Postcard from Buenos Aires
By Ian Reed
November 13, 2002
It is 2.30 in the morning, my lungs are seared with second-hand cigarette smoke, and I am aching to get back to my hotel room and call it a night. But this is Argentina, where Time's tyranny is overthrown, and Immortality takes up her reign.
Behold how she sweeps in on the urgent strains of bandoneóns — those plaintive squeeze-boxes of self-harmony that seize the stricken air with breathy, melancholic thrusts, transporting us poor rapt hearers to the halls of Elysium, with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.
Such is the ministry of that famed Tango orchestra, 'Color Tango', who finally begin their overdue recital, to vie with Orpheus at the gates of Heaven and banish all notion of sleep.
And in reply, surely the angels have sent their emissaries to earth — one a long-legged beauty such as men dare not hope to hold, who glides into view on the arm of a tall, dark escort of chiseled feature. With words written in dance, they prove a very priesthood to Eternity.
Thus, when the crisp sheets finally embrace me at 4am, my heart in sleep recites a hymn of praise rehearsed in spectacle that night.
So began my Tango tour to Buenos Aires. And this first night was typical of those to follow: staying out to all hours at milongas — social Tango dance events that are the city's cultural lifeblood — eventually collapsing into bed, and dragging my body to class the next morning.
More performances followed, each a fiery herald proclaiming Tango the paragon of dances, each a poetic testament standing with Shakespeare's rhapsody on Mankind as the height of all creation, godlike, infinite, express and admirable in form and moving.
Following the fireworks of Virginia Gomez and Christian Marquez, witnessed that first night, the most breathtaking display featured Melina Brufman and Pancho Martinez Pey. Both also star in 'Tanguera' (the Spanish word, meaning a female Tango dancer), a theatre show depicting the familiar Tango theme of a man who falls in love with a prostitute but falls afoul of the local mafiosos.
We were fortunate to meet many of the leading lights among the city's Tango community face-to-face, so when I met Pey, the chief bad guy in 'Tanguera', I enjoyed praising his facility as 'El Malvado' or villain, which he carried off to perfection both of dance virtuosity and character.
All in all, it seems the speed and athleticism of Tango performance is ever increasing, such that many of the routines I witnessed, whether choreographed or improvised, left me reeling in bewildered awe, reinforcing the great lesson of Art — the more you know, the more you realize you don't know.
For sheer musicality, the renowned Carolina Zokalski and Diego di Falco, stars of the former Broadway hit, 'Forever Tango' and of the PBS special, 'Tango Magic', were beyond compare in their performance, which included a Tango Vals — the fluid, graceful, waltz-time equivalent of the dance.
Carolina embodies the essence of womanhood in her side-cut dress, the epitome of desire, while Diego is an ambassador of Tango's artistry, a virile tour de force, and, as one of my tanguera friends describes him, "a babe". The image of their graceful movements and gestures sweeps through my memory as if I glimpsed of Heaven.
What kind and gracious hosts this couple were as they initiated us, a disparate group of dance tourists, in the ways of the Buenos Aires Tango community, and it was a joy to be in their presence, whether on or off the dance floor. They also took us to a number of dinners and shows, on a tour of the city's neighborhoods, and for a day in the country at a ranch (or 'Estancia'), in preparation for which Diego had taught us the rudiments of Chacarerra, the foot-stomping, hand-clapping, thumb-clicking, skirt-swishing Argentinian folk dance.
I also attempted riding horses, but the ranch hands insisted I hold the reins in the fashion of a cowboy, or 'gaucho' — with one hand — instead of the proper English way I had been brought up with. The result was that all I could get the beasts to do was toss their heads and go backwards! Or perhaps it was just that they sensed my fear and decided that mulishness was the best strategy for getting an unwanted tourist off their backs!
Over the course of 10 nights, we visited most of the major milongas in the city, many of which are largely populated by elderly folk, and that to a degree unimaginable. When tangueros and tangueras have given up trying to defy the laws of physics by dancing on air, they instead defy the law of least resistance by crowding as many of their bodies as possible into the tiniest of spaces.
The experience is rather like moving with your partner and two other couples through the same quadrant of a swing door. For me, it means going back to the drawing board, developing some neglected skills, such as leading subtle weight changes and pivots, and expanding my repertoire of syncopations, rock-steps, almost-steps, and tight half-circles because full ones won't fit.
At 'La Catedral', however, a roomier set of skills comes into play. Grungy after the manner of New York City dive bars in the East Village, complete with lewd paintings on the walls and decades of dust on every surface, this milonga nevertheless affords plenty of space, along with a much younger crowd. If you don't mind its treacherous dance surface, full of chipped and uneven floorboards, it is a great place to experiment and cut loose.
More than that, it was a milestone in my tango journey. To be a tanguero worthy of the name, I must dance with a local woman — a rite of passage I had long anticipated with much excitement and trepidation. My gracious partner for the occasion was the lovely Luna who, having thus coaxed my genie out of the bottle, introduced me to her younger sister, Veronica, who became my initiation in Milonga — the same word as the dance event itself, but in this case meaning the fast-paced, twitchy, staccato, double-time cousin of Tango.
My favorite venue turned out to be 'La Viruta', an eye-catching, if intimidating, gathering of the young and the beautiful. Here, Tango music is interspersed with collections of swing, rock and samba tracks.
It was here too, that I began to comprehend how broad, how wide, how deep, is the loveliness of Buenos Aires' damsels. Drawing on a rich heritage of Italian and Spanish bloodlines, along with a wealth of other European influences, and joined by a trove of prettiness from the neighboring countries of Uruguay and Paraguay, some of the girls have eyes so deep, so dark, and of such exquisite perfection, that it takes but a moment to fall under their spell and get utterly lost in their merciful gaze. If Christ Himself looked up into eyes half so lovely, it is easy to understand Catholic devotion to the Madonna.
After 'La Viruta', mere raging desire turned to pain, for at about 5am we arrived at 'Club Ribera del Este', to see what mortal vision must describe as a very congregation of the goddesses, thronged across several dance floors — their pulsing, writhing bodies illuminated in the half-light of strobes and fog. Then, as we stepped outside into the cool night air and witnessed another multitude of gorgeous revelers on several additional outdoor dance floors, the landscape became a dizzy delirium of visual intoxication.
As I made my trance-like way across the club's wooden bridges and boardwalk, even the iridescent half-moon, reflected in the placid waters of the ocean-seeming Plata River, and the canopy of silver stars above, paled in comparison to those otherworldly creatures of the Argentine, bathed in aura of moonlight, sunrise and neon.
A drowsy fight that broke out at dawn went largely unheeded by the crowd, but the sight of two opposing waves of drunken men contending back and forth like a wave of the sea — apparently in silence because I was safely outside and observing the spectacle through a glass wall — added to the surreal images of that night.
Among the other impressions of Buenos Aires are its very Parisian feel, how kind its people are, how the official guards grin at the passers-by, unlike their stony faced counterparts in Britain, and yet how sad it is to see the city brought low by economic woes: its tired vista of faded glory, peeling paint, and crumbling plaster, its teams of scavengers rifling through garbage at night, and the pickpockets alert for opportunity. On most weekdays, demonstrators marched in the city center, holding banners and banging loud drums, but their protests were peaceful.
For those trying to find their way around the Tango scene in Buenos Aires without the benefit of a tour arrangement, 'Tangauta' magazine is a useful resource, with its well-intended translations into English. For instance, were you aware that "male motor schemes are oriented to power and the show off" or that the dancer "makes a creation in place based on his self-determination for waste time and space"? Who knew?
On the final full day of the tour, in the thronged enclave of San Telmo, I joined an enthralled crowd of locals to witness the extraordinary musical skills of a five-piece Tango orchestra, comprising piano, violin, and a front line of three bandoneóns.
To my albeit untutored ear, these sidewalk musicians displayed all the precision, proficiency, and professionalism of a 'Color Tango', only in denim instead of dinner jackets. Barely in their 20s, and depressingly beautiful, these boys served as a reminder that any tourist hoping to make time with the local chicas faces some stiff homegrown competition.
One surer way to feel empowered is to go shopping. The peso's breakneck devaluation over the last year or so has made things very cheap — about $4 or $5 equivalent for CDs, $1.50 for a taxi ride across town, $2 or $3 for a hearty filet mignon (and the waiters are very grateful for what in New York would count for a meager tip), $55 for a pair of custom-made, professional-quality dance shoes, $30 for a pair ready made.
For women, there is the added bonus at the famed but notoriously unreliable 'Flabella' shoe store, that the proprietor will kiss your feet during the fitting. It's true: you can't put a price on inspiration.