Learning to Tango in Buenos Aires
By John Runnette
We were lost in San Telmo, the streets dark, the streetlights dim, but what did we expect? We were looking for ‘real tango dancers’, not a stage show for tourists though tourists was what we were. A tango teacher we’d never met had given us directions. We found his site on the Internet. “If you want to see the best tango dancers in Buenos Aires,” he had written in an email, “go to Plaza Dorrego in the evening.”
The taxi driver didn’t speak English, our Spanish was limited, so he dropped us off on Defensa Street, but we couldn’t find Humberto One, the intersection we wanted. Unfortunately most of the narrow streets in this San Telmo neighborhood didn’t have street signs. Our map was of little use. So we walked onward, believing in luck, and charmed by this old neighborhood.
The streets were paved with cobblestones, the apartments old and faded, the first floors of many given over to arty shops and funky bars, the sidewalks, cracked and broken. Every wall seemed to be covered with graffiti, or portraits of Che or Bob Marley or the grinning faces of cartoon cats. Backpackers bunked here in hostels, a neighborhood of hipsters and old people.
When we finally found the Plaza Dorrego we wondered if we hadn’t made a mistake. Loud rock music was blaring from most of the bars. We cursed our naiveté. A street peddler found us. With map in
hand, we were obviously tourists so we followed her into a dark restaurant where no one was dancing. We ordered wine and were ready to chalk this up to bad birthday planning (it was my wife’s) when we heard old tango music.
Then this night really did turn into a special birthday present when Pedro Ochoa and his partner rose from a table across the room and began to dance, unhurriedly at first, just a few turns, Pedro guiding his partner across the floor as she added a flourish of kicks. She feigned indifference, but Pedro pivoted and his partner swirled around him, her arms and legs taunting his impassive expression. As if ignited, Pedro added his own flourishes. Passion fired their steps as they navigated around waitresses, busboys and customers, Pedro’s eyes fixed, his expression, poker-faced, intent, a man in charge; his partner following though not submissively, spinning around him, keeping up with his turns, out doing him, her high heels flying, her legs as expressive as her hands and face. The dance had become beautifully dangerous.
My wife and I were transfixed. This was the tango we’d heard about, a dance as complex as love, as entangling as sex. Every gesture was passionate, as dramatic as a ballet. The dancers moved with the rhythm of emotion, their gestures, sharp edged one second, fluid the next, and just as suddenly they stopped, their dance punctuated by moments of face-to-face intensity.
The beauty of their tango silenced the clatter in the restaurant. People took photographs, videos, but Pedro and his partner stayed focused on each other. They moved as if pulled by love and desire. But isn’t that the tango? Isn’t it a mating dance? Perhaps all dances are, but the tango stays close to the bone. Though it looks formal, the Argentine Tango isn’t formalized, not the three-steps of the waltz or the four-steps of fox trot. It doesn’t rely on high energy either, as do Swing and Lindy Hop. Tango is, as my wife said, like making love with your clothes on, adding ‘we have to learn to dance like that.”
The next morning we found another tango teacher on the Internet. Cristian Castano answered our email with a phone call, gave us subway directions to his studio in the Palermo, a neighborhood close to our hotel.
“Argentine Tango is walking,” was the first thing Cristian taught us. “Walk with the music. Don’t worry about the rhythm.”
In a few minutes he had us forget the American Tango we had learned in California. Instead of the box and rock steps he had me stand in front of my wife. Then I crossed to her side, we walked together, my wife walking backward, me forward, leading the way, though I knew not where. We did this ten times before Cristian put a CD into the player.
“Now move with the music,” he said.
We took the eight steps he’d taught us.
“Now turn,” Cristian told me.
“But how?” I asked.
“Just turn.” Cristian had to show me because I wanted a pattern, but in the tango a turn is just a turn. So I held my wife tightly, turned around and she turned with me. So far, simple.
We tangoed up and down the parquet floor of his studio until we really did move with the music. Next, Cristian taught us the adornos, the embellishments of the tango. In the Ocho, the woman dances figure eights around the man who stays perfectly still. In the Caricia, the woman’s leg slides up the man’s leg, she turns, pivots, slides her leg behind her other leg, her high heels moving like scissors, her moves, sharp and dangerous.
Our two-hour lesson finished, Cristian sent us off to Confiteria Ideal, where there was a milonga or social dance. The Confiteria Ideal is an old-fashioned tearoom and patisserie. Tango enthusiasts go there to dance to recorded music from the 1930s. Some of the dancers looked as old, but they were still dancing forehead to forehead, their bodies almost inseparable, the women leaning into the men, the men concentrating on leading their partners. Even in this brightly lit tearoom, half the dancers elderly, the sensuality of the tango stirred the air.
But now our time in Buenos Aires was running out, so on our last night we took everyone’s advice — ‘you must see one of the big tango shows’— so we bought tickets for Piazzolla Tango, named in honor of Astor Piazzola whose music we knew.
It was of course dinner theater. A mini-bus picked us up at our hotel. The obligatory tango lesson was funny. The dinner was better than expected. The show was a Las Vegas production with great dancing. We marveled at the performances, but marvel isn’t passion, and passion was what my wife and I felt when we danced the tango alone in our hotel room and fell in love again.
Who is John?
John is a Grammy winning producer and writer living in Los Angeles California who dances the Tango with his wife Trish whenever and wherever possible. This photo (above) was taken in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires during their last visit!