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Falling with love with tango in Buenos Aires

Dancing on Avenida de Mayo

Photo credit and copyright Rebecca Travaglia 2011

 

I can still pinpoint the exact moment when tango moved from a hobby to an obsession. One winter afternoon several years ago, I was taking a private tango lesson with a visiting Argentine teacher. The dance studio was a large open New York style loft with mirrors lining one side and a warm brick wall on the other. As the final strains of the bandoneón were dying away, I was brought to rest with my 9cm shoes drawing softly to a close over the wooden dance floor. Within the dance embrace, the only moment that existed was between us and the music. Worlds away from the everyday system and completely content within myself, I was having my own personal ‘tango moment’. And it was in this moment that I knew I needed to learn all I could about tango and this required drastic action.

 

Living in New Zealand, approaching 30, single and without dependents, I took the assertive yet frightening step to sell everything, quit my job and move to Buenos Aires to immerse myself within the tango lifestyle. It was not an easy decision to leave behind a job that I loved, friends and family but such is the pull of the desire to dance tango. Although not entirely sure what this would encompass, stories of dancing 7 nights a week, dancing outdoors at antique markets and all night milongas excited my heart and inspired dreams of how the experience could be. Armed with not much more than a pair of Comme Il Faut shoes and a spanish phrase book, I took the plunge to see how tango was really lived.

 

It surprisingly took me several weeks to start attending regular classes after arriving in Buenos Aires. Initially, advice on where to go and who to learn from was free flowing, and animated discussions about teaching technique left me confused about which style was right and, indeed, what tango really was. Names of dancers, singers and tango styles become muddled with verb tenses and conjugations as I tried to increase my understanding of Spanish to truly understand the poetic lyrics of tango which were being played to me night after night.

 

Tango has its heart within Buenos Aires and the city is very quick in capturing the adoration of those who visit it. The glamour of, and my intense infatuation with the city, took several months to calm down. The city is chaotic in its traffic, schizophrenic in its architecture and warm in its people. I befriended a local porteño, who began to unravel the mystery of tango by showing me the grass roots of Buenos Aires, introducing me to milongueros and taking me to local milongas and music gigs, providing a break from the sometimes heavily attended main circuit milongas. Those that come to this city to learn tango, can find themselves immersed in a culture of rising late, drinking coffee, eating medialunas (the local pastries) and passing time by soaking up the atmosphere of this crazy, volatile and intoxicating city. The cobblestones streets of San Telmo can be a photographer’s dream and the hidden cafes and local haunts are just waiting to be discovered. It is a city that demands to be experienced.

 

I have learnt that sometimes visiting milongeuros are more accomplished in the steps, but the local dancers have something special running through their blood that is immediately apparent at the moment of embrace. After spending time in classes, I realised that the success of my adventure to follow my passion did not ride on my ability to dance like the stunning show dancers whose legs move with speed and intricacy, but to have a knowledge and understanding of the emotions and history that this dance expresses. Tango is more than simply making magic through leading and following steps. It is a conversation of the heart, soul and body of two people. Observers may not realise that they are watching beautiful dancers sharing their own moment removed from everything except the music and the energy of each other.

 

Four months after moving to Buenos Aires, during a tanda at the Tango Mundial, I remembered that I had come to Buenos Aires to “learn” tango. My initial dreams had been of five-hour-a-day classes followed by the night’s milonga and a vampiric lifestyle. Instead I found that the city crawled under my skin, coaxing me to look past the tango as a dance, and understand it as a living and breathing entity. It is a strong thread that is woven throughout this city and a main lifeline in everyday living.