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“I Left my Tango Shoes in London” (Buenos Aires Travelblog)

21 March , 2008

Buenos Aires – “I left my Tango shoes in London..” 

I left my Tango shoes in London.

It is sad, but true. The obsession with Tango is one shared by many a woman, charmed yet further by the seductive charms of the Strictly Come Dancing men. It is a dream that envelopes the holder in a smoke filled room in the 1930s, wearing a black satin dress, slit to the thigh, hovering dangerously over creaky wood-panelled floors in wine-red shoes so impossibly high that the wearer stands taller than her own mirror will reflect. Strains of violins weigh the air down with memories of broken hearts. The dreamer is standing by a wall, pondering the end of her own recent love affair, when from across the crowded room, her eyes are caught, then reflected in the gentleman’s eyes. His black felt hat is tipped across the front of his head, so that his gaze seems hidden. Yet the dreamer can feel his eyes on her, and so she walks, haughtily, towards the centre of the room where he grabs her arms, she resists and pushes him away but his tenure is strong. They stand on one place, swaying, exchanging weight until a spiral of heels has electrified the room, and suddenly Buenos Aires society stops to stand and stare and… 

The violin string snaps. 

Ouch. We all wake up one day. This dream may once have been true, a vision of its own time whilst Europe was still swaying to the ballroom dances which had grabbed society then. But times change, and with them, so do fashions of music and dance. Tango is, in many ways, a cliché which tourists have transported back from their own television sets to this far corner of the planet. 

Where once I dreamed of a sophisticated dance that would mesmerise me too, last night I found myself too bored to carry on my only lesson, some three weeks into my stay in Buenos Aires. 

It started like this.  

The Dream  

N and I have spent the last three weeks talking about doing Tango, learning tango, imbibing Tango. We fill any gap in a conversation with the animated statement that we must find a dance instructor. We usually follow that with lying inactively by the pool. Other than the first week when we went to Catedral, an underground local haunt where a Wednesday night milonga draws in a mostly young crowd, we had found ourselves uninspired to seek out the other venues scattered about town. We repeatedly told ourselves it was because we were too tired, after being extraordinarily active for up to fifteen hour days here.  

The truth, however, was less kind if not equally placid. We were already losing our dream of Tango, and the act of refusing to go to another milonga constituted the final wall of our resistance. Because the 1930s stay the 1930s. And the men who continue to dance the Tango were mostly born in the 1930s. So, dashing young men were not going to lead us to the dance floor and capture our hearts. More likely, we were going to have to prevent our Tango dance partners from having a heart attack. Fall at our feet, they might, but for all the wrong reasons. The Tango dream was turning sour. 

Getting to the Milonga  

Still, we are not ones to give up our dreams so easily. Having failed to attend each promised milonga night after night, we vowed to get to Catedral again. This was where Tango was hot, or at least cool. Apparently there are venues where youngsters sporting hot pants and vest tops, are reclaiming electric Tango since the Gotan Project have regenerated some trend back into tango. We have heard about these places, but we have not seen them. Catedral it was. 

I wore the black satin dress. I wore the fishnet tights. I reclaimed the night in my impossibly high purple heels. I then stood on a street corner for half an hour trying to hail a cab as the rainclouds opened in fierce revenge. I wished very hard I was not wearing the fishnet tights. 

The taxi driver  

Eventually a real cab came for us, on this night before the 5 day Easter holiday when most of Buenos Aires was jumping ship.  

“Where are you beautiful women off to?”, he asks.

When we reply that we are heading to a milonga, he can barely snort his contempt loud enough. “Young people dance to electronica, or reggaeton, not Tango!” he snarls. “What are you women thinking of?” His lecture continues for the rest of the cab ride. He is not amused.

 Our First Tango Lesson  

Walking into the almost empty Catedral seemed just about right. The masses had gone, put off by the rain, the public holidays and, perhaps, the fact that Tango just was no longer Cool, or Barbaro, as porteños like to say. We faced up to the fact that we may as well just profit from the attention of the dance instructors, square up for the show and learn some basic moves. After all, they were still highly prized in Europe. 

But as we tripped over our heels, and watched the hole in the unused factory ceiling for the electrifying displays of thunder, the dampness on our skin was not the excitement of the dance, or the sweat of our hard work, but the rain falling through the roof, quite literally, as the heavens told us what they thought of Tango in 2008 Buenos Aires. 

Mid-way through the two hour lesson, I stopped trying to imitate some faux-tango pirouettes and went to sit down at a table with a Greek couple from north of Athens who ran a bookshop .We had a blast with the Greeks (don’t ask – they follow me, not the other way round!) and some real porteños, who are a rare conversational species in these parts since aloof residents of this sprawling city usually prefer not to talk to anyone at all. Still, I knew it was time to leave when I mentioned that we might go on to a club some Chilean girls had told us about the night before. The young porteño advised me that the club was very Not Barbaro. He told me in all seriousness that his female friends said that at that particular recommended club, there were a lot of “very mature men hanging about”. With visions of ancient crooners being our only access to the male species in this city of beautiful people, I must have looked crestfallen for he then added, by way of explanation: “I think the men are all at least 35”. 

The End  

With that cheerful vision of what it means to be old, N span a few loops with the wiry, unsmiling dance instructor on an empty floor and I wondered whether I was bidding my final goodbye to the dream. 

The cobbled streets and squares of portside San Telmo lie tired now, lined only with tourists, where once gauchos, sailors and women made light work of the night. Electronic Tango may be making a comeback, but the regeneration is very slow. 

It seems I have left my Tango Shoes in London.

The show must mournfully go on. 

Buenos Aires 20th March 2008 

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