The crowd cheers and flicks coins into a hat, as the tango dancers twirl around a public square in San Telmo. I can’t take my eyes off the dancers, spellbound by their sensual movements and the hypnotic music. Watching the tango on television in Dancing With The Stars might be fun, but the impact of seeing the tango danced live in its spiritual home of Buenos Aires is dazzling. In the Argentine capital, the tango Argentina is as iconic as the Opera House is to Sydney or the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. And there’s no better way to experience the culture than to join the dance.
Tango lessons are offered everywhere: in youth hostels, cafes, dance academies and milongas (dance halls). A recent boom in tango tourism has seen tango themed hotels spring up all around the city. These hotels offer daily tango lessons and tango shows. Some even have themed tango rooms, suites with private timber dance floors for dancers to practice on, tango concierges, tango boutiques and tango fashion parades.
Roger and I have chosen to stay at Mansion Dandi Royal, a historic terrace in the bohemian barrio of San Telmo. The hotel has 30 rooms with king-size beds, claw-foot bathtubs and rooftop lap pool. Tango paintings hang on the walls, tango music is piped into the rooms and there are even tango television channels.
Dandi Tango Academy
Attached to the hotel is the Dandi Tango Academy, which offers daily group lessons in their tango hall.
I’m keen to learn the dance but for Roger, dancing in public is more frightening than jumping out of a plane with a parachute. He’d rather go to the dentist than come to a tango lesson.
We join a class in the tango hall, which still has a springy original 1920s floor and a cafe.
Two other couples, who have also signed up for the basic class, are standing at the side of the room looking as lost as we feel.
Our instructor, Nahuel, begins the lesson by teaching us how to embrace. Nahuel places his right hand around my back and raises my right hand with his left, asking the other men to mimic the action with their partners. He takes us through a basic step sequence, first demonstrating the men’s steps and then the women’s.
We’re off and dancing. Well, kind of.
Learning to tango
Nahuel glides gracefully around the hall. He tells us to straighten up and keep our eyes off the floor, making corrections to each of our movements before leaving us on our own to practice.
We shuffle around the dance hall bumping clumsily into each other.
A dark-haired waiter takes pity on us and offers some tips while Nahuel instructs the intermediate dancers.
Nahuel returns to teach us another sequence.
“Try not to bounce up and down; slide like this,” he tells me, moving his feet in long sweeping movements.
I soon get the hang of it and by the end of the hour, I’m hooked. I love it. Roger hates it even more.
After our lesson, we attend the hotel’s tango show, Tango Real, a five-act performance that illustrates the history of the tango.
The tango originated in Argentina in the 1880s, thriving in the seedy port areas, where the working class danced to escape from the grim reality of life. The music is a fusion of vibrant rhythms from the cultures of African slaves, haunting melodies from Italy and mournful wails from the German concertina-like bandoneon.
The recent revival in the dance’s popularity among the younger generation has seen a host of clubs catering to portenos (residents) in their 20s pop up around the city.
The sleekest tango show in town is Rojo Tango, performed in the trendy Phillip Starck-designed Faena Hotel and Universe.
Touring the city, we encounter the tango everywhere. Street dancers tango along the sidewalks; the vibrant tourist district of La Boca bustles with market vendors selling colourful paintings of tango scenes; in a milonga we’re fascinated by the body language as men scour the room for a willing dance partner and women return the gaze with a coy tilt of the head.
I’ve marked next year’s World Tango Championships in my calendar. All I need to do is take a few lessons first.
Discover Buenos Aires
Where to stay
Mansion Dandi Royal, 36 Piedras Street, San Telmo offers rooms and breakfast from US$70 ($87) a night plus taxes.
Where to see a show
Rojo Tango at the Faena Hotel & Universe.
Here are some tips on how to enjoy the tango in Buenos Aires:
1. Check out the credentials of potential teachers. One of the best ways is to watch their dancing style on youtube.
2. If your intention is to dance socially, make sure you learn salon and not stage tango.
3. To avoid being overwhelmed, take a few tango lessons before your trip. Patio de Tango offers classes for all standards and their website has a list of tango schools around Australia.
4. Our favourite milongas are Parakultural (Monday), El Beso (Wednesday), Nino Bien (Thursday), La Baldosa (Friday), Cachirulo (Saturday) and Porteno y Bailarin (Sunday).
5. Stay in the barrios of Palermo and Recoletta or at Mansion Dandi Royal in San Telmo for its historic atmosphere.