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Embracing the spirit of Carnaval - Buenos Aires' Milongas de Carnaval

(Photo copyright Martin Bratina)


You have probably never seen The Pope dancing tango. You probably wouldn’t believe it if you did. But if you had been fortunate to attend one particular Milongas De Carnaval milonga during February, you would be forgiven for doubting yourself. For there was certainly a man in flowing white robes dancing tango, moving with grace and elegance and in his arms was none other than a ravishingly fire-engine red fish-net stocking clad woman with a devilish mass of red curly hair. Do not fear - you're not going mad. It's just the spirit of Carnaval creeping into milonga halls like the infectious murga beats drifting through the city.

The heart beat and rhythm of Buenos Aires has been exceptionally loud over the past three weeks as it’s summer and Buenos Aires has been taken over by Carnival (or carnaval) celebrations. Murgas (bands of marching percussionists and dancers) have been drumming up a storm in various barrios (neighbourhoods), singing out their songs until all hours of the night.  While the ‘carnaval of the country’ (complete with grand parades of flamboyantly costumed performers) is located in Gualeguaychú, a city 250km outside of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires itself hosts its array of mini-carnavals in the hearts of its barrios.

Over the last three weeks, various neighbourhoods have been revelling in celebrations with music, parades, drumming, vibrant costumes, plenty of dancing and the drums of the murgas reverberating late into the hot summer nights. The streets are abundant with colour and vitality. They have been blocked to traffic and played host to an array of chori-pan (Argentina’s  street food of BBQ-ed chorizo in a bread roll) vendors, dancers in flamboyant costumes, large bands of drummers, groups of friends and families. While not as grandiose as the Carnavals of Rio de Janeiro, the atmosphere over the city is electric as revellers party until late.

The spirit of Carnaval is not just limited to the streets and murgas either. Various milongas (places to dance tango) around town embrace the carnival spirit and inject a little bit of chaos from the streets, onto the usually sombre dancefloor. Milongueros (tango dancers) turn up in all variety of costumes and you could end up dancing with anyone from a nun to Messi or a man with a mass of blue curly hair. By the wee small hours, the music has changed to embrace the party atmosphere and revellers run riot squirting foam from a can, out over the dance floor. The playfulness is infectious.

Milongas de Carnaval aims to bring the spirit of tango and meld it with the rhythm and festivity of carnaval. Held in the open air from 1900hs until midnight, there are free open classes, live orchestras, performances and dance floors in the middle of the street. It’s the neighbourhood passion of tango you’d expect to see throughout Buenos Aires and it welcomes everyone, young and old.  The next Milonga de Carnaval is on the 28th February and March 1st and 2nd will mark the last weekend of the carnival celebrations with parades happening all over the central city.  Entry is free.

What you need to know:

MILONGAS DE CARNAVAL: It’s all happening this Friday 28th February in Villa Crespo (corner of Drago y Av. Corrientes).  You can get there on the subte Linea B and the station Malabia


1900 hs. La Colmenita (Children’s theatre)

2000 hs. Clase de baile: Sorpresa

Live Music

22 hs. Sexteto Fantasma invitados Juan Villareal y Martin “El Pitu Frontera”.

23 hs. Ojos de Tango

00 hs. La Juan D´Arienzo

DJ: Carlos “el gordo” Amaya

Dancers: Cecilia Capello y Diego Amorin

Dancing with angels: Cafe de Los Angelitos Tango Show Review

Born in 1890 by the name of Cafe Rivadavia, this traditional corner cafe used to be a meeting point for poets, musicians and folk singers. So the story goes, the swindlers and scoundrels of the time, also used to meet there and the police officials of the barrio called them by the name of ‘little angels’. It wasn’t until 1920 that this little nickname, Cafe de los Angelitos (Little Angels’ Cafe), became the official name. According to locals, it was at this time that it was also the hot choice for dating porteños.

The cafe and theatre that now stands was rebuilt after the original cafe was torn down in 2000, 18 years after it was shut down. Its interior is both modern and elegant, evoking the original spirit through dark wood, stained glass depictions of tango and the old patterned floor tiles which adorn every old building of Buenos Aires.

Despite its 300 person capacity, the theatre retains a sense of intimacy, with its baby blue coloured walls that are lavishly decorated with gold floral accents. This coloured scheme continues right down to the detail on the plates, which can have a surreal calming effect.

There are various options available for this show that include dinner and the show, but also the option to dine in the cafe before moving through to the theatre to watch the show. Transfers are offered for an additional price. Pick up starts from hotels in various districts for dinner guests at 7.45pm and after 9.15pm for show only. Dinner is served at 8.45pm and the show starts at 10pm.  The Executive and VIP sections feature a more elaborate menu, with private tables on the main level and second floor. Regular tables are also considered private but are set out in long communal style as there are large tourist groups that often attend this show. The menu is written in English, Portuguese, Spanish and French - offering all the Argentine cuisine highlights and while a vegetarian option is not explicitly offered, the wait staff are more than happy to check what the kitchen is able to make to accommodate this preference. Drink options include a selection of red or white Argentine wines, beer or soft drinks and is continuously served up until the start of the show.

While exhibiting the long history of tango in its show, Cafe de los Angelitos also embraces the modern twist on tango music that bands such as Bajofondo and Gotan Project have been creating. The background music during dining is all ´tango electronica´ and they even have a Tango Nuevo dance number in the show. The show is an hour and a half long and delivers everything you expect from a tango show - fast agile movements with impeccable timing and dance moves that leave you breathless. They break from some other traditional shows by including the use of props and adding character and humour to the performance. Included in the heavens above the large stage, is a live orchestra which accompanies the dancers flawlessly.  

Located downstairs (accessible by lift) near the toilets, is a large function room which reportedly can be hired for parties, weddings or even tango lessons which are given by some of the dancers on request.

With such a stunningly decorated cafe and lavish theatre, it would pay to arrive early to enjoy a coffee before moving through for the dinner/theatre experience that Cafe de los Angelitos offers. And in spirit of its mischief past, it would be wrong not to accompanying the coffee with a few pieces of Argentina’s devilishly good pastries.

Beneath the colourful facade of La Boca - A trip to Calle Caminito

It was probably the worst day possible to choose to make the trek down to La Boca. On paper it looked great. The city of Buenos Aires offers many free concerts and events for its citizens during the summer and La Boca was hosting free performances by tango singers and dancers over the weekend. Since I had failed to yet make it to La Boca, it seemed a great opportunity to enjoy Calle Caminito with the music that had come from its streets.

What we failed to take into account was that it is Carnival weekend – a weekend where every barrio in Buenos Aires closes off one of its streets to host music, dancing and festivities. This left several main arteries for BsAs traffic, severed from 6pm in the evening.  Add to this the thousands of people making their way to watch the Boca Juniors game at the stadium, locally known as, La Bombonera, and you have a recipe for traffic jams.  As you can imagine, the streets were packed with blue and yellow flags and shirts, a cacophony of moving colour as the lines of people snaked towards the stadium.

Armed with a bucket load of patience, we avoided the scarf-waving-arm-flailing groups of young men that line the streets encouraging people to park their cars and struck gold with a parking spot extremely close to the stage and Calle Caminito.

Calle Caminito (little street) is one of the most well photographed and world famous streets in La Boca. Renowned for its colourful houses and picturesque cobblestoned streets, this is part of the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, La Boca, and located in the southeast part of the city on the river. Immigrants from Spain and Italy arrived in droves to Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th Century and most of the 4 – 6 million people ended up here. Homes were constructed from whatever materials that could found from the scrap yards and painted with whatever paint could be found or bought from the shipyards.

To my surprise, La Boca was not aflood with the usual amount of tourists that frequent this area. There were no stalls with art, no market, no tango dancers to pose with, no (often overpriced) souvenirs to fill our bags with. But for me, that was perfect. I had not visited La Boca in the entire time I had been in Buenos Aires, even during my initial visiting trip a few years ago. I thought it would be simply filled with over priced street art, tourists posing with tango dancers and fake facades.

But underneath it all, it isn´t. Calle Caminito and the surrounding area is not a fake set for tourists, it is simply a living representation and preservation of how the barrio La Boca was so many years ago. I became very engaged in reading about the history of this city, how immigrants needed to live with coming to a new land, how they tried to make a living for themselves and how they tried to brighten up what must have been a very dark time for them.

Add to this the strong belief that tango grew from these very streets and you begin to see a very interesting juxtaposition. La Boca is one of the poorer neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires and it is easy to see how the tango gets its dark and gritty nature from. While sometimes hidden under jeweled sparkly heels, fedoras and dresses with thigh-high slits, tango has a sadness and longing sentiment within it, that is understandable when you see how La Boca must have been. I remember once being told that a bandoneon is an accordion that had been left in the gutter on the street and rained on for many years, with the seasons passing over it. I could imagine this type of loneliness being something immigrants must have experienced, and standing on the cobblestoned streets, looking out at the river mouth, I began to see how complicated their lives must have been.

I was brought back from my musings by the concert. The stage was beside the river and while the quality of the performers was high, so was the sound as the sound technician took liberties with the volume switch. Unwilling to risk our ear drums for the sake of the music, we retreated inside the closest café, taking a seat near the window to enjoy the view as the sun set and allowed the evening to descend.


Things to Know

In regards to the history of this area, I highly recommend this old, but indepth blog post. It gives interesting information about the building of Calle Caminito and the history of the area including why La Boca lays such a claim to being the birth place of tango. http://www.buenostours.com/caminito


The colourful streets of Calle Caminito and the immediate surrounding area are popular tourist haunts. Be careful with your belongings and be sensible when it comes to personal safety. It is also recommended that you do not stray away from these few popular streets, as the surrounding neighbourhood is not considered safe to be in. Even locals suggest not hanging around these streets after dark.

There are several buses that run to La Boca. The subte´s closest stop on Linea C is Constitucion. A safer option is to take the same line until San Telmo, and catch one of the buses that travels down to La Boca from there. It is not recommended to walk. The bus routes include 29, 64, 152 (lead straight to Caminito) and 33 (passes one block behind).

Verano en La Ciudad is Buenos Aires´ summer season of outdoor events for the city citizens to enjoy. If you are here over the holiday period, check out http://agendacultural.buenosaires.gob.ar/evento/llega-verano-en-la-ciudad-2014/8863  for all the details of upcoming events.

Small talk on the tango dance floor

Photo credit and copyright Rebecca Travaglia


Having made it through the cabaceo and the first song of the tanda, I was feeling proud of my achievements until I was faced with the awkward seconds that hang between each song in the tanda. Facing the tall man I had danced with, my senses were running high as I tried to discern whether he was a local or a traveller and whether my broken spanish would need to be retrieved immediately. This slightly wild eyed look gave me away, and my dance partner smiled before saying, "Don't worry, we can talk in English".

Spanish for travelers usually covers all the usual basics - ordering food, practicalities like accommodation or shopping, safe travel and social interactions. A great place to practice your social interaction spanish is in-between the songs as you dance a tanda with someone.  There are a great many people out there dancing tango from all walks of life and of all ages. A great many people speak English, but since you're coming to Buenos Aires, it's respectful to have a few phrases of the local language up your sleeves. It also allows you to enjoy the moments between songs with ease and who knows who you'll meet!

The subject of the small talk is generally all the same unless you have danced with the person more than once. I remember reading somewhere once that asking someone's name is generally not the first question you ask, and may be exchanged at the end of the tanda. Other general topics include the climate, milongas, and superficial information. That said, talking is not necessary. Some dancers prefer not to break the connection with small talk so do not be afraid to simply smile and stand quietly until the music starts and dancing begins again.

Here are some questions to listen out for (formal 'you' included in the bold brackets):

Hablás (habla) español?

People will generally make an effort to talk to you in English if you do not know any spanish. The replies "No puedo hablar mucho español' (I can't speak a lot of spanish) or 'No hablo español' (I don't speak spanish), initially were my most practiced sentences. To my amusement, people usually replied with 'Pero, hablás muy bien!' (But you speak very well!) as if this one sentence were an indicator for my level of spanish.

Answer: No hablo español. Hablo ______ (your language e.g. ingles) - I don't speak spanish. I speak .....

De donde sos?

This question 'where are you from?' is very common and usually the first question asked if you look slightly uncomfortable at the prospect of speaking spanish. People are also genuinely interested to hear how far you have travelled simply for tango and their city.

Answer: Soy de ___________ (insert your country) - I am from ....

Cuando llegaste (llegó) en Buenos Aires/Por cuanto tiempo vas (va) a quedar en Buenos Aires?

Carrying on from the above question, my experience has shown me that since I'm the foreigner, I usually have to answer the question of 'when did you arrive in Buenos Aires' or 'How long will you stay in Buenos Aires?' rather than have any time to fire away with any questions of my own. People are interested in how much time you are here for and if you are enjoying it.

Handy sentences:

Llegue hace x (number) semanas (I arrived x weeks ago).  

Voy a quedar por x dias (I'm going to stay for x days)

Hace cuantos años bailas tango?

Continuing on with the numbers theme, be prepared to answer about 'How many years have you danced tango?'

Answer:  Por x años/meses (For x years/months)

Tenés Facebook?

It pays to be aware of the intention behind the questions being asked especially when it comes to social networking ('Do you have Facebook?'). Some people may be interested in meeting up as a friend for a milonga during the time you're here, and some may be interested in something other than friendship. Keep safe and take care of your own personal information - never feel pressured to give out personal details.


As tempting as it may be, do not say Gracias after the song until the end of the tanda, even if you have enjoyed it immensely. This indicates to the other person that you have finished dancing with them and would prefer to return to your seat. There are other ways of saying that you enjoyed the dance such as 'bailas bien' - you dance well. Of course if you say Gracias in response to a compliment, it will not be perceived as you wishing to end the tanda.

Experiencing the traditional tango class - Tango in Club Sunderland

(Photo copyright Rebecca Travaglia)

About seventeen ladies were shuffling for positions where their elegant heels would not come into contact with another´s calf. Blood on a dance floor is the last thing that anyone wants and with 9 cm heels, there is some potential for connection if you are not aware of your space around you.  The men were gliding up and down the lines on the floor like swimmers doing lane training at their local olympic pool, continuous laps while hugging invisible women.  The concentration was tangible within the room, almost drowning out the music. I risked a look to spy on my partner and see how he was doing on the men´s side of the floor, only to find him smirking at me, having been laughing at my intense look of concentration I required to successfully adorn my ochos.

This was learning traditional tango at its best. It had been awhile since I have set foot in a tango class thanks to the festive holiday season and travel, and returning to Buenos Aires jumpstarted my desire to re enter the scene. With that in mind, I set off to my first class at Club Sunderland on a balmy Wednesday evening.  Club Sunderland was founded in 1921 making it one of the oldest clubs in the city and celebrating its 91st birthday this year. It hosts a variety of other physical activities but is famous in the tango world for its traditional milongas and classes. The Wednesday night class is taken by  Carlos and Rosa Perez, well respected teachers of traditional tango and world famous for their classes which are, put simply, all about walking.

I remember when I first started tango classes, I heard that even if you practiced walking everyday for 50 years, you still would not have mastered the tanguero´s walk, casting somewhat of a shadow on my dream of being considered a capable tanguera. But if you don´t practice, you can´t improve and I have passed evenings pacing back and forth in my various living arrangements over the years. Back in class, the large studio was threatening to turn into a sauna as the men and women began their walking and I noted that the return journey to the far end of the hall near the air conditioner, was always completed faster, allowing more time for standing in the cool air.

Rosa took us through simple walking, both forwards and backwards, before adding adornos. Everything was going well until we moved onto ochos, which are difficult to do independently at the best of times, but adding adornos to independent ochos is a sure way to induce the wobbles. I noted some women holding out their arms for stability as if to gently meditating as they made their way across the floor. I opted for the intense fixation on a far away spot that doesn´t move, which was fine until I found myself at the back of the group and kept losing my point as the backs infront of me swayed from side to side.

Often beginners are understandably eager to learn tango steps, aching to get onto the floor to see if they can remember the sequence they were given in their class. But some of the best dances I have had is while simply walking. The strength of connection and space for musicality seems limitless and the joy of doing something so simple but so connected, never fails to induce one of those tango moments for me. This class gave me an opportunity to spend time focusing exactly on what my feet and entire body are doing, encouraging internalisation before practicing this with another person, walking around the studio with no thoughts other than connection, simple adornos and the music.

Things you need to know

Club Sunderland

Lugones 3161, Villa Urquiza, Buenos Aires.



Club Sunderland has a well run website which seems to be kept up to date and is well worth checking out to see what classes, practicas and milongas are run each week. It also has information about other events at the club should you feel like a change of sport.

The Wednesday night class is long and includes an instructed part and a free part for you to practice what you have learnt. The class runs from 8pm until 10.30pm. Some people (including names like Fabian Peralta) only arrive for the second part of the class.

The class is welcoming to new people and very easy to follow even if you only speak a basic level of Spanish. Some dancers arrive only for the practica afterwards. The cost (at the time of writing) of the class and the practica was 25 pesos.  It was my experience that the men received more personal attention than the women did, but that said, if you are struggling with the adornos, Rosa will offer advice to you. This class is great to go to if you have a partner, as you spend an hour or so practicing with the sexes divided and afterwards you have the opportunity to work together on what you have learned about your walk. Be prepared to only walk. There are no steps given in this class.