El Tango es el pulso natural de la muñeca de Buenos Aires.
The Tango is the natural pulse of Buenos Aires.
Leopoldo Marechal (1900-1970) Argentine writer
When you’re in Buenos Aires, you can’t miss the fact that tango dancing is an integral part of the city’s way of life. The only problem is, it’s become a bit of a tourist attraction.
I wanted to see a tango show in Argentina. Real tango, not for the turistas. With the help of a few taxi drivers, I think I may have succeeded . . .
First, a little background: Everywhere you go in the city, there’s evidence of tango.
The couple above has been dancing tango for tourists in San Telmo for so long that their photo is on the Wikipedia page for “Argentine tango.” (Obviously, I’m not the only one who took advantage of that photo op!)
Tango music was born in the late 19th century, in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. From the melting pot of immigrants came an amalgamation of musical styles resulting in the passionate, theatrical tango.
Fast forward to 2012, and tango has become a tourist attraction.
There’s even places where one can have their photograph taken with a “real” tango dancer.
I found out that to see real Argentine tango, I should go to a milonga. Milongas are places in which locals go to dance. Sounded good to me, so I asked around and was told to go to a place called Confiteria La Ideal. Built in 1912, it was full of history, and apparently the upstairs ballroom was a must-see.
Norberto Dorantes watercolor, http://norbertodorantes.blogspot.com.ar
I had dinner in a neighborhood café, and then hopped into a taxi. (The options for public transport are limited.)
When I told him where I was going, the taxi driver argued that he had a far superior milonga for me than Confiteria La Ideal, so, spontaneously, I agreed to let him take me there. (The whole conversation was in Spanish, which I don’t speak, but I understood the gist.)
He dropped me off at Café de los Angelitos.
I had no idea what to expect, obviously, so when I walked through the door into, by all appearances, an ordinary restaurant, I thought,”Where’s the milonga? Tango anyone?”
As soon as I said, “tango,” several men in suits quickly whisked me inside, through heavy curtains, into a dimly lit, theatrical room with long tables filled with people dining and chattering, in front of a stage draped in red and gold velvet.
Before I knew what was happening, I was seated at a table, asked for my credit card, and a glass of wine was placed in front of me. Something was even said about a ride back to my hotel.
Whoa . . . first of all, I’ve already eaten and all of these people are in the middle of a multiple-course steak dinner.
“No problem, just pay for the show. Still includes ride back to your hotel.” What does that mean??
“Are you sure this isn’t a show just for tourists?”
“No, no, no!”
Furthermore, “What time does this show start, anyway?”
“The show starts at 10:15.”
As I sat with my glass of wine, wondering what I was going to do there for an hour and a half while everyone else was eating, I started to wonder what the other milonga, at Confiteria La Ideal, would have been like.
Impulsively, I got up, said I’d come back (not entirely sure that I would), and walked out, hopping into another taxi, to check it out.
Turned out it took awhile to get there, and the neighborhood was a bit seedy. The taxi driver seemed reluctant to drop me off there, but I assured him I was fine.
I walked into the lobby of Confiteria La Ideal, where a woman sat at a little table, selling tickets to “the show.”
Beyond her was a huge room with about five tables of people at one end of a vast expanse of timeworn linoleum floor. Glass cases stood like ghosts, empty except for a sprinkling of dust. The lighting was fluorescent, which gave the room a grayish-cast, further exaggerating the grim, and very un-festive, un-tango-like, atmosphere.
“The show is here?”
“No, here. 150 pesos.”
(I looked it up later and found that this large room was the tea room . . . I have no idea what happened to the famous ballroom upstairs.)
I took one more look, said, “gracias,” and left . . . to hightail it back to La Café de los Angelitos. With any luck, I could still get back in time to see the show there.
Within a few minutes of getting into my third taxi of the evening, the plump driver (who spoke some English…not always a good thing), began talking about how he had recently begun going to the gym and working out.
Okaaaaaaay . . .
Then, stopping at a red light, he asked me to flex my arm so he could feel my bicep. I know, I know, it sounds bad, but it really was innocent to the point of stupidity. Apparently impressed by my bicep (???), he asked me to arm wrestle.
Yes, this is getting weirder by the minute. The arm wrestling, and the conversation, went on for quite some time, to the point where I wondered if he was, indeed, more sinister than I may have thought.
Then he looked around, and I knew I was in trouble. He admitted that he had been talking so much that he’d gone the wrong way.
I wasn’t concerned for my safety, because he seemed more embarrassed than dangerous, (and announced that he would only charge me 18 pesos, even though the meter was at 27 at this point), but now I was afraid I would miss the tango show.
The arm wrestling had now gotten really aggravating, and I couldn’t wait to get out of his car.
When we finally arrived back at Café de los Angelitos, the meter was at 39 pesos. I handed him 20 and practically jumped out before the car stopped.
Back into the restaurant, through the curtains…my glass of wine was still sitting at my table! I guess they really believed I was coming back.
The lights went down and the show began.
It was sensational.
In a dramatic cloud of fog, a lone man steps onto the stage, and sings about the origins of tango. (I think that’s what he was singing about…it was in Spanish.)
Then the dancers appeared, and for the next hour I was mesmerized, as each era of tango in Buenos Aires, in all its glory, whirled across the stage.
In between dance segments, a gorgeous, glittery, chanteuse sang her heart out.
The costumes, the fancy footwork, the music…I didn’t care if it was a show for tourists, because it was fabulous.
And then it was over, and, as quickly as I had been ushered in, the crowd was shuffled back out through the restaurant and onto the sidewalk, where vans waited to take everyone back to their hotels.
So that’s how they do it.
Maybe it’s not so bad to be a tourist sometimes . . . at least I didn’t have to take another taxi.
Café de los Angelitos
Rivadavia Avenue 2100,
Corner of Rincón Street
Buenos Aires, Argentina
(0)11 4952 2320