Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tango in Buenos Aires: some useful tips

This is a follow up post on Buenos Aires tango after the ‘What I saw in Buenos Aires’ one. I will try to focus more in practical issues, as many of my impressions are there. I will only repeat the rough classification of the two tango waves, as this is an important reference… There are certainly subcategories, but those two may not make it for an essay on the subject, but I think are enough to help you find your way around. Names and places are partially important as you may be probably going to the same 3-4 venues every night, but the ‘milonga’ is different. There are historical milonga names though (e.g. El Beso), as there are standard place (e.g. Salon Canning), which are not a guaranty for every night. Once you are there it will be straight forward to understand what is what.

On one hand you have tango ‘milongero’ where things are more formal in all senses; dress code, attitude, dance style, etc. In many of these milongas you may have to adapt to the eye contact code, which can be roughly explained like this: men and women sited and glances start to cross all over the room as the cortina is about to finish. The thing is quite simple. If you want to dance with someone you look at him/her and she/he does the same. Then eye contact, nod for an invitation and then dance, as eye contact implies approval… Usually the dance floor is packed, so take it easy and protect yourself from wrong steps, as people anticipate to watch and evaluate. Similarly don’t try to ask someone to dance if you don’t think that he/she will accept as this will result probably in a ‘no for life’. Patience is important… This is the tango in its traditional form here in Buenos Aires and places can be El Beso, Salon Canning, Nino Bien, etc.

Second group is the ‘practikas’ ring, which is an initiative of different groups with a more fresh approach on tango. Within this you will have a place to dance every night, among younger people and the vibe is very similar to the one you find in most good European milongas. The level of tango is extremely good, or at least it often can be, as you may have more that 50% of professional dancers on the dance floor.

Separation in geographical terms is also rather straight forward. If you prefer classic style most of the milongas are located in the center, mostly San Telmo, Monserat. If you go for the practikas you will be 99% moving in the area of Palermo, Palermo Soho and some names are Practika X, Tango lab, Tango Cool, etc. If this is your choice you should arrange accommodation in Palermo close to Scalabrini Ortiz and you may even be able to do everything on foot! For the ‘milongeros’ walking several blocks in the center at night is not recommended in general.

After the milonga/practika, ‘all the roads lead to Rome’ which in that case is ‘La Viruta’ lasting at least until 4 in the morning and gathering all the die hards. For me this is the most characteristic place of Buenos Aires tango… Early in the night, before 1:00, things can be ‘strange’ the least.. Bad dancers (feels like they were passing by), a mess on the dance floor, long tantas of cumbia and rock and roll, even competitions, but once you know what to expect, you may end up loving even this! And once the other milongas are over, everybody comes there and the place can be transformed into an all star milonga! You can see any professional dance there and sometimes sensational things happen. For me this is where you see what tango is in the city. From the 100% popular (in good and bad sense) situation early till the extreme quality late in the morning. Plus the free classes and the amazing ‘show’ at 20:00 every Sunday! Don’t miss it!

So to cut a long story short, when you arrive, you have to meet some people, e.g. a good way is by taking some classes and get some names and addresses. Or go to la Viruta at 3:oo in the morning and ask the people you dance with! There are also several free tango guides distributed in schools and milongas and they provide from partial to too much information (tangauta is good for example). Once you start, then it’s easy; every night you will be able to spot the main milongero and Nuevo place and then it’s up to you. After spending a couple of weeks trying places, you will eventually settle on your preferences, but it’s likely that you will be also preparing bags to go back home! No problem… Next time you know that you will be prepared!!

What I saw in Buenos Aires

It is 00:30 and I just arrive in El Beso… I take my place in the table and I order a whiskey… In the raw of tables in front of me and beyond the dancefloor, women are only sited, while I am surrounded by men; glances start to cross all over the room as the cortina is over. This is the code to start dancing in the traditional Buenos Aires milongas; eye contact, a nod for an invitation and then dance, as eye contact implies approval… After an if you are a new face, people anticipate to see you move and evaluate. Higher ages mostly, some but not many good dancers and strictly close embrace. In Buenos Aires I realized that I dance tango Nuevo! That’s the word for the ones which like to dance more freely and separate from the traditional walking, ‘severely’ embraced tango. But in this milonga there are rules and if we let yourself free, you will receive strange looks by the ‘milongeros’.

So this is the tango in its traditional form here in Buenos Aires. In El Beso, Salon Canning, Nino Bien, etc. I travelled so far away and I settled here for a month, because I wanted to feel the tango in its cradle and it is true that there is some magic in those places. You vaguely feel the roots of tango, even though you understand that there was a reset during the military regime period. The popular aspect, the joy of the abrazo, class, elegance, people seem to enjoy it more in general. On the other hand, it is a nostalgic, fanatic approach, trying to preserve tango in its ‘original’ form, even though people’s current lifestyles are not expressed by such an attitude. Older people feel like home, while younger ‘milongeros’ and ‘tango tourists’ are just playing a role. Just like heavy metal funs dress with tight black trousers and t-shirts. And let’s face it… This tango cannot be supported in a wider scale for long, as the only thing that makes it attractive is that it is technically easier for milonga standards. Anyway, the older generation of milongeros still considers rock and roll something ‘revolutionary’…

After, there are the ‘practikas’, an initiative of different group of people to create a ring of places to dance, in order to separate them from the traditional tangeros and do something different (but also to be more efficient in ‘catching’ the ‘tango tourists’ who add a lot of momentum in both activities and budgets). Those are younger people and the vibe is very similar to the one you find in most good European milongas. There is one striking difference though… The level of tango is extremely good, or at least it often can be! Since all the teachers, organizers of the practikas of the ring support them every night, you end up having more that 50% of professional dancers on the dance floor. As a result, there are times that …scary things may be happening there! This is the ‘other’ tango, the one that will probably dominate in the future, despite the fact that it makes couples argue during tango classes and leaves many ‘unfulfilled’ souls in the milongas…

While the traditional tango, or ‘tango milongero’ is based on simple marks, given the tight abrazo, the ‘new tango’ being more 3 dimensional has resulted in the development of new ‘codes’. Legs and bodies move to all possible directions and ways, and different dancers and teachers develop their own marks, building a new language… And this is when tango becomes very elaborate, creative, but also more elitist and loses some of the social character. Of course the more experienced you are, the more ‘polyglot’ you become and you built up your repertoire of ‘signs’. But one could argue that despite the strict rules of the ‘traditional’ milongas, people look more relaxed and maybe even happier…

There is a very important point in all those observations… Tango is miles away from being popular or mainstream in Buenos Aires. In fact average Argentinian’s idea of a tango dancer is someone professional dancing in shows; and this is what many people have on the back of their heads when they start. Even though it is part of the tradition, it is considered like an ‘old’ obsolete thing, like folk dances in Europe. Argentineans don’t dance and are not interested in tango and you find yourself again inside a closed circle, looking at the same faces every night at the milonga. And since they are relatively few and in their majority professionals, the social aspect of the milonga is sometimes lost. Unless you are skilled enough to please the ‘spoiled’ Argentinean dancers, or you have already a sufficiently large network of tourist ‘friends’. Third solution is if you have already spent enough on private classes to become their ‘friend’.

If you come back from Cuba, or other places in Latin America you are full of salsa, cumbia and reggeaeton sounds because you hear them everywhere… In the bars, taxis, on the street.. If you come back from Buenos Aires with the same effect on tango, it’s just because you were at the milonga every night, plus at 2-3 classes per day. Apparently, there is no big difference compared to other cities with developed tango scene… The wave of tango tourism, either in the form of attending tango shows, or of people like me coming to intensely study tango has triggered some local interest, but apparently the tango scene is like a small village, inside a big metropolis! This can be very nice as it is like a non stop festival!

Back to dancing in the milongas, this is even more difficult to describe as everything is related to you, the tango you like, your level and the places you will choose. In the closed Buenos Aires tango circle you have either the ‘forgotten’ milongeros, or the modern dancers who are trying honestly to integrate tango dancing in their current reality. If you go to the ‘milongeros’ you will get to be dancing more easily, maybe not from the first night, but after a while. This will immerse you into the nostalgic worlds of classic tango and it can be good enough. It is up to you as this atmosphere can be also a drawback as also the fact that may not have the opportunity to do some moves that you may fancy…

If you go to the ‘practika tribe’, keep in mind that sometimes you may have embarrassing moments as you will be surrounded by the professionals. There will always be other foreigners though and in general it will be also ok in its own way. As a man I have to say that I have more fun dancing in Europe than Buenos Aires, as in the latter, access in the good dancers can be very limited. For women and especially good looking ones, I would definitely recommend it. There is this long tradition of men competing for the women (see history of tango in general), plus the Italian ‘thing’ (see my post for Italy) that has resulted in an army of good male dancers, that can make almost every woman dance, or most likely feel well. Still any very good female dancers had the same complaint as me…

But why the Argentineans don’t want to dance with us? (ok it is not that bad…) One problem is that in this small community, people are struggling to get some status to the eyes of the others. This makes them very selective in their dancing preferences and rather reluctant to experiment with the ‘new faces’. Second is because they have the reputation of being ‘complecados’, meaning things like snob, arrogant and other similar words that has made some compare them with Parisians. Third, because especially Nuevo tango is something very personal and more elitist, making people more reluctant to accept to try, adapt to the other’s style and most important enjoy… Finally, because some of these people there are really good! They teach, they give demonstrations, they are full of it and consequently have a higher threshold. They will not spend their everyday reality with ‘tango tourists’… Sounds fair!

I cannot say if this is more intense in the ‘Milongeros’ or the ‘nuevo’ group (probably the second), but as a foreigner I had my best tantas with other people like me. The Argentineans I danced with were mostly ‘passers by’ and when at times I managed to have a good dancer dance with me, it was obvious to me that she wasn’t so much into it. So instead of feeling the vibe of tango in its birthplace from the local people, I rather experienced its reflection upon other foreigners! (a very mild way to express my disappointment for not dancing well in many milongas!)

So what’s the bottom line… Come to see for yourself! Even though I am a big fun of travelling alone for tango (and this is what I did), I would suggest that you bring with you as many friends as possible to have a comfort zone. Anyway the subject is inexhaustible and you can come back alone, after you do the first reconnaicance mission! Take advantage of the many, varied and usually affordable classes, don’t do Naveira’s workshops (better spend the money on private lessons) and try as much as you can the various approaches on tango. Just make sure that you will leave some time to meet this interesting city, with its big contrasts and attractions, which has its own character far beyond tango…

PS. More posts on ‘practical’ issues to follow