Tango Crazy


“Bang-bang! Bang-bang! Bang!”

Am I going tango crazy? Somewhere in our hotel workmen hammer, and I’m convinced my husband and I could dance to the beat. That’s how it is in Buenos Aires — the sexy, insidious tango sneaks into your soul.

This is our second trip to the capital city, so we know our first stop for a tango fix will be Cafe Tortoni, Argentina’s oldest (1858) coffeehouse, on the grand Avenida de Mayo. Most nights, the Tortoni stages two different tango shows in a velvet-draped back room, the Sala Alfonsina.

Lacking reservations, we are wait-listed for the 11:30 show. Finally, the manager wedges us into a tiny table near the minuscule stage. The place is so packed, waiters can barely squeeze by, trays of champagne and whiskey held high overhead.

The Sabatino Sexteto appears — a pianist, two violins, a bass and two bandoneon players who spread velvet cloths across their laps where they rest their instruments, distant cousins to the accordion. The first note is an attack, the start of a relentless piece by tango maestro Astor Piazzolla.

A pair of dancers twirls onstage. He wears a tuxedo, hair slicked back; her dress is slit to the thigh, revealing fishnets. Their feet move so fast it’s dizzying. A customer leans dangerously close to the stage, yet by some miracle avoids getting impaled on a high heel.

A singer belts out a number so heartfelt I expect her to burst into tears. After a costume change, she’s back to work the crowd, and doesn’t stop until each customer has revealed his home town and gotten a snippet of song.

The dancers return, bent on audience participation. They bring people up onstage and throw them around in giddy tango moves. I cower in my chair as the dashing male dancer pulls our Brazilian tablemate to her feet. Most victims go willingly — the tango has crept into their blood.

All in all, for $4 we get two spectacular pairs of dancers, two singers and three costume changes — washed down with $2 glasses of smooth Argentine champagne.

If you’re determined to spend more to see a flashy tourist show, most hotel concierges will be glad to oblige (kickbacks assure it). Typically, you’ll be picked up at your hotel and served dinner at a club featuring a show with grander dance numbers, multiple singers and plenty of costume changes.

We choose El Viejo Almacen, in a 200-year-old building where bohemians once gathered to hear the new tango music. The 240-seat house crackles with energy. Although this is a tourist show, the tourists are mostly from Latin America, so at times the crowd sings along with their sentimental favorites. The format is similar to the show at Cafe Tortoni, but less intimate (we don’t learn everybody’s home town). For $28 each, including two drinks but no dinner, we are well entertained.

Not a night owl? You can see tango by sunlight at impromptu performances around the city. We happen on dancers passing the hat along Calle Florida, a downtown pedestrian shopping street. They can often be found in the La Boca neighborhood, too. But the best selection is at the Sunday flea market in the San Telmo neighborhood, where pros and amateurs strut their moves as crowds gather ’round or peer from restaurant balconies.

One night, after a late dinner, we end up at the tiniest of tango clubs, Bar Sur, also in San Telmo, with 15 postage-stamp tables nestled around a black-and-white checkerboard dance floor. Pizza and empanadas are included with the $22 entrance fee. The nonstop entertainment features four dancers, a music trio, a male singer-guitarist and an older female singer who spills a lifetime of emotion into every number.

The inevitable audience participation moment arrives, and a stunning red-haired dancer invites my husband onto the floor. Paul takes the challenge, dredging up rusty moves from our wedding reception. So when a suave male dancer approaches me, I blurt one of my few Spanish phrases, “Si, como no?” — “Yes, why not?” As he twirls me across the floor, it feels like a sexy amusement park ride.

The next day, we decide we have to take lessons. The Academia Nacional del Tango, next to Cafe Tortoni, has a class that night with an English-speaking teacher for less than $2 a person.

We meet in a long, high-ceilinged room with chandeliers and parquet floors. Liliana, the teacher, introduces us to a fellow student who plants kisses on our cheeks as if we’re old friends. Liliana watches our moves, shaking her head, then dances separately with each of us. “Just relax!” she admonishes me. “Stop walking like Jerry Lewis!” she directs Paul.

By the end of class, we’ve learned three new steps. Liliana rewards us with kisses, as a lithe classmate calls, “You must come back and stay longer. Come to class again.”

Buoyed by our success, we decide to venture deep into the local tango scene by attending a milonga, a sort of floating dance party that few tourists encounter. We get the location from another tango teacher but are uncertain when the cab drops us at a deserted intersection at midnight. Then we hear music pouring from second-story windows, discover a stairway and pay our $2 fee.

The place is jammed. On the dance floor, couples lean into each other, packed tight, moving counterclockwise, gliding to recorded music. They are old, young, dressed in sequins and blue jeans.

Paul pilots me into the throng. I remember not to lead and to let the drama of the music wash over me. It is sexy, dangerous, a touch melancholy — and I have surrendered.

We leave the club at 2 a.m. A taxi scoops us up. On its door are silhouetted dancers and the name Tango Cab — as if to affirm that finally we, too, are dancers.

© 2004 Gayle Keck
Originally published in the Washington Post
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