Travel Story Trying (and failing) to learn to tango in Buenos Aires

Tango dancing at a Milonga in San Telmo, Buenos Aires.  A professional couple shows how it should be done. Picture: Mogens Johansen
Photo of Mogens Johansen

It's said that if you can walk, you can dance tango. Our clumsy correspondent puts that theory to the test in the Argentinian capital. 

The roots of the Argentine tango are well and truly embedded in Buenos Aires. Tango dance halls, locally known as milongas, are all over the city and the dance is popular with young and old, who feel it to be a strong part of their national identity and heritage.

Although it is often associated with glamorous couples elegantly gliding across the dance floor in flashy dance halls, the tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century.

Immigrants from Europe and Africa who were drawn to the houses of ill repute would use the dance to act out steamy relationships.

Tango was originally scorned by the high society in Argentina because of the connection to the underbelly of Buenos Aires but this changed in 1910, when a well-known Argentine poet, Ricardo Guiraldes, introduced the dance to the French.

It became a huge hit all over Europe and, with its new-found popularity, was finally welcomed by Argentine high society.

The dance is based on walking, turns, pauses and flourishes and is unique each time it’s performed.

Many say it is not a difficult dance to learn; “if you can walk, you can dance tango”.

I am about to prove that theory wrong.

I’m booked in for a Tango Night Out with dance teachers Lucia and Gerry, who run a tango dance school in Buenos Aires and also offer a tango experience that includes an introductory tango lesson before a visit to an authentic milonga.

The talented couple, who met when Irishman Gerry was travelling through Argentina, are not only great dancers but also patient and dedicated teachers — their love of the dance really shines through as they demonstrate the basics to our small class.

The hour-long lesson is full of hilarious moments but, thanks to Lucia and Gerry’s patience and skill, by the end most of the class understands the basics.

The trouble with the tango is that the man has to lead and look in control; unfortunately I fail on both fronts.

Only Lucia can hide my shortcomings on the dance floor. But as soon as I’m paired with one of the other ladies in the class my lack of co-ordination and skill is there for all to see. So I’m not filled with confidence as the lesson ends and we head out to the milonga.

We arrive at a small, dimly lit milonga in the suburb of San Telmo. The hall is quite full — there are about 200 people inside, most seated at tables and others standing by the bar. But they are all intently watching the dozen or so dancers on the floor.

We take our seats and I feel slightly more at ease as I watch couples of varying skill levels on the dance floor. Clearly we are not the only beginners here so at least we won’t look like total fools.

The atmosphere goes up a notch as the recorded renditions of popular tango numbers are replaced by live music from the El Afronte tango band. The crowd welcome them enthusiastically and the dance floor fills up. This is clearly what the milonga is all about: live music and dance. The dim lights and crowded dance floor mean we can all join in without drawing too much attention to our basic tango skills.

Later in the evening, there are exhibition dances by professional tango dancers. They put on a fantastic show that oozes style, control and passion and leaves me spellbound.

It’s a fitting end to a great night. I leave the milonga knowing there aren’t enough dance teachers and time to teach this hombre to tango during my short stay in Buenos Aires but it’s been great fun to try and a pleasure to watch the skill of the locals and professionals.

Mogens Johansen was a guest of Air New Zealand.

Photo essay on Buenos Aires, Argentina Duration: 02m 59s Travel Club Lead Photographer Mogens Johansen

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