I try to keep this blog pretty focussed on my writing, but during the Christmas period I put up a lot of posts about my work and why you should buy it, so I thought I'd post a bit about something completely different.
I have said that I was in Argentina last October. I was there in part to research another book, but mainly, if truth be told, I was there to dance tango.
I wrote notes on some of the amazing venues where you can dance in Buenos Aires and some people suggested that they were interesting enough to show to a wider audience. So, over the next few days, I'll be posting a series of blogs about milongas of Buenos Aires. They're based on my own experience, often of just one night in one month in 2012. Every night is different and everyone wants different things and views the milongas differently. So this is by no means a definitive guide. Look on them as traveller's tales.
This is the first one.
Milongas of Buenos Aires: the Confiteria Ideal
A lot of people sneer at the Ideal. It's a tourist's idea of what an Argentine dance hall should be. It's featured in so many films about Buenos Aires that it seems familiar as soon as you get in and it's avoided by many of the smart young set who have made tango trendy again. In fact, many of the dancers are so old that you wonder if they'll make it to the end of the session.
Despite all this, the Ideal is one of my favourite places to dance. Its tourist trap reputation means that people expect to see foreigners there and they are indulged more than they might be in some other places. It's easier to get dances with strangers there than in most venues and you can relax on the dance floor in a way that you might not feel able to in some of the cooler clubs.
The Ideal hides its faded grandeur behind a grubby façade beyond which a grand but gloomy staircase rises to the ballroom on the first floor. The stairs climb around a splendid old lift, latticed in iron, which I have never once seen working. As you climb, the music grows louder until you emerge into a columned room where the sight of the dancers draws your attention away from the shabbiness of the decor. Until smoking was banned a few years ago, the air in Buenos Aires dance halls was heavy with smoke and a room this high is impossible to clean.
Locals dance here in the afternoons, rather than the evenings, which are given over more to tourists. Fridays and Sundays are the days to go, when it is packed and waiters desperately bring extra chairs to the tables where I sit with the men sipping tiny cups of black coffee. Our attention is divided between the dancers on the floor and the women sitting out across the room. The tangos stop and the dancers leave the floor while some other music plays. (A few years ago, the Star Wars theme was a popular choice.) This cortina music is like a sorbet, allowing us to rest between courses of tango, served up four dances at a time as a tanda of music in a similar style. As the cortina ends and the new tanda begins, men catch women's eyes and almost imperceptible nods or smiles signal acceptance of the offer of a dance. The men walk to their partners' tables and the women rise to be led onto the floor. There will be a few pleasantries before they start to dance, but then they move in silence, the women often with their eyes closed, as both give themselves over to the music and the intricate interweaving of their steps.
As a foreigner, new to Buenos Aires, I find myself dancing with some of the older women: people who would be dismissed in London as far past their dancing days. And I discover the secret of the Ideal. Here are people who have danced in the place, not for years, but for decades. As they glide across the floor, their limbs remember the days when they were first here and they dance in your embrace with elegance and charm.
The building is, like its patrons, visibly crumbling after years of neglect, yet still somehow one of the great dance venues of the world. One afternoon I turned up and the place seemed even busier than usual. "Didn't you know?" I was asked. "It's the Ideal's birthday. It opened 100 years ago today." Downstairs, in the cafe that is the confiteria of the Confiteria Ideal, a band is entertaining a gaggle of tourists who are there for the anniversary. Upstairs, though, there is a remarkable absence of ceremony. The cortina ends, a new tanda begins and a room full of tangueros and tangueras rise to their feet and start to dance the Ideal into its eleventh decade.