For newcomers to Buenos Aires, negotiating the city’s tango scene is an exciting, yet potentially daunting, prospect. The music seems to dominate every facet of metropolitan culture, as Argentina’s most famous form of creative expression is seen everywhere. For many people, tango is an essential part of visiting the capital, not just in the shows, street performances and milongas, but in a cultural identity that revolves around those unmistakable melodies, graceful moves and steamy embraces. While observing from afar is one thing, becoming immersed in the scene is another matter altogether. And, as personal experience as a clueless novice has taught me, looking for a way in inevitably raises probing questions like ‘What the hell do I do?” and ‘”Where the hell do I begin?”
Some Tango History
Tango’s origins lie in the waves of immigrants that began arriving in Argentina and Uruguay in the late 19th century, and in the long-established African-Latino groups whose ancestors were brought to the region as slaves. Merging African music and dance such as the camdombe with European counterparts, a distinctive melodic style emerged in working class barrios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Tango was born, spreading from its humble routes across the region and beyond, as Argentina’s booming economy brought high numbers of entrepreneurs and tourists from North America and Europe, visitors who, along with their precious metals and fancy clothes, exported a taste for this new music sensation back to their home countries. It sparked a worldwide tango craze that saw high demand for touring orchestras and dance shows in New York, Paris and Rome throughout the 1910s and 20s.
Today, the music is known all over the world, retaining the styles that first brought it international recognition a century ago. Much of tango’s appeal lies in the elegance that in many ways defines it: it is a dance that requires fluidity yet concentration, while the melody shifts between joyful and melancholy. Oh yeah, and it’s damn sexy. Passion is at the core of the music, in the grasp of dancing couples, and the sharp notes as clearly defined as the six-pack on Michelangelo’s David.
4 general categories of Tango
At the center of it all is Buenos Aires. The city offers a massive range of tango options, for locals and tourists, for absolute beginners and supreme experts, for those for whom dancing is as alien a concept as walking on Mars and for those whose entire existence is predicated by gliding across the floor with their partner. Here, the tango experience essentially falls into four main categories.
The most common, and authentic, is the milongas, the multitude of neighborhood joints dedicated to those who want to dance and impress with their impeccable finesse. The milonga is the way the bona-fide porteños, the locals, do it. There are hundreds of these places scattered all over town, catering for all tastes and skill levels, with each spot subject to its own styles, customs and formalities. Some of them fling their doors open to all and sundry, exhibiting a warm willingness to receive the uninitiated and offering beginner classes. Other milongas make a Paris fashion show look like the embodiment of humility, where anyone who doesn’t know their canyengue from their orillero will be ass-whupped out of there in record time.
But if its glitz and glamour that you’re looking for, then nothing beats the highly choreographed and stunningly performed tango shows that take place in some of Buenos Aires’ grandest theaters. Starting at close to $100 per person, they’re not exactly cheap, but when you consider the multi-course dinners and constant stream of drinks that are included in the price, you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. There are few indulgences which feel as luxurious feasting on steak and champagne (other options are always available) while dancers pirouette and twirl across a stage. Even as someone who likes spending money like I enjoy having rocks thrown at me, I was impressed each and every time.
Look at it this way: the big shows are porn and the milongas are sex. In the glossy shows, you can admire the incredible technique, reflect on your comparative inadequacies and get off on watching the experts. Going to a milonga, on the other hand, allows you to fumble and flail, to find out if you are a disaster or a natural, and to get a taste for what is involved and what you need to do to improve your performance.
There is also street tango. The most typical spots are well-known places like Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo or along El Caminito in La Boca. While San Telmo exemplifies Buenos Aires charm, El Caminito, with its touts and generic souvenir stores, could define the term ‘tourist trap’. Generally, however, there’s something very pleasant in Buenos Aires street performance, and tango is a key ingredient of the city’s open-air cultural life.
But if you haven’t ever danced tango before, it’s quite possible that you’ll want to at least learn some basics before unleashing yourself on an unsuspecting public. Fortunately, there are plentiful private classes, which can be taken either individually or as part of a group. There are advantages to both. For some people, group classes are more relaxed and allow you to share your experiences and learn from one another. As just one of a number of people, however, your instructor’s attention will be distracted by all those other students who are also tripping over their feet. An individual class, while more expensive, makes you the sole focus and will be tailored to your particular needs. Confusing your left-foot shimmy with your right-knee double bend? A private tango instructor will work with you on the exact areas that you need to improve. A lot of it depends on how serious you are about learning to dance: for the hardcore apprentices, a private class will make you a dancing Rambo. If you’re just looking to have some fun with friends, a group class is the way to go.
As there are so many places vying for your affections, we thought we’d compile a list of recommended tango shows and milongas in Buenos Aires. These offer a variety of different experiences that cater to all those interested in stepping up to the city’s tango scene.
The 5 best Buenos Aires tango shows
Esquina Carlos Gardel, Carlos Gardel 3200, Abasto
Carlos Gardel is to tango what Godzilla is to Japanese B-movies. Gardel is the point of reference in whose shadow all others must exist. This upscale show, located in a majestic theater ballroom, and with excellent food, merges modern and traditional tango in a series of theatrical set-pieces and one of the tightest orchestras in town. The dancers bend the mind with the seemingly impossible speed and dexterity with which they glide across the stage. And they’re hot as hell. Of the many shows I’ve been to, this was my favorite. The food and service were better than most restaurants, while the venue channeled my inner Princess Grace of Monaco.
El Viejo Almacén, Balcarce 799, San Telmo
The iconic San Telmo venue is one of the best-known venues in the city. In a protected 18th century building, this is an informal but highly enjoyable show that recalls tango’s working class origins. It is the kind of intimate and smoky place (you have to imagine the smoke, of course) that Nina Simone would have had a residency were she Argentine or a tango musician. The location, in the heart of the old town and a stone’s throw from La Boca, adds to the sense that this is an authentic part of porteño history.
Rojo Tango Show, Martha Salotti 445, Puerto Madero
The most exclusive show in town, located in Puerto Madero’s dazzling five-star Faena Hotel. The ballroom is draped in passionate red, while the dancers utilize the whole space, weaving in and out of the audience. It’s not cheap, but it takes the concept of ‘indulgence’ to the next level. The hotel is an attraction in itself, occupying an old mill and refitted with $40 million-worth of contemporary chic. There are plenty of tango shows in Buenos Aires, yet this one is unique.
Café de los Angelitos, Avenida Rivadavia 2100, Balvanera
Another venue steeped in tango folklore, the Café, once a raffish music hall, is situated in a very elegant ballroom. This was another regular haunt of the young Carlos Gardel, and its distinguished history is represented in the many photographs on the walls. Perhaps it’s due to being the first show I ever went to, but I haven’t enjoyed the dancing anywhere quite like I have here.
Complejo Tango, Avenida Belgrano 2608, Balvanera
Rather than gape from afar, some people like to get a bit more involved. And Complejo Tango in Balvanera provides that, offering tango classes prior to the main show. If you are more of a casual observer, that’s also fine, as the menu rivals elsewhere. The show unfurls in a series of scenarios, some humorous, others steamy, all of them highly enjoyable.
5 recommendations for Buenos Aires milongas
We’ve put together a selection of milongas which reflect the many atmospheres and styles to be found. These represent a good starting point to your tango adventure, but by no means are they a definitive group of ‘the best’. They are good places to see the different faces of the milonga scene. Bear in mind that some of these places don’t really get going until after midnight.
This is one of the best-known milongas and an excellent choice for beginners. La Catedral offers nightly dancing in an informal setting, a good place to start that won’t destroy your self-esteem when you inevitably cross other dancers’ path. It’s packed out and good fun. The vegetarian restaurant and colorful artworks emphasize the bohemian vibe.
Relaxed but lively venue that peaks later than most, around 3 or 4am when the best dancers announce their presence. There are live shows, while you can take salsa classes as well as tango. It doesn’t close until 6am but don’t worry: breakfast is served in the early hours.
Featuring the renowned orchestra El Afronte every Monday and Wednesday, this long-running milonga holds classes for different levels at 9pm. Another good option if you’re new to the scene.
There’s no admission fee at this extremely popular San Telmo joint, which is part of the reason why it gets so busy most nights. The dancing here is more advanced and newcomers will not be afforded any sympathy. But it’s a great night, and more ‘local’ than some other nearby milongas.
There are several different milonga nights at this traditional city venue, such as Lujos (Thursdays), Noche de Luna (Wednesdays), Milonga de las Morochas (Saturdays) and, last but not least, Cachirulo (Tuesdays), which, according to some, is the best milonga in Buenos Aires.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Tango
Aside from the intricate differences between the milongas, there are general rules of tango etiquette that you should be aware of at all times. These simple rules can help to ensure beginners avoid the pratfalls and common faux pas that can afflict the innocent and the unwary. Here are a few dos and don’ts of milongueando:
DO take some time to select a milonga that meets your requirements. Ask around. Do a bit of research. If you’re an experienced dancer looking to encounter others like you, you probably won’t get too much from going to a beginners’ tango class. Likewise, if you’re the kind of person who tends to collide with those around them every 30 seconds, you might not want to mix it up with the tango elite.
DON’T sit in the first empty seat that you see. Many milongas have been attracting the same clientele for decades, with tradition stating that they always occupy the same spot. Ignorantly taking the seat reserved for a stately señora will see you become an object of opprobrium. If you’re like me, your dancing abilities will be enough to do that on their own.
DO dress the part. There are few things that scream ‘clueless tourist/imbecile’ like rocking up to a classy tango joint looking like a lifeguard at the beach or like you’re about to trek the Andes. Some of the more informal places are less fussy, but check first. If in doubt, it’s better to dress up than down.
DON´T strut around the dance-floor like a horny peacock. Tango is a graceful form of cultural interaction which demands a certain decorum. Requests to dance are made via subtle eye contact, and are accepted or rejected in the same way. If you do not want to dance, you may still receive a lot of offers: play it cool if you’re not interested, and bear in mind that politely returning a smile may be misconstrued as being available for a whirl.
DO be respectful. It might just be a night out for you but for many people, the milonga is at the center of their social network. Refrain from shouting, getting into fights or removing too much clothing. Try not to get blind drunk. And remember that real milongas are not geared towards tourists. It’s not their responsibility to speak any language other than Spanish. Smile and the world will smile back at you. Unless you’re in one of the haughtier places, in which case any flashing of teeth will be met by icy death stares.
Fortunately, amid the cat videos, pornography and DIY-terrorism websites, the internet can be useful sometimes. There are several websites dedicated to the milongas of Buenos Aires, each of them worth checking out in order to get a clear idea of what’s out there. Some of the best sites include:
Buenos Aires y el Tango http://www.buenosairesyeltango.com/milongas/
There’s also the Facebook group Mi Buenos Aires https://www.facebook.com/pages/MI-BUENOS-AIRES-milonga/380495941275