Milonga Madness in Buenos Aires.
By Karen Phelps.
A man leads me to the dance floor. The music starts, he takes my hand and…hands me his business card. Tango tourism is big business in Buenos Aires. Being a tango teacher is a desirable profession and competition for students is heavy amongst up and coming tango teachers.
Just ten years ago tango was not so popular. Now the dance form has gained popularity, mainly among foreigners, who get hooked in their own country then travel to Buenos Aires with the specific purpose of perfecting the dance style. It is easy to see why it is a desirable profession. The best teachers command top dollars, up to $300 pesos per hour ($80 US/$90 AU), and travel the world performing and teaching.
But finding tango in Buenos Aires can be difficult unless you know where to look. Travellers expect to see tango danced in every bar but most porteños (locals) have never danced tango. For porteños, tango remains simply a tourist attraction. The real tango scene is underground. For those in the know, milongas (tango dances) can be found every night of the week.
Although tango can now be found in virtually every country around the world, Buenos Aires is undoubtedly the place to be if you want to seriously improve your dancing. To the uninitiated dancing social tango looks deceptively simple but it is far from an easy dance to master. Dancing milonguero (close embrace) tango grew from crowded dance floors. With little room for tricky manoeuvers this type of social tango allows for simplicity of steps while encouraging a natural connection between the dancers.
But although it looks simple, as tango is entirely an impromptu dance for the woman, following the man’s lead can be difficult as every man’s lead is quite different in style. And for the man, navigating a crowded dance floor and planning moves in advance can require as much forethought as playing a game of chess.
Tango in Buenos Aires comes with its own rules of etiquette, which can initially be intimidating. Women generally do not ask men to dance but must wait at tables for men to catch their eye. Called a ‘cabeceo’ this catching of the eye is a subtle invitation to dance. If the woman smiles and does not look away she is signaling her acceptance. Of course this subtle signaling can also on occasion go terribly wrong with sometimes two women arriving red faced to the dance floor to dance with the same man.
With tango classes held both during the day and at night a tango vacation can be far from relaxing. There are a wide variety of different teachers and dance styles to choose from including traditional milonguero style to more modern nuevo tango complete with electronic music. So how to find the best classes? Milongas often provide information on the classes held there and there are also tango publications available that list the dance schools’ schedules. The best way is to look around, try out some classes and also ask other tango dancers you meet for recommendations.
For the serious tango dancers though, private classes are a must. Prices can range from $200-300 pesos per hour ($50-$80 US / $60-$90 AU). But if you get the right teacher the individual critique can be invaluable and more economical than doing a larger number of group classes where individual feedback may be scarce.
I select a teacher on the recommendation of a friend and arrive at an apartment in downtown Palermo that private tango teacher Nora Schvartz has converted to a dedicated dance studio. She tells me I must take a series of three lessons but if I do not like her teaching style after the first lesson there is no obligation to take more. The reason? Tango is a difficult dance to master and requires a number of lessons to notice any real improvement.
Nora, a diminutive lady who speaks English, French and Spanish, watches me dance with eagle eyes. Any delusions I had about my dancing skills are immediately deflated as she starts from the basics, teaching me how to walk. The walk is the most basic element of tango and also the most essential. It looks deceptively simple but many tango dancers will perfect their walk over a lifetime.
Once Nora has corrected a few basic mistakes, a young tango dancing lawyer called Matias, dressed in a tight black t-shirt, arrives – my dance partner. Nora has paired him up with me as it is easier to practice with a dancer who is a similar height. I also find out that Nora specially selects the dance partners using only the top young dancers in Buenos Aires. Matias, for example, was a recent top ten finalist in El Campeonato Metropolitano de Tango Salon – an important tango competition in Argentina.
The lesson lasts two hours making it good value for money as Nora charges at the cheaper end of the private lesson scale. She does not let much go unnoticed, correcting virtually every part of my body. By the end I am somewhat overwhelmed by all the things I have to work on.
But it is during the night at various milongas that I can really practice what I have learned. Many include a lesson before the social dancing begins. They start after 11pm and can go until 6am. For added inspiration most include a performance by expert tango dancers. Milongas can vary markedly depending on the milonga and even the night of the week. Once again, ask around to find the milongas that will suit you best and visit a variety of them to get a feel for what is on offer. Once you find a milonga you like, look at who has organised it and go to other milongas they are offering.
A trip to Buenos Aires is vital for anyone wanting to really improve their tango. The variety of dancers to partner with, friends you make, milongas, teachers and classes can often make it difficult to leave. But then again there is always the next visit to look forward to…
Milongas are held at many venues around the city. Expect to pay around 20 pesos entry fee. Some of these venues do not hold milongas every night so it is advisable to check before you arrive as schedules can change.
Parakultural Canning. Location: Scalabrini Ortiz 1331. A popular milonga with both locals and tourists. Many dancers to watch and often a demonstration by professional dancers as well.
Club Villa Malcolm. Location: Cordoba 5064. A relaxed milonga in a hall combined with a restaurant/pub. A tango lesson is often held first and included in the entry price if you want to have a go.
El Beso. Location: 416 Riobamba. Depending on the night you go this is a more traditional milonga. Expect to see much cabeceo.
La Viruta. Location: Armenia 1336. A relaxed fun venue that is a true bargain as you get as many dance classes that are being held that night with your entry fee including rock n roll, salsa and tango.
Sueno Porteno. Location: San Juan 3330. Good for those that don’t want to stay out late as this milonga starts at 7pm.
Buenos Aires Club. Location: Peru 571. Held on Monday and Wednesday nights this milonga is good as it features a great live orchestra called El Afronte www.elafronte.com.ar
For more milonga information www.buenosairesmilongas.com
WHEN LOOKING FOR PRIVATE LESSONS CONSIDER:
How long is the lesson? Lessons can range from one hour to two hours for the same price.
Is a dance partner supplied? Some teachers expect you to bring your own partner.
Very top photo: © Elultimode… | Dreamstime.com