The Passionate Dance

A tour of tango in Buenos Aires, from its shady origins to its hedonistic present (and did we mention the shoes?).
By Natalia Mironova
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A couple dancing tango in Buenos Aires
SURE FOOTED: A couple in a tango embrace, Buenos Aires  (Patagonik Works/Photographer’s Choice/Getty)

The music is faint but you are curious to pinpoint the source of the rhythm reverberating through the plaza on a balmy Sunday afternoon. You follow the sounds of the accordions and violins, unmistakably married in a traditional tango melody. A small crowd is gathering around an impromptu dance floor in the middle of the shady square, where the cobblestones are covered with long rubber mats to smooth out the surface. A tall, handsome man with a jet-black pony tale and his blond, statuesque partner in metallic high heels glide gracefully across the dance floor, as if floating above it, locked in a close embrace, eyes closed as if in a trance. You realize you've just landed smack in the middle of every foreigner's Argentine tango fantasy.

It is virtually impossible to ignore the spell of tango while visiting Buenos Aires. The Argentine capital marches to the rhythm of tango—you hear it pouring out of the small souvenir shops on the tourist-packed streets around the Obelisko; it floats above the old apartment buildings in the city's center; it bounces off the cobblestones of San Telmo and La Boca neighborhoods during the weekend street fairs. Tango in Buenos Aires can take on many forms: It can be an elderly couple, dressed to the nines and dancing to a live orchestra at a late-night milonga (tango parties); or a gorgeous quartet of professional dancers—all glamour and glitter and acrobatics—at a carefully staged theater show.

But if you want to search for the origins of tango, you're going to have to look past the glittery night clubs and the polished dance floors, and back at one of the city's poorest neighborhoods: La Boca, originally home to sailors, prostitutes, and other riffraff that would hang around the river port back in the early 1900s. The poor immigrants, literally fresh off the boats, called this barrio, or neighborhood, their home. Money was scarce, so the newcomers found creative ways to make this rough city in the New World feel welcoming; they painted their houses in a patchwork of colors—mainly because nobody had enough cash to afford a bucket of paint, so they had to use leftovers from the shipyard; as a result, the area today has a whimsical, almost fairy-tale-like appearance. They also had to create their own entertainment. And in a rough neighborhood populated mostly by men, their choices were limited.

At that time Europe was swept up by the waltz, a "scandalous" dance where a man and a woman held each other close while twirling around the floor. The tango had similar roots—but it was a dance born to the rhythms and tunes of South American folk music with African influences, so its character was more passion than poise. The tango is danced in a close embrace, cheeks almost touching, bodies leaning against each other. The man leads, initiating each movement with a gentle sway of his chest. The woman follows, anticipating the next step in her upper body, letting her feet catch up a fraction of a second later.

Soon after the dance was invented, the best dancers became respected and envied by the other sailors. After all, they got the coveted attention of the ladies. And because the women were few, the men would perfect their dance steps and invent new ones while dancing with each other. Ironically, today's glamorous and sensual tango started by two men dancing with each other on the cobble stones of La Boca, in the narrow streets framed by multi-colored, dilapidated tenements.

Published: 11 Jun 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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