Once a furtive dance relegated to the red-light brothels of early-1900s Buenos Aires, tango has experienced great highs and lows throughout its lifespan. These days, however, the sensual dance is back with a vengeance. Everyone from Seattle to Shanghai is slinking their way down the parquet floor, trying to master those elusive dance steps and the rhythm that make it so damn hard to perfect.

Best Lists

Tango

Fancy Shows

  • Café de los Angelitos Well choreographed, with impressive costumes and props.
  • Rojo Tango Very intimate, cabaret-style show that's supremely sexy.
  • El Viejo Almacén Great athleticism, small venue and great folkloric segment.
  • La Ventana Good overall show with comedic gaucho swinging boleadoras (hunting weights).

Less-fancy Shows

Milongas

  • Maldita Milonga The tango orchestra El Alfronte plays at this friendly milonga.
  • Salon Canning Famous, popular and stylish milonga in Palermo, with good music.
  • La Catedral Casual, bohemian warehouse space that attracts hip young dancers.
  • La Glorieta Open-air milonga held in a park bandstand.
  • La Marshall Gay-friendly milonga where everyone is welcome – and where role reversals are OK.

Origins

In the words of its poet laureate Discépolo, the ‘tango is a sad thought you can dance to'. Though the exact origins can’t be pinpointed, the dance is believed to have started in Buenos Aires in the 1880s. Legions of European immigrants, mostly lower-class men, arrived here to seek their fortune. They settled on the capital’s fringes, such as La Boca and Barracas, but missing their motherlands and the women they left behind, sought out cafes and bordellos to ease the loneliness. Here (so the myth goes), these immigrant men danced with each other while they waited for their paramours to become available – women were scarce back then!

The perceived vulgarity of the dance that mainly belonged to the poor southern barrios was deeply frowned upon by the reigning porteño elites of the plush northern suburbs, but it did manage to influence some brash young members of the upper classes. These rebel jet setters, known as niños bien, took the novelty to Paris and created a craze – a dance that became an acceptable outlet for human desires, expressed on the dance floors of elegant cabarets. The trend spread around Europe and even to the USA, and 1913 was considered by some as ‘the year of the tango'. When the evolved dance, now refined and famous, returned to Buenos Aires, it finally earned the respectability it deserved. And so the golden years of tango began.

In 1955, however, Argentina became a military state intolerant of artistic or ‘nationalistic’ activities – including the tango, which had been highly popular with the people. Some tango songs were banned, and the dance was forced underground due to curfews and a limit on group meetings. The dance didn’t resurface until 1983, when the junta fell – and once it was back in the open again, it underwent a renaissance. After being constrained by the rigors of military rule, Argentines suddenly wanted to experience new life, be creative and move. The tango became popular once again – and remains so to this day.

Evolving Tango Music

Nuevo tango, born in the late 1990s, was seeded by Ástor Piazzolla in the 1950s when he incorporated jazz and classical beats into traditional tango music. Dancers improvised new moves into their traditional base steps, utilizing a more open embrace and switching leads (among other things). Neo tango, the latest musical step in tango’s changing landscape, fuses the dance with electronica for some decidedly nonstodgy beats that have done a superlative job of attracting the younger generation to this astounding dance.

Shows

If there’s one thing Buenos Aires isn’t short of it’s tango shows. The best known are the expensive, tourist-oriented spectacles that are very entertaining and awe-inspiring, and showcase amazing feats of grace and athleticism. However, they are highly glamorized and not what purists consider ‘authentic’ tango.

The theatrical shows usually include various tango couples, an orchestra, a couple of singers and possibly some folkloric musicians. They last about 1½ hours and come with a dinner option – the food is usually good. VIP options mean a much higher price tag for better views, meal choices and refreshments. Nearly all of them require reservations; some offer modest online discounts and pick-up from your hotel. (Many hotels will book shows for you – which is fine, since sometimes the price is similar to what you’d pay at the venue anyway.)

More modest shows cost far less; some are even free but require you to order a meal or drink at the restaurant. If you don’t mind eating there this is a decent deal. For free (or rather, donation) tango, head to San Telmo on a Sunday afternoon – or sometimes other days. Dancers do their thing in the middle of Plaza Dorrego, though you have to stake out a spot early to snag a good view. Another sure bet is weekends on El Caminito in La Boca; some restaurants have couple dancing for customers. Many milongas (dance halls) also have good, affordable shows.

One thing to note: nearly all tango shows are touristy by nature. They’ve been sensationalized to make them more exciting for observers. ‘Authentic’ tango (which happens at milongas) is a very subtle art, primarily done for the pleasure of the dancers. It’s not something to be observed so much as experienced, and not particularly interesting for casual spectators. Going to a milonga just to watch isn’t all that cool, either: folks are there to dance. So feel free to see a more flashy tango show and enjoy those spectacular high kicks – be wowed like the rest of the crowd.

If you like listening to live tango music, head to Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso. It’s one of BA’s best live-music venues, so don’t expect any dancing.

The Real Tango

Tango’s popularity is booming at both amateur and professional levels, and among all ages and classes. And milongas are the dance events where people strut their stuff. The atmosphere at these venues can be modern or historical, casual or traditional. Most have tango DJs that determine musical selections, but a few utilize live orchestras. The dance floor is surrounded by many tables and chairs, and there's often a bar to the side where you can keep hydrated.

At a proper, established milonga, choosing an adequate partner involves many levels of hidden codes, rules and signals that dancers must follow. After all, no serious bailarina (female dancer; the male equivalent is a bailarín) wants to be caught out dancing with someone stepping on her toes (and expensive tango heels). In fact, some men considering asking an unknown woman to dance will do so only after the second song, to avoid being stuck for the three to five songs that make a session. These sessions (known as tandas) alternate between tango, vals (the Argentine version of the waltz) and milonga; they’re followed by a cortina (a short break when non-tango music is played). It’s considered polite to dance an entire tanda with any partner, so if you are given a curt gracias after just one song, consider that partner unavailable for the rest of the night.

Not easy to describe, tango needs to be seen and experienced for its full effect. The upper bodies are traditionally held upright and close, with faces almost touching. The man’s hand is pressed against the woman’s back, guiding her, with his other hand and one of hers held together and out. The lower body does most of the work. The woman swivels her hips, her legs alternating in short or wide sweeps and quick kicks, sometimes between the man’s legs. The man guides, a complicated job since he must flow with the music, direct the woman, meld with her steps and avoid other dancers, all at once. He’ll add his own fancy pivoting moves, and together the couple flows in communion with the music. Pauses and abrupt directional changes punctuate the dance. It’s a serious business that takes a good amount of concentration, so while dancing the pair often wear hard expressions. Smiling and chatting are reserved for the breaks between songs.

Your position in the area surrounding the dance floor can be critical. At some of the older milongas, the more established dancers have reserved tables. Ideally, you want to sit where you have easy access to the floor and to other dancers’ line of sight. You may notice couples sitting further back (they often dance just with each other), while singles sit right at the front. If a man comes into the room with a woman at his side, she is considered ‘his’ for the night. For couples to dance with others, they either enter the room separately, or the man signals his intent by asking another woman to the floor. Then ‘his’ woman becomes open for asking.

The signal to dance, known as cabeceo, involves a quick tilt of the head, eye contact and uplifted eyebrows. This can happen from way across the room. The woman to whom the cabeceo is directed either nods yes and smiles or pretends not to have noticed (a rejection). If she says yes the man gets up and escorts her to the floor. A hint: if you’re at a milonga and don’t want to dance with anyone, don’t look around too much – you could be breaking some hearts.

So why is it that tango becomes so addictive for some, like an insidious drug? Experienced dancers will tell you this: the adrenaline rush you get from an excellent performance is like a successful conquest. Some days it lifts you up to exhilarating heights and other days it can bring you crashing down. You fall for the passion and beauty of the tango’s movements, trying to attain a physical perfection that can never be fully realized. The best you can do is to make the journey as graceful and passionate as possible.

Need to Know

  • For discount tickets, show and venue descriptions, and some reviews, check out www.tangotix.com.
  • Milongas either start in the afternoon and run until 11pm or start at around midnight and run until the early-morning light (arrive late for the best action). They’re affordable, and classes are often offered beforehand.
  • For a unique outdoor experience, head to the bandstand at the Barrancas de Belgrano, where the casual milonga La Glorieta takes place on Saturday and Sunday evenings around 7pm (and possibly other evenings). Tango classes are also given.

Classes

Tango classes are available just about everywhere, from youth hostels to general dance academies to cultural centers to nearly all milongas (dance halls). Even a few cafes and tango shows offer them.

There are also several tango schools in town, including DNI Tango.

Private teachers are also ubiquitous; there are so many good ones that it’s best to ask someone you trust for a recommendation.

Resources

  • Hoy Milonga (www.hoy-milonga.com) is a useful webite listing the day's milonga schedule.
  • For a very practical book on tango in BA, check out Sally Blake’s Happy Tango: Sallycat’s Guide to Dancing in Buenos Aires (2nd edition). It has great information on milongas – how to dress for them and act in them and whom you can expect to see – plus much more.
  • There are, of course, many tango clothing and shoe stores in BA – the best shoe shop is Comme Il Faut.
  • Finally, if you’re in town in mid- to late August, don’t miss the tango festival.