Tango in Buenos Aires

Sitting on the side of the pavement, I see legs moving gracefully, shiny shoes and elegant heels coming in and out of view. They belong to intensely concentrated Porteños. Their facial expression radiates passion – some with their eyes closed in concentration, others with sparkling eyes of joy.  

It is just another Sunday at the Plaza Dorrego. For me, this late afternoon in Buenos Aires feels as if I have stumbled upon a movie set. We had been strolling over the San Telmo market where a mix of antiques and knick knacks found their way to new owners, locals and tourists alike. When merchants packed up their wares, other locals started to install a dance floor. Black canvas was rolled out on the pavement and attached the tiles with duct tape. Shortly after, music sounded from a ghetto blaster: tango music.

Locals old and young paired up spontaneously for a first dance. Even though the tango is an eminently passionate dance that makes me think of the phrase of Dutch writer Simon Carmiggelt ‘Dansen is een verticale uiting van een horizontaal verlangen’ which translates as ‘Dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire’, it does not need to be danced with your partner in love alone. Whenever you invite someone for a tanda – a set of four tango songs – you are supposed to complete the tanda with that person. After a tanda, you can switch partners for a change in dance dynamics. This is exactly what happens here and what makes this social weekly dance a social event with a wonderfully affectionate vibe.

As I watch the Porteños savouring the moment, circling the floor with their dance partner while the afternoon becomes evening I wish I could join them there on the improvised dance floor. At the same time, I hope no one will ask me to stand up from my front row pavement seat. I would not want to disappoint an Argentinian man with my lack of knowledge of the dance that developed here – around the Rio de la Plata – in the mid-19th century.

Buenos Aires is often nicknamed as the Paris of South America and it is not just the romance on the street that lives up to this image. Although not as abundant as in Paris, the city showcases some beautiful Belle Époque buildings built while the city was in transition from a colonial outpost to a wealthy metropolis in the early 20th century.

I must say just ‘some’ as Buenos Aires is an interesting mix of classic and modern architecture. Although I cannot get enough of the beautiful facades of the classic buildings I also love taking in the views of the modern architectural masterpieces such as the rotating pedestrian suspension bridge El Puente de la Mujer (Woman’s Bridge) and the Floralis Genérica, a reflecting aluminium and steel sculpture of a flower that opens and closes mechanically depending on the time of day.

An entire architectural world of its own is the fascinating Recoleta Cemetery where some of Argentina’s best known celebrities have found their resting place. And I can tell you, not just under a sober tombstone but in a piece of art.

The most colourful part of the city is undoubtedly La Boca where you can visit the (touristy) arts and craft fair tucked between the cheerful houses of Caminito and the stadium of famous football club Boca Juniors. 

For me, the most impressive part of the city plan are however not the buildings but the wide avenues. The Avenida 9. Julio is a true pedestrian challenge as it takes three rounds of traffic lights to cross. With 16 busy car lanes it is the widest avenue in the world. Champs-Élysées move over!

After a week of strolling through the city, soaking up its history from the façades riddled with bullet holes and Madres de la Plaza de Mayo marches testifying Argentina’s dark past under the dicatorship of Videla, to the positive vibes of hip coffee bars in Palermo and art galleries in Puerto Madero, I find myself once again on a front row seat to witness Argentina’s passionate tango.

My spot on the pavement is replaced by a comfortable chair and the outdoor improvised dance floor is now the podium of Café Tortoni. The show is obviously less authentic than the tango-dancing locals at Plaza Dorrego, but the dance itself is all the more impressive. Legs are moving at incredibly high-speed and the strong movements of the dancers are amplified by the live tango music. If I could I would just stay here for tango lessons and not leave before I would be ready to join the locals on the Plaza Dorrego tomorrow.  

The best way to experience tango in Buenos Aires

Check your ho(s)tel for tango lessons & then head to San Telmo’s market on Sunday to join the locals and dance a tanda.

If you want to get a feel of how spectacular the tango can I recommend booking a show at Cafe Tortoni.

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