Approaching midnight on our final day in Buenos Aires, Whitney and I put on our last remaining clean clothes, flagged down a taxi, and gave the driver an address on the other side of the city. “¿Van a Torquato Tasso?” he asked. “Sí,” I replied. This must be a popular spot, I thought. Or perhaps it was the only reasonable tourist destination this late on a Sunday night.
Two nights before we had been to a proper tango show a few blocks away at Bar Sur, with live music and professional dancers, handsomely attired and serious about their craft. Tonight we were headed to a milonga, one of BA’s most cherished traditions, where the people, rather than the professionals, come to tango.
We entered Torquato Tasso and skirted the edges of the dance floor, weaving haltingly between dancing duos, to reach the bar at the back of the room. There was no live band tonight, just four overhead speakers spilling out music and offering cues to the dancers below. The dance floor is about 40-feet wide by 25-feet long, and there are probably 100 feet gliding and spinning gracefully across it during a tango song. At the end of a set — about four songs in ten minutes — the dance partners break and return to tables scattered around the room.
During the break there is little verbal interaction between dancers. Instead the men silently look around the room, trying to catch a woman’s eyes. If they make eye contact, he invites her to dance with a tilt of his head and a subtle facial expression; this is called the cabezazo. If she returns the glance, she accepts his invitation. If she declines, he looks elsewhere. When the tango begins again, the floor quickly fills to capacity with newly-formed pairs of dancers of all ages and skill levels.
One of the interesting aspects of tango is how interpretive and communicative it is. If you watch ten different pairs of dancers, you’ll see ten different styles and steps. Some move brashly across the room, clinging loosely to one another and charging in bold steps through the crowd. Others lock in a tight embrace and revolve carefully around a small patch of floor. I also noticed several older men paired up with very young, inexperienced women. They would begin with a cordial introduction and some tentative steps; after a couple songs he would be deftly leading her through some very difficult-looking maneuvers.
It’s easy to see why tango is a national passion in Argentina. It’s a beautiful thing to watch: an intimate moment between complete strangers, designed and carried out by the slightest suggestions of their bodies, tender and forceful at the same time.
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