of the night. Obviously, the hours watching dancing ahd rubbed off as i suprised myself with a few inventive steps which actually came off.

It was a magnificent end to my trip and - simoultaneously - to my "early twenties" as I danced mernegue at dawn with a wonderful Nepalese girl in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One which I shall never forget - especially now I have committed it to cyberspace. More to come...

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