Thursday, 18 May 2017

Dancing tango in Buenos Aires

We’re just back from Buenos Aires so I’m going to indulge myself with the odd blog post about it. It is loosely relevant to my books, of course, because Burke in the Land of Silveris mostly set there. Burke, though, never gets to dance tango, because that didn’t exist in 1806 when he arrived in the city. For us, though, tango is one of the joys of being here. We get to dance tango in all sorts of places, from a sort of house party in San Telmo, to a courtyard in one of South America’s oldest buildings, to a bandstand in a park. The range of different styles and different approaches to the dance was wonderful. London’s growing tango scene offers some variety (even a bandstand in a park) but there is nothing like the range that you get in Buenos Aires. That’s one of the reasons that people travel from all over the world to dance there.

Of course, although we enjoyed all these different environments, we spent most of our time in regular clubs, safe from the increasingly frequent and violent rainstorms that can make journeys outside an adventure at this time of year.

Of all the traditional clubs, the most traditional that we danced at was El Beso which, on a good night (and we were lucky to dance there on good nights) has one of the strictest lines of dance I know.

Tango enthusiasts in London talk a lot about line of dance. It’s the procession anti-clockwise round the room that characterises the most formal tango. Suffice it to say, you don’t see a lot of it in London, which is maybe why dancers there attach an almost fetishistic importance to it.

Dancing in El Beso pushes the concept of line of dance about as far as it will go. It is a unique experience. You have two or three feet between you and the couple ahead and two or three feet between you and the couple behind. Once the place starts to fill up there will be a second line of dance that means you have perhaps three feet toward the centre of the floor. Thanks to tables tight against the floor stepping outwards is just impossible.

This being Buenos Aires people do promenade rather than showing off on the spot, so the ronda moves slowly but steadily throughout the dance. You have your space and you stay in it. If the ronda slows, you take a small step towards the centre, maybe with a simple figure and then back into your space. It sounds limiting and dull, but it isn’t. You don’t have to plan your exciting step sequence; you don’t have to worry about navigation. You make one of the small range of steps open to you and you make them small and as near perfect as you can manage. It’s tango zen, both demanding and liberating.

Why, then, am I irritated by the constant obsession with line of dance in London? 

Because El Beso illustrates perfectly why it is never going to happen in London and an almost-but-not-quite-perfect line of dance can be worse than a relaxed free-for-all. (Buenos Aires has them too. An evening at Milonga X a few years back won’t be forgotten in a hurry.)

For the kind of dancing you see in El Beso to work everyone on the floor has to be totally committed to making it work. You can probably cope with one couple who don’t keep in place. You can maybe even cope with two, provided they are doing their best. After that it just breaks down. Because the joy of a very strict line of dance is that you are dancing not just with your partner but with the whole room. And if you don’t respect the room as much as your partner, it just isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t happen in London and, contrary to legend, it doesn’t happen on most floors in Buenos Aires either. The strict line of dance is to the average Saturday night what pate de foie gras is to meat-paste – but not everybody wants to eat pate de foie gras all the time and we would get very annoyed if people took to Facebook to tell us that people who prefer other meat-based products are ignorant and stupid and shouldn’t be allowed in decent restaurants. Yet not only do people insist on lecturing others about strict line of dance but some even put up little diagrams explaining how the rest of us should move around the floor. It’s just passive aggression and we’re better off without it.

Dancing tango in Buenos Aires is lovely. It’s a unique experience. One of the reasons I like Argentina is its almost heroic resistance to globalisation. Most people speak little or no English; Amazon has failed to make significant inroads and bookshops flourish; chain stores (besides Carrefour) have yet to displace local businesses. Argentina is its own place and dances tango in its own style. At El Beso (as in most traditional clubs), men and women sit separately. You are shown to your seat and that’s where you sit. There’s no free for all and swapping of seats as you do in London – or would if London venues ever offered enough seats for everyone to sit down. Light levels are high enough for communication from the men’s seats to the women’s to be possible by the subtle glance – the cabaceo that invites a woman to dance. The London version of these traditions is an embarrassing compromise. It desperately tries to balance modern notions of freedom and mingling of the sexes with a tradition based in the values of the 19th century Catholicism which was the background to the dance in Argentina. One of the joys of travel is to appreciate the differences between cultures and one of the joys of coming back home is to bring back ideas that will integrate with your own world, not to seek to impose alien values on it.

I really recommend El Beso. If you want to dance like that, it’s the price of an air fare well spent. I’m looking forward to going again. But not everyone wants to dance there and many people lack the technical skills required anyway. They are going to dance the way people dance in almost every other club in the world – vaguely anti-clockwise and doing their best not to kick anyone. Provided they manage not to kick me, that’s the most I have the right to ask for. It ought to be the most anyone else asks too.


  1. A really insightful narrative on the difficult and misunderstood subject of the art of navigating the dance floor. I wish it was more widely followed, here, there and everywhere!

  2. The Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, who lived in Bs As for over 20 years, had this to say, based on his experience: "Originality is certainly not the cardinal sin of the Argentines: for every one with an original idea there is always another hundred ready to shout him down."

    1. Part of the charm of Buenos Aires is that its heart is still in the 1920s. Part of the frustration of life there is that so much of the rest of it is too. (But it remains my favourite city to visit in the world.)