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A Portrait of Cafe Tortoni: Where Tango History lives On


(Photo credit to Aram Kudurshian)

It had been on my To Do List for awhile and I had no particular desire to join the crush of commuters that were bound to be filling the subte from the city centre at that time.  To make matters worse, the heavens had opened up and was trying its hardest to wash away the colours of the cityscape. Did I need any more excuses to grant myself permission to take advantage of one of the many cafes in Argentina? Certainly not and it was with delight I skipped through the raindrops to Cafe Tortoni.


I pushed open the curtained wooden doors to step into a cavernous ballroom filled with marble tables. Not the only one with ideas of escaping the rain, these tables housed a variety of people enjoying coffee and medialunas. The first time visitors were easy to spot - they were the ones with their SLR cameras out. But you can not blame them. This is one of the most beautiful cafes in the world (according to UCityGuides) rating it amongst other cafes in Paris, Rome and Prague. But it is by no means pretentious, retaining the warmth and accepting nature that I have come to love about Buenos Aires, so feel free to get out your camera as you won´t be alone in oohhing and aahhing over the decor.


Located at 825 Avenida de Mayo, Cafe Tortoni was founded in 1858, making it one of the oldest and most famous cafes in the country.  Its founder was a French immigrant (Touan) who named the cafe after an establishment on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris.  Within its wood panelled walls, have sat some notable artists including tango singer Carlos Gardel and literary great, Jorge Luis Borges.  Apparently, Gardel used to drop by the cafe regularly, and on one occasion brought in his guitarists and gave a performance of Piradello´s plays. Tango still remains an important part of Tortoni and there are regular tango shows here. In 1979, Hector Negro penned the tango ´Viejo Tortoni´ which was dedicated to the cafe and sung by Eladia Blázquez.  Its beautiful lyrics describe the cafe as a living entity with its history alive and breathing.


Back in my era, the only table left was squeezed in the corner, from which I could survey almost the entire cafe. Waiters swarmed around the bar that runs down the side of the cafe, collecting many plates of medialunas to distribute to the hungry customers. The cups proudly display the Cafe Tortoni logo which notes the 2008 date when celebrations for its age began.  The walls are littered with paraphernalia linking its history to the present and one need only sit back and breath to feel a sense of nostalgia. The other great thing about cafes here in Buenos Aires is that you never feel rushed so I was able to sit back and savour the taste of the coffee and warm medialunas that had been served to me.


There are a significant number of notable cafes in Buenos Aires (around sixty) which are recognised as official Cultural Heritage sites and are given the name ´Bares Notables´. Cafe Tortoni is one that you must, without a doubt, take time to visit.


Things to Know

Cafe Tortoni

825 Avenida De Mayo, Buenos Aires


Being in the centre of town, this cafe is very easy to get to. It is very close to the subte line C (Avenida De Mayo station) and several blocks from Plaza De Mayo where the Casa Rosada stands.


Tango shows are also a regular event. See http://www.cafetortoni.com.ar/html/shows.html for information.





Tango in the streets: I HEART Buenos Aires moments

Photo credit and copyright Rebecca Travaglia 2011

 

I must admit, I am still yet to see any spontaneous moments of people dancing tango on the street here - an expectation that visitors to Buenos Aires commonly have. Excluding myself (I have been known to practice boleos while waiting for the bus) it seems that impromptu outbreaks of dancing tango on street corners are a myth created from having tango buskers who frequent the infamous markets of Caminito and San Telmo.

 

But it is true that many porteños live and breath tango in daily life. Not necessarily by frequenting milongas every weekend or even necessarily dancing this wonderful dance, but in a way that rises up from the soul of the city´s heart and worms its way into the culture. If you have your eyes and ears open, you´ll see this through their daily interactions and, what I like to call, I HEART Buenos Aires moments - those moments which make you stop and smile and can only happen if you´re in this wonderfully alive city.

 

One such fine example of this happened to me during a particularly warm pre-spring day. Out on my bike, enjoying the city at a relaxed pace only achievable with a single-gear bicycle, I became aware of a rather familiar tango melody weaving its way through the traffic chaos. As tango music radiating from cars common here, I did not see any peculiarities about this particular moment and continued on my way, happy at the possibility of a soundtrack to accompany my journey. As the voice continued singing with passion and gusto, it dawned on me that there was no backing track of a bandoneon lament or mourning soulful violin. As the flow of traffic drew to a stop at a red light, a middle aged man with a sun baked face and rough work-worn hands glided past me on his cycle-rickshaw bike, singing this tango at the top of his lungs.  He gestured with a large sweep of his arm and shake of his hand to direct his love and appreciation to the sun, the cornflower blue sky and any woman pedestrian who was crossing his path (tango is, after all, about love).

 

As the light turned green, he continued on his way down the busy city avenue singing loudly and seemed blissfully at peace despite the loud and obvious large city going ons that were all around him. How happy he seemed with only his bike, the sun and, of course, tango. After all, this city is all about romancing and if its residents can add romance to a trip down a busy avenue, it signifies that there is something special in their veins.

 

As a visitor to Buenos Aires, it´s easy to think that tango is only alive in the milongas and dance halls. However, it is not unusual to see old transistor radios tinkling out the tango-only station from the sill of a shuttered window during Sunday mornings. During a taxi-ride home, a friend mentioned to the driver that she was heading to a small barrio milonga and he launched into an excited monologue of how he knows and admires the DJ of the milonga, how much the music of tango speaks to him as a porteño, how he enjoys meeting those people who come to the city to experience it and would she like two free entries to several of the milongas that were happening this week?

 

Tango started in the barrio and there its heart remains, in the eyes of the old man you sit next to on the bus, in the heart of the gorgeously wrinkled woman sitting next to you on the subte, in the veins of the two gentlemen playing chess in the park on a Saturday, in the connection between generations as the young discover the vinyl of their parents, in the couple kissing in the doorway, and in the gatherings of young folk who can surprise you with their knowledge of and appreciation for the tango of old. Watch out for the tango, it hides in the simplest of places. 

Tango Floorcraft: How to dance when your limited space is the size of a tabletop

(Ricardo Viqueira y Fish - 2011 Seoul Tango Festival)

 

It was as quick as lightening and by some miracle, left my foot unscathed. While extending my leg and foot behind me, the follower closest to me was led into the rock step, extending her foot backwards and rebounding forward again.  The golden spike of her dazzling Comme Il Faut shoe slipped down between the sole of my foot and the arch of my shoe before somehow extracting itself almost immediately.

 

Some may wonder how it is that with so many couples on a dance floor (and almost 50 % of these people wearing potentially dangerous high heels), there are not more collisions, splayed legs or blood on the dance floor. Well, floorcraft is one of the key lessons that a tanguero must learn for both leading and following. It has as much to do with skill as with attitude.

 

In essence, floorcraft requires an observation and awareness of other couples on the dance floor and is the choices of step and direction that you make during your dance. Followers and leaders have different requirements to successfully navigate a crowded dance space and there are plenty of websites that offer lists of rules to follow. As dancers will agree, these rules are not for the sake of being pendantic. They are there to ensure a safe and enjoying evening on a crowded dancefloor, stemming from respect for others and respect for the dance.

 

Leaders: You need to imagine you are driving a car. You stick to your lane, you remain aware of all others drivers on the road, what the car is doing behind you and whether the car in front is going to put its brakes on. You avoid tailgating and avoid dangerous manuovers like pulling out into the other lane and reckless overtaking. Remember all these and you are well on the way to being a respectful dancer at a crowded milonga.

 

Followers: If you're wearing heels, you need to be aware of the amount of people on the dance floor. Taking a bigger step backwards than required may lead to a large gouge out of a leader's leg. And keeping your heels on the floor during sweeps and boleos will lessen the chance of your heel coming into contact with someone else's leg.  Many followers enjoy dancing with their eyes closed but sometimes the leader may appreciate you being the eyes behind him incase there is a reckless dancer on the floor.  Simply applying a slight pressure to the back of the leader can indicate 'beware!' and assist them in avoiding a collision.

 

As you sit back sipping your malbec and watching the milonga, you will notice that all dancers move in an anti clockwise direction (referred to here as the current). Sometimes you will notice two 'lanes' of dancing - an outside lane and an inside lane. While sometimes the couple will turn around, the leader always faces the direction of the current and the follower dances backwards in the flow. Bumping into people is to be expected on a crowded dance floor, and most people are apologetic, immediately making eye contact and nodding or smiling in apology.

 

While there are plenty of flashy and complicated moves that are part of the tango vocabulary, any dancer will tell you that some of their most memorable and 'connected' dances will be when someone puts more emphasis on the connection rather than the moves. And this does not require much more space than a table.

 

Don't believe me? Well, back in May 2011, Seoul hosted a week long Tango Festival and this performance was given at the Farewell Milonga. Ricardo Viqueira hails from Buenos Aires and in this performance, shows why he is one of the masters of tango. Details on why they were challenged to perform on a table are sketchy but it goes to show that the beauty of tango can also lie in the simplicity of movements and the interpretation of music within such a small space.

 

Enjoy.

 

2011 Seoul Tango Week Farewell Milonga - Ricardo Viqueira y Fish

 

Interested to read more on floorcraft? Check out these pages:

 

http://tangocorazon.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/on-the-dance-floor-floor-craft-101/

 

http://www.totango.net/floor.html

 

http://closembracetango.com/tango/tango-floorcraft

Buenos Aires Tango Festival and World Championships 2013

Photo credit and copyright Rebecca Travaglia 2011

 

It´s that time again! The city is buzzing with all that is tango, bringing warmth and excitement to a notoriously chilly time of year. August heralds the arrival of the annual Buenos Aires Tango Festival y Mundial and it is not just for dancers. There are more than two hundred shows and activities including: orchestra performances, singers, professional dance performances, classes and workshops, milongas and, of course, the international stage and salon Tango Mundial Championships.

 

This festival runs from the 14th August until 27th August and with something special happening each day, visitors to Buenos Aires have no reason to not delve into this event and take in some amazing live music performances. At the Centro de Exposiciones (the hub of the festival), you’ll find the one-stop-market for all products tango. Take time to visit the Centre and feel the excited hum given off by the people browsing shoes, watching tango performances, meeting old friends and planning which class to take next.

 

This year showcases a focus on the Bandoneon (To Bandoneon, With Love), an instrument once described as having a voice of melancholy and loneliness as if it had been abandoned and ignored in the gutter of a cobblestoned street, left alone in its lament as the cold, grey rain pours down around it.  Arriving in Argentina in the late 19th Century thanks to the German and Italian immigrants, the bandoneon (type of concertina) has made itself home within tango music. An essential to the tango orchestra, it captivates the audience with the power and beauty of its haunting, sensual voice which arises from the concertina being stretched and squeezed.

 

The last singing legend of the golden era of tango, Alberto Podestá, is also giving a concert which promises to be nothing short of amazing, full of nostalgia and the voices of tango past.  From a younger generation, El Tango Vuelve Al Barrio (Hernán “Cucuza” Castiello, voz

Maximiliano “Moscato” Luna, guitarra) is a duo who perform regularly and are taking tango right back to its grass roots. It’s not unusual to find their small barrio concerts still going (complete with audience singing), as a sun comes up over the streets of Buenos Aires.

 

For further details, head to the Festival website. The page is in both English and Spanish and gives details about event locations, a day-by-day programme and information on how to obtain tickets. Nearly all events are free and available to both locals and tourists.  Be warned. Getting tickets can be a chaotic process. In a city this large (plus an additional 400 000 visitors expected), queues for getting tickets start forming early morning. To avoid being disappointed, be prepared to head in early (with puffer coat and hot coffee) to grab the best spot in the line. It is not unusual for the ticket queue to form a snake several blocks long.

 

What: Buenos Aires Tango Festival and Mundial (World Championships)

When: 14th - 27th August

Where: Various venues including Centro de Exposiciones (Av. Figueroa Alcorta y Av. Pueyrredón)

Website: http://festivales.buenosaires.gob.ar/tango/festivalymundial13/web/en/index.html

Admission to events: Mostly free

 

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.