It’s a trail that will lead us from La Boca into the labyrinth of Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighbourhood. We’ll discover the milongas where the genius of Buenos Aires flourishes, in the magic of Palermo, the memories of El Abasto, and the throb of Avenida Corrientes. On this journey, our guide is a sensuous cross between courtly gentleman and picaresque street urchin: the uninimitable Argentine tango.
“Liven up!” as a good tango dancer of the old school would say, because at El Viejo Almacén, the temple of tango in the San Telmo district, the eyelashes are already curled, the shoes are polished, and the skirts are itching to keep hitching above the knees. Sip some Malbec and drink in the dancers as they pivot, perfumed, professional and sublime. Spend one evening here at this living museum in San Telmo, another at El Caminito in La Boca, and maybe even a third at La Esquina de Carlos Gardel in the El Abasto neighbourhood. At all three, savour the artistic choreography and simultaneous mathematical purity of colourfully named moves like cortes (“cuts”), quebradas (“breaks”), and mordidas (“bites”). And once you’ve gotten the hang of it, head out to where the tango still lives and breathes: the quilombo (hot mess) of the boliche (bar) and cortada (street)—because without these there is no tango.
CURE FOR HOMESICKNESS
In the beginning, in the mid-19th century, it was in the roughest neighbourhoods—under the streetlamps, for instance, of Calle Necochea in La Boca, that pairs of male immigrants came together, stubbly cheek to stubbly cheek, to invent a kind of homesickness cure. It was they who created this dance, so substantial and complex that it is more easily learned than analysed. And to take the ﬁrst steps, the thing to do is to hop from one milonga, (tango hall) to the next. We’ll start with El Niño Bien (cute name, Spanish for “Spoiled Rich Kid”) in the Concepción area. Elegant and reﬁned, this is a place where the dancing couples have spent their whole lives polishing their angles, gazes, and pauses. Then we jump over to the Palermo neighbourhood, now one of B.A.’s most fashionable, for a lesson at the milonga La Viruta, followed by a dance, a drink and an invite to this town’s longest night. The following night, once your hangover has faded, don’t miss the century-old Conﬁtería Ideal milonga, housed in an elegant Art Nouveau building in Microcentro (downtown). Some will want to linger on the ground ﬂoor, spellbound by a feast of history, artifacts, and memories of both gentility and grit, but do tear yourself away and head upstairs to the magnificent dance ﬂoor, where newbies gawk in awe of the veterans.
TITAN OF TANGO
And it’s right here near Confitería Ideal, amid the bright lights and bustling traffic of Avenida de Corrientes, you’ll find the theatres and other locales where tango legends were made, and none more legendary than the iconic—and ironically French-born—Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), who lived here. This is where the fully polished diamond gleamed, but to discover how it came out of the ground, we must go to nearby El Abasto, a section of the Balvanera district where you’ll find the museum, the home, and the places where Gardel crooned his ﬁrst notes. Today he is adored more than ever, invoked and reinterpreted by dancers on street corners and his voice ﬁlling butcher shops and banks alike, his smiling likeness widely emblazoned (sometimes as garish caricatures) on shop awnings, posters, even street drain covers.
I’ve found few spectacles as aesthetically pleasing as a milonga or al fresco tango show. The organisers of the ones held Friday through Sunday each summer (remember, here that means December to March) at Las Barracas in Belgrano say that everyone is invited, whether 18 or 80, dancing fiend or klutz. At San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego there’s another one held Sundays, the Milonga del Indio, which is picturesque, so colourful, and so authentic (the neighbours are its keenest participants) that some porteños never miss this weekly appointment after famous San Telmo flea market wraps up at 8pm.
And nowadays a once aging, even fading music has been reinvigorated by a new generation and new forms like neo-tango, jazz tango, even techno tango, making it clear that this beloved UNESCO World Heritage icon will continue to be a driving force of Argentine culture. Especially if you’re culture vulture and/or nightlife fan, you owe it to yourself to experience the magic in its evocative birthplace.
KEY BUENOS AIRES TANGO VENUES
Caminito Tango Show
Calle Dr. del Valle Iberlucea 1158, La Boca
Calle Suipacha 384, Microcentro
El Niño Bien
Calle Humberto Primo 1462, Concepción
El Viejo Almacén
Avenida Independencia at Calle Balcarce, San Telmo.
Esquina Carlos Gardel
Calle Carlos Gardel 3200, El Abasto/Balvanera
Calle Armenia 1366, Palermo