An Authentic Tango Experience While Tackling the Language Barrier

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

When I announced my plans to travel to Argentina I knew immediately that there were several friends I absolutely had to get in touch with.  One was Kellen, a friend who had spent 3 months the previous summer in Buenos Aires as part of a fantastic study abroad program. He had honed his Spanish, danced up a storm, and met a bunch of amazing people.

When I told him about my plans I was immediately greeted by a giant smile which quickly transitioned into a list of places to see, foods to eat and friends that I needed to meet.  One of those friends was Kellen’s Argentine tango instructor and good friend, Rodrigo.

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

New Friends

Kellen quickly connected Rodrigo and me on Facebook and we began to chat.  The one catch?  English wasn’t one of the languages he spoke and…well…my Spanish could be called a lot of things but fluent is definitely not one of them. Not to despair though, where there’s a will there is always a way.  Before long we’d friended each other on Facebook and using my very basic Spanish and Google translate we were able to get acquainted and chat away.

By the time I arrived in Buenos Aires I had a list of tips, places to see, and suggestions from Rodrigo which were a huge help.  The real fun started during my third and final time in Buenos Aires when our schedules finally aligned.  We set a time and place to meet. As it worked out it was about a 10 minute walk from my hostel, located in the heart of the Palermo district.

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous. Here I was standing on a street corner in a fairly quiet part of Buenos Airies at 11pm waiting to meet someone I’d only seen photos of on Facebook. I didn’t have a phone, didn’t know for a fact if I was in the right spot or not, and wasn’t sure how well we’d be able to communicate given the absence of Google Translate.  Over the previous two weeks I’d spent in Argentina a lot of my Spanish had come back to me, but would it be enough?

As an odd assortment of people walked by I’m sure I left a few feeling uneasy as I tried to make inquisitive eye contact while making that haphazard “is it you?” face. Eventually Rodrigo arrived and with a warm smile introduced himself. We said hello and chatted with each other breaking through the initial awkwardness that makes communicating hard.  As we (or perhaps more I) started to relax we began walking and he told me that it was too early to Tango yet (yep, 11pm is the Argentine equivalent of 6pm elsewhere!) but he had a few friends he wanted me to meet.

A five minute walk brought us to an apartment where I was introduced to several of his friends: A group of several Argentinians and an Israeli exchange student. We quickly got acquainted and made our way to the rooftop terrace where they had a table and set of chairs. The evening air was warm and delightful.  It was also still fairly light out as it was the heart of Argentina’s summer.

They had ordered pizza and picked up several liters of soda and beer. As it turned out the evening was a bit of a post New Years Celebration among friends. A celebration I felt very blessed to be included in.

As the meal and conversation transitioned from eating, we prepared for a bit of dancing. The table was moved to the side, the ipod switched to Tango music, and the performances and lessons were on!

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

The Dances

Despite my background in Ballroom and focus in Latin dance, Argentine Tango has always eluded me.  Which is to say that even the basic was something that I had previously only seen, but never danced. The beat, the rhythm, the flow, it was all new and I quickly found myself more than a little confused.   Luckily under the guidance of Rodrigo, and several of his patient friends, I learned the basic box and at least started to get a feel for the dance while only periodically mangling the poor girl’s toes.

Once sufficiently satisfied that I’d gotten the basics down to Argentine Tango and sensing my background in slightly more fast paced/constantly paced dances they introduced me to the Milonga.  This dance, which shares the same name as many of the city’s tango venues, is a faster, constant version of the tango. Wikipedia explains the Milgona as, “Milonga,(in 2/4 time) has a strongly accented beat, and sometimes an underlying “habanera” rhythm. Dancers avoid pausing, and often introduce double time steps (incorrectly called syncopation and more appropriately called traspies) into their walks and turns. Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than some danced in other varieties of tango. Some tango instructors say that tango steps should not be used in milonga and that milonga has its own special rhythm and steps, which are quite different from tango.”

While the beat was easier to relate to for me, I have to admit that the speed and execution left me more than a little baffled and confused.  Still, it was a fantastic introduction to a dance which was both passionate, engaging, and exciting as well as being an entirely new dance for me.

To my surprise we finished the lessons out with a third and far more traditional dance, the chacarera (I believe).  The dance was a zero contact partner dance which resembled a traditional waltz or Victorian era dance.  A fun line dance of sorts, it consisted of a number of turns, pauses, a bit of tap dancing, and then a final salute which left both partners near embrace without touching.  While I initially thought it was just a fun cultural dance they were sharing with me, later I’d learned that it was actively used and danced in the Milongas.

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

The Milonga

As 3:30AM quickly approached Rodrigo and I said our goodbyes and our thank yous before setting off into the night.  I assumed that we were probably done with the evening, but quickly realized that it had just started. As we made our way back out to the street he explained that the good tango clubs in the area were just getting going. Before long we arrived at one such venue, located in the spacious basement/bar area of a large building.  The area was packed with a ring of small tables lining a large rectangular dance floor.  My guide quickly chatted with one of the local waiters, who he obviously knew, and found us a seat.

Before long we were joined by two German girls we had bumped into on the walk over and had been introduced to by one of Rodrigo’s friends who had decided to call it a night.  The girls were in Argentina learning Tango and quickly took the dance floor where Rodrigo launched them into a series of fantastic routines. His tango was skillful and an absolute delight to watch.

As the night went on the venue would play a series of 5 songs back to back before some sort of old rock jam would blast on as a sign to rotate or take a break.  Then every 10th song or so they would play an Chacarera or two, which were equally fun to watch!  Though possessed of a flimsy understanding of the bare basics for both, I have to admit that I opted to sit, relax and watch the dancers without ever joining them.  Perhaps after a chance to practice a bit more, and to force the basics of Argentine tango into my memory, I’ll be up for the challenge.

By 5:30AM I could barely keep my eyes open and the wear and tear on my body from the previous week’s travels and New Years festivities came crashing down upon me.  I bid the girls goodnight, thanked Rodrigo for one of the most delightful evenings I’d had in Argentina, and began my walk home.

He was a truly wonderful host and one who patiently put up with my dreadful Spanish and bad jokes while sharing his culture, music and dance with me.  My first night at an Argentine Milonga will always stand out as one of my favorite dance experiences and easily one of my fondest memories from Buenos Aires.

**The photos in this post are of  Rodrigo and his dance partners used with permission from his facebook. Impressive ehh?

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Sex On the Dance Floor or Just a Flirtatious Tango? Argentine Tango at Cafe de los Angelitos in Buenos Aires!

Pausing for a Dance in Tierra del Fuego

With that keen sense of despair gnawing at the edge of my mind, I gradually began to internalize that my trip to Argentina was nearing its conclusion. Anything but ready to leave Argentina behind I relished every remaining moment I had, and to be fair, those remaining moments promised grand adventures including a visit to La Boca, a stunning tango show, live tango dancing with locals, a bizarre amusement park and of course New Years celebrations!  After a 17 hour plus bus ride back to Buenos Aires from Puerto Iguazu I settled into my new hostel in the Palermo district. After getting settled I had the Hostel’s front desk call and book a reservation for me at Cafe de los Angelitos – one of Buenos Aires famous cafes offering live, choreographed Tango performances. While more expensive (the show was 300 ARS or about $75 USD and offered an option for 450 ARS which included dinner) my local friend and tango instructor Rodrigo had suggested it, which left little doubt in my mind.  Eager to find a hole in the wall for dinner and already smarting from the sticker price of the show alone I opted for the show, sans the meal.

As a latin and ballroom dancer the opportunity to see a live Argentina Tango performance stood out as one of the key draws which had driven me to book my Argentina trip.  Though my relationship with Tango has always been with International/American Tango I love watching Argentina Tango and have the utmost respect for it.  In 2007 as a semi-accidental discovery I caught Tango Fire, a touring Argentina Tango troupe, while they were performing in London.  The show was mesmerizing, simple, sensual, and a magical melding of love music, dance and physical artistry. It set a high bar and is a fond memory – one which I was eager to match or surpass.

Unsure what to expect and regretting the lack of more formal clothing I put on my black dress shirt, cleaned up, and hopped in a cab. I’d battled with the decision to take my camera’s with me, and given the semi-formal setting eventually opted (much to my later lament – the photos in this post are from their website) to leave them at home.  As we sped through the streets and across town I chatted with my Cab driver, a gentleman who was as much tour guide as cabbie and every bit the proud Argentine. He extolled the virtues, history and reputation of Cafe de los Angelitos and then told me I absolutely had to return to the Cafe another evening for one of the live musical performances (next trip my friend!). As we pulled up in front of the cafe I hopped out, bid him goodbye and checked my watch. I was 40 minutes early – whoops!  Never one to mind being a bit early, I paused to take in the Cafe before making my way inside.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

Cafe de los Angelitos was founded in 1890 and is far more than just a simple cafe.  With a formal, though more traditional, cafe in front the venue manages to secret away a large balconied dining room decorated in an ornate 19th century style.  The dining room and the connected balconies resemble the general feel of your traditional opera or play house and are carefully laid out to offer a fantastic view of the raised stage. The stage is a beautiful two story thing, with a recessed space for the band and multiple layers allowing fantastic acoustics and the dancers wonderful opportunities to use the set as part of their performances.  All of the wait staff are in traditional outfits which offer a turn of the century meets old Victorian Gaucho look.

I checked in and to my delight was escorted to the end seat directly off the center of the stage.  Though located near the back of the ground floor it offered me a centered view of the stage and placed me close enough to see everything in perfect detail. I ordered still water and relaxed to people watch as time slipped by. I’d arrived right before the main course was served for those who opted to do the dinner, and I have to confess that the dinner looked superb. Multi-course with oyster appetizers, a large steak, and wonderful assortment of desert options it left my mouth watering.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

And then the lights dimmed, plates were cleared away and the stage lights lit the stage. As the lights slowly came up the performers made their way through the crowd before finding their way up onto the stage. They giggled and laughed, chatted and teased each other in character while dressed in beautiful summer clothing. One jovially lugged an early model camera with him while others had umbrellas and tophats in tow. They settled into a group, posed briefly and then with a large flash the Camera went off. From there the picnic evolved into a delightful dance with the five partnerships spinning, twisting, dipping and pausing for a periodic corte. All the while the band, which was located in a recessed enclosure in the center of the stage, played piercing tango music.  I was instantly drawn into the performance and found myself on the edge of my seat.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

As the night progressed the performances varied. Some were group performances featuring all of the couples, while others were solo or duet pieces. Yet others were pure musical performances and featured one of the two main vocalists. To my delight I’d attended in the hope of seeing a great tango show. As an unexpected bonus I also received a fantastic concert. They sang piecing songs of tragedy, love, passion and desire all set to the heart stopping ballads of live tango music so full of power and energy that you could feel them pulsating in your chest.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

With each new performance the women’s costumes changed from traditional gowns to incredible evening dresses that highlighted the dancer’s stunning physiques and left little doubt that they were every bit as sensual and attractive physically as their dancing was captivating. For the men’s part they demanded their place on the stage with puffed out chests, low sitting fedoras, and a mixture of suits that offered their own character and feel. Each time they took the stage a hush drifted over the crowd.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

One of my favorite performances began with a dark stage and enchanting vocals. As a spotlight slowly drifted down, it revealed the female singer perched in the band box. Eventually, as though responding to a her song, a lone male dancer took the floor. After a series of solo routines showcasing his talent he appeared to win her over. She slowly walked to the edge of the 2nd story box, gently took a seat, and then to our shock and delight slipped off the edge and down into his waiting arms. From there the song gave way to pure music, and a story told by entwined bodies as they drifted – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – across the dance floor.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

Another of my favorites began with a lone woman standing, posing, and then eventually dancing elegantly in front of a sheer curtain. As she danced, the light on the front of the stage would periodically switch from front to back, which in turn highlighted the silhouette of lone male figure. As the dance continued he eventually struck out from behind the curtain where he approached her and was accepted. They danced. Legs entwined in a maze of motion, I quickly realized that the curtain was as much dress as curtain. Made of the same material and color as her dress it found its way to the floor before drawing in to wrap up and around her as part of her dress. Then as he wrapped her in it, the curtain released and fell to the ground leaving the two to wrap themselves in the curtain, dance around it, and unwind themselves before that part of her dress fell away leaving them to do grand dips, lifts and catches. The interplay between light, shadow, the music and each other was fantastic!

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

Though most of the dances were in deed Argentina Tangos, they also mixed in a number of other pieces which varied from Sambas to sensual rumba-like routines danced in sheer nightgown-esq outfits on a stage obscured by billowing fog machines. The show was everything you would expect and more. Sensual, passionate, entertaining, playful, lustful, moving, and even at times slightly tragic. While it may not have been true street tango it was easily one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever enjoyed live. I would readily put it head to head with the great musicals and other similarly spirited performances.

The one truly unfortunate aspect of the evening was the service. It was easily the worst I’ve experienced in a long time and by far the worst I experienced in Argentina. I’m not sure if it was due to confusion over whose section I was in, the fact that I was alone, young, male, didn’t purchase the dinner or a combination of all of the above. Regardless it took me more than 50 minutes to get my water, which included flagging down waitstaff 5 times and having them deliver gas water vs. the still I had ordered. During that same period (before the water arrived mid-show) I also ordered a hot tea which took two requests (combined with the water inquiries), over 20 minutes and frustrated complaints before it arrived. Keep in mind this all occurred at a venue charging almost $40 USD for dinner and with ample wait staff on hand. I eventually flagged down a waiter from another section, was forced to complain in broken Spanish, and after repeating my story several times was introduced to a manager who spoke English. She was apologetic, said she would work on it immediately and insisted I accept a free desert in addition to comping my water and hot tea. As the show started the fruit plate arrived, which was a wonderful mixture of sweet kiwi, grapes, mellons, strawberries and blueberries. Unfortunately, and perhaps somewhat comically, even as the plate arrived the one thing I truly wanted – a bottle of still water – took an additional 10 minutes to find its way to me.

While the service was disappointing, frankly rather insulting, and extremely unfortunate I will say that the manager made a decent effort to make it right once it was brought to her attention, was apologetic and despite it all did little to truly diminish the experience. In truth it became more comedy than frustration. Though I’d be far less patient with the service in the future I’d gladly attend the Cafe’s performance again as it was truly magnificent and an experience that was gently enhanced by the feel and ambiance of the venue. For more info feel free to visit Cafe de los Angelito’s website.

Ahhh Buenos Aires. I think I may have fallen in love with your charm!

Reminder: This post is a continuation in my Argentina series. Jump to the previous post: Puerto de Iguazu, Toucans and an Animal Rehabilitation in Argentina or if you’re itching for a bit of tango music check out Tango music on Amazon.

**Please note that all of the photos from Cafe de los Angelitos in this post are theirs and are from their website. As stated in the post, I did not have my camera with me. All rights are retained by the original photographer.