Last week I was talking to the woman who owns Bien Porteño. She sometimes shares my table in Gricel on Monday nights. I have known her brother Armando for years. We have other Argentine friends in common. I mentioned to her how much I thought the tango had changed. “No,” she told me. “The tango has not changed. You have changed. The magic is not there for you anymore. Now, you know the tango.”
I have since thought about what she said. In some ways I agree with her, but in many ways I do not. Yes, I have changed. When I first came here I was overwhelmed by the milongas in Buenos AIres. I thought everyone could dance. I know now this is not even close to being true. I loved the idea of being able to dance as much as I wanted. I would start my day at an afternoon milonga dancing at 4 in the afternoon and not stop dancing until 4 or 5 in the morning. I could do this 7 days a week until my feet could no longer take it. I remember telling people I felt like the little mermaid in the morning. It felt like knives were stabbing my feet with every step I took.
It didn’t matter. Armed with bottles of ibuprofen, buckets of ice water and salt, I would deal with my swollen feet, refusing to rest them. I had to dance. The men were waiting for me in the milongas. That is what they told me. I would eagerly rush to the milongas looking for them to dance with. Patiently, they would help me with my dance. I was learning in the style of the milongueros. I was mesmerized by the milonga culture. I didn’t want to spend time in classes. I didn’t learn well that way. I learned by watching, by listening, and being corrected.
In the arms of some old guy I would get a music lesson. In the U.S. you dance the same to every song. People dance tango to vals, a tango variation to milonga, the same steps to everything. Here in Buenos Aires I was told that you dance different to each orchestra. Long back steps to DiSarli, more giros to D’arienzo. It was exciting. There was so much to learn and the milonga was my teacher.
After a couple of years I stopped most of the afternoon milongas. I just went out at night. Every night. The muscles were built up in my feet and they had stopped hurting. I had also discovered a shoemaker who made shoes I could really dance in all night. I don't know what I would do without Leo.
Now I have been living here almost 5 years. I still dance tango. I still love my dance. Now I am wiser. Tourists often ask me “How do people here stay out all night and then go to work?” Because those people don’t work. They live in the milonga. They get a free entrance. They are charming. They look for someone to buy their drink. They look for someone to take them home so they have somewhere to sleep. The next day is the same. Maybe if they dance well enough someone will take them out of the country and present them as a tango teacher.
Women who are militantly politically correct in their own country become butter in the arms of a man who sleeps on a chair in a car wash. In the only suit he owns he showers them with compliments they would never accept in their own country, careless caresses they would have them arrested for. Somehow in Buenos Aires it is alright. He dances. He is Argentine.
Men who never fall prey to the women of the night find themselves feeling sorry for the grandmotherly woman who has not the money to buy her medications. The young woman who can’t buy her son’s books. A sad face and a few tears can buy wonders in the milonga. There is always a small problem a few pesos can resolve.
I have seen it all. I know the cast of characters. They know longer hold any mystique for me. In that regard my friend is correct. There is no longer any magic around the milonga. I go to dance, to listen to the music. Nothing more. Now when I watch, it is more like street theater. The foreigners throwing themselves at the Argentines. The Argentines running around like pieces on a chess board. One of my friends says to me her milongueros friends says that the “foreign women are like rain – always falling.”
I do not agree with my friend when she says the tango has not changed. In many ways it has. In 2000 when I first came here I would never had dared to wear pants to a milonga let alone jeans. Now you see both. People came to Buenos Aires to dance tango because it was Mecca. You came because it was the heart of tango. It was the only place where tango was danced the way it was danced here. People had traditions and codigos that were strictly observed and it was expected that the extranjeros (foreigners) would observe them as well.
In 2004 the government of Buenos Aires was determined to capitalize on the tango for tourism. Shoe stores sprang up on every corner. Quality was no longer an issue. Made of cardboard and plastic with prices as high as those in Europe and the USA, tourists wanted “authentic” tango shoes. Tango shows charging outrageous prices with a dance that hardly resembled tango and prices no Argentine could ever hope to pay, were all over the city. Everyone became a tango teacher. Academias del tango were in every barrio. Tango hotels, tango clothes, tango everything, and at prices no local who danced tango could ever afford to pay.
They came from all over the world to dance tango. When they got here, what they found was not what they expected. People spoke Spanish. They were not supposed to go to the tables to ask women to dance. Women were not suppose to accept dances from men who came to the table. And the people, they were so old. Where were those people who danced in the shows? Why was everyone dancing close?
People used to come to Buenos Aires to dance the “real tango.” Now they were coming to party. Women hired taxi dancers hoping to get more for their money. Men offered young women in the milongas a nice daily rate for “showing them around town.” Many locals became resentful. Others found a goldmine to capitalize on. Nobody can deny, the tango hasn’t changed.
I am dumbfounded by tourists who come here and proclaim how they have the “right” to change tango and dance it any way they want to whatever music they want. There are over 100 traditional milongas in Buenos Aires and they choose to go to milongas that are frequented by mostly foreigners dancing in the style danced in the US or Europe. Why would you spend all that money to come here?
What makes Argentine Tango unique is the abrazo – the embrace. When you take that away, you take away the essence of the dance. The tango is a seduction. It is two people playing with each other. The tango like a seduction is improvisation. It is not the same steps over and over again. When you take away the embrace, you dance the same steps over and over again, and you don’t even dance it to tango music, what are you dancing?
I don’t know. I just know, that I think it is sad. That many people no longer come here to enjoy Argentine tango for what it is. They want it to be something else. While Carlos Gavito always said, “Make the tango yours.” I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind.
This post was originally written for Blog Critics and published on 10/21/09 http://blogcritics.org/culture/article/whose-tango-is-it/