”Don’t make eye contact, he’s a terrible dancer.”  

Man and woman did not circle the dance floor like bull and toreador.  They did not collide in a passionate cheek-to-cheek embrace then divide the dance floor with their stride, hands clasped and arms extended.   There was no marching accordion and no one held a rose between one’s teeth.  Tango at this milonga resembled nothing of its caricature.  These tanguistas packed the dimly lit and surprisingly smoke free dance floor, huddled close, eyes down, concentrating on nothing more than the lead and follow of each other’s steps.  When space permitted, legs escaped only for a quick flick before resuming embrace.  Their awareness to the world seemed only of the Carlos Gardel tune that guided their tempo.

Tango is an extremely intimate dance.  It can press you tighter against a stranger than inside a Buenos Aires bus, and without you uttering a word, share an improvised conversation of footwork.  Etiquette, similar to what you’d expect on a date, is very important.  The courting ritual begins among the tables surrounding the dance floor, where men with pretentiously good posture mingle in search of a dance partner.  Women, seated to rest their feet from the pin-point stilettos, keep their glance up if seeking a partner, otherwise divert eye contact from the prowling males.  A proposition can still be made by exchanging eye contact across the room, though this nostalgic ritual creates misunderstandings in large crowded milongas.  It is rude to split from your partner before the end of a three song set, unless he or she truly deserves it.

Reputations of bad dance etiquette travel faster and less discretely than reputations of, ahem, other acts of courtship.  No sooner did my friends sit down at the milonga had they already scanned the room and identified the known ‘bad dance partners’ with whom to avoid eye contact.  Men who have earned such a reputation may more often see the backs of women’s heads; likewise, women may easier flag down a waiter in a Chinese restaurant than a dance partner.

Beginners are certainly welcome, but come knowing at least a few steps and tell your partner so you can adjust to each other.  Unfortunately, after a couple of dance classes, I only recalled the ‘Basico Dos’ step; akin to entering a conversation with merely ‘Hola, no hablo español’.  I’ll wax my heels at a few classes before returning to a milonga.

A dance of etiquette and intimacy, and in 2009, declared a UNESCO World Heritage, it’s hard to believe that Tango originated in brothels.  In the late 1800s, an influx of immigrant men came to the port cities of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and nearby Montevideo, Uruguay in search of a better life.  In Tango, they expressed their loneliness and longing for their homeland as they danced amongst themselves and with prostitutes.  Their emotions resonate beyond their sordid beginnings in the various forms of Tango that exist today, showing that the ‘corazon porteño’, the heart of one who comes from these port cities, beats in all walks of life.

Tango Facts:

  • Tango originated in Argentina and Uruguay in the late 1800’s.
  • Carlos Gardel –
  • Tango today

Where to dance Tango:
Buenos Aires:  Academia Nacional del Tango www.anacdeltango.org.ar  is beside the famous Café Tortoni, on Avendida de Mayo.  The school offers classes daily and the free museum within gives a good introduction.

Where to buy Tango shoes and clothing:
Buenos Aires: For stilettos you’ll want to wear all night and equally stylish shoes for men, check out Suipacha Street near its intersection with Avendida Corrientes, as well as around the Carlos Gardel museum.