May 12, 2013
Until this past Saturday, Bjorn and I had been in Buenos Aires a little over a month and a week — and I still hadn’t seen the tango here. Yes, I realize that sounds almost inhumanly impossible considering that the dances are performed publicly almost daily, but we kept catching the tail-ends of the performances, i.e. just in time to hear the calls for money. Adding to our shame, we now live in San Telmo, which according to Wikipedia, has tango parlors lining its cobblestone streets and “tango-related activities for both locals and tourists are in the area.”
The only excuse I can come up with is “absence makes the heart grow fonder” — as in, the opposite of that phrase. You know how when people live close to the beach they rarely end up going there? Familiarity is not breeding contempt, it’s more a false sense of security that because it’s so close, you’ll see it later — at a time which never comes.
In retrospect, it’s only fitting that for my first glimpse of the tango, we had to travel (fairly) far, back to our first neighborhood: Flores. We’re still familiar with the area as we perform our service project there. However, we still managed to find ourselves on a “creative detour” among increasingly seedy streets (Bonus: I counted a surprising number of prostitutes within two blocks.) After what seemed like a long, long time, we found the milonga (mee-LONG-guh).
A milonga, according to Bjorn, is an event where people come together to dance the tango. I’ve never seen the tango outside of “Dancing with the Stars” and other such flashy events, so this milonga was a revelation to me. Hardly any fancy high-kicking or shiny sequined dresses were to be seen; instead the people danced with sweeping, close steps, each couple traveling in a circle around the floor. It was the kind of tango, Bjorn said, that you knew they had grown up dancing. It was the local, neighborhood version of the tango.
Because it was a neighborhood event, the skill level and ages of the dancers were fantastically diverse. Teenagers to senior citizens whirled their way across the dance floor. (It was also possible to see a 70-year-old man digging his fingers into the side boob of a 20-year-old in a decidedly awkward tango.) The atmosphere and dress code were decidedly lax and casual. Men wore jeans or slacks; many women wore nice, but not really formal dresses. The only real concession to fashion: Gorgeous high heels. I soon found out why: I couldn’t keep my eyes off their feet. Each step was placed in such close proximity to their partner’s feet, I was amazed that people weren’t tripping and falling all over each other. At times, it seems like the dance even calls for “feet hugging.”
Another reason I kept my head down: the dance is incredibly intimate. To watch the faces of these people as they danced felt uncomfortably like voyeurism. The couples’ heads were pressed close together, so tightly that I instantaneously knew that long years of familiarity and/or copious amounts of breath mints must be involved. Many danced with their eyes closed. The men held their partners closely, their arm across the entire width of the women’s backs. Smiling was rare; instead people had intense, solemn (though not unhappy) expressions. This tango was more than a dance; it was a relationship on display.
And it was soon evident that one doesn’t come to a milonga to learn how to do the tango; if you’re going to get up on that floor, prior knowledge of it is required or you risk messing up the flow of all the other dancers (at least after 10 p.m.). So Bjorn and I were content to sit and watch. And because it was us, we were also eating. This milonga offered food, and Bjorn and I had some of the best casitas/tarts that I’ve ever tried. A small bowl of perfectly crispy dough held melty, just-right salty cheese and olives; another had onions and mushrooms. The flavors didn’t blend so much as complement each other. I would go just to try one.
La Milonga de Artigas is held every second Saturday of the month at Artigas (street) 690 (street number) in the Flores neighborhood/barrio (it’s about 2 blocks from the Basilica). 10 pesos donation/entrance fee.