People often ask me what is the difference between dancing tango in Buenos Aires and anywhere else. One could spend endless hours dissecting the differences with regards to style, competence, music, and "technique." ( I really hate that word when talking about tango.) There are significant differences if you talk about culture.
In Argentina, the tango is danced by very few people. Contrary to popular belief, most Argentines hate tango. There are some that may like the music, but do not dance. I found that when I started to create a social life outside of tango, most Argentines were almost horrified to find out that I had sold everything I owned to move to Buenos Aires to dance tango. They didn't see it as someone following their passion, they saw me as stupid or naive or both. Many men that I would meet wanted to know if I still spent time in the milongas, and how much time. This was not because I was in the arms of another man, but many people here in Argentina still consider tango a dance of the lower classes. The idea that I was mingling with "those" people was abhorrent. That and the "gente de la noche" (People who only come out at night and frequent nightclubs) was not someone ideal to start a relationship with.
Outside of Buenos Aires, and maybe in the first world, the people who dance tango are another breed. More often than not, they are educated professionals. People with jobs and seemingly normal lives. Dancing tango is a hobby that many times becomes a passion that consumes their lives. From my experience in Buenos Aires the culture is about family and friends, in the other countries it is work centric.
A week or so ago, I went to dance at one of my favorite barrio milongas. It is not close to the center of the city, from Palermo it is a 40 minute bus ride without traffic. That and the buses to get me there do not run as often. I like this milonga. It is usually all locals from the neighborhood. Every once in awhile tourists come. It is one of those milongas if they don't know you, they most likely will not dance with you.
I was there for maybe 3 hours and danced two wonderful tandas with milongueros. The rest of the time I sat and talked with friends, and listened to the music. It was a wonderful night. Interesting how things can change. I could hear the echos of women friends in other countries, "What a waste of time." "It wasn't worth it." "There was nobody to dance with." In Buenos Aires, in all my years in the milonga with my Argentine friends, I don't remember hearing anyone say this.
The idea of a return on investment is what I call this attitude. It is an almost desperation to dance. You spend a fortune on lessons, shoes, music, tango clothes, the time to get ready, the gas for the car, and the payback is X amount of dances. Why else would you go to dance? There is an insatiable need to justify the outlay of cash and time spent.
There is a frenetic energy to be the best dancer in the community, to have the most shoes, the most music, know the most teachers, have a list of "authentic Argentines" that you know and know you. To be "someone in the tango." Once you think you have achieved this kind of status, the end result must be to dance all the time and with all the best dancers.
Sometimes when I travel I go to milongas, to have something to do. I find myself surrounded by women complaining about the men, the lack of dances. Once when I was visiting in a country that shall remain nameless to protect the not so innocent, the women I was sitting with started up. One of them looked at the dance floor and muttered "Pathetic." Another starting putting down the men. "Look at them, they have no idea what they are doing." I sat there thinking that no one in that place male or female knew how to dance. That didn't matter. It was a Sunday, and I wanted to be around people.
After putting down the men, the return on investment or ROI came out. "I can't believe I came here to sit all afternoon." (two hours is all afternoon?) "What a waste." "I can't believe I came for this." "I spend all this money on lessons and just sit here." I got so sick of listening I finally piped up, "Hey you know, for me this milonga is really expensive. My milongas cost me 50 pesos to enter, this one is almost 200 pesos for me. So if anyone has a right to complain it is me. I am not complaining. Why? Because I am sharing this time with you. That is what is important. Tango is a social dance. You are supposed to be enjoying yourself. You have this opportunity to share time with your friends. That is what is most important."
The ROI is not only a female thing. Granted I sit with women, so I hear it more from that side of the room. Men can be just as pompous. In that same milonga a man came up and asked me to dance. During the tanda he told me that he was the best person for me to dance with. He rattled off a list of people he had taken lessons from. "I have invested a lot of money in learning tango." He confided in me. "It pays off," he continues, "the women in Buenos Aires love me." I am sure they do if he spends lots of money on them. I dance with another man, "People here," he confides in me, "do not know how to dance." (You included I am thinking...) "I know the best teachers." he tells me. "Who did you study with?" He asks. "Study what? Oh tango, I never studied tango. They didn't offer it where I went to school." He completely misses the point. "I only study with Argentines." He tells me, while cramping my right hand and pushing me through, rather than leading a giro. I wonder what master teacher taught him that. He continues, "You need to study with the best teachers. Only Master Teachers. The gold standard. You should go to Argentina."
It is a social dance people. You are supposed to enjoy yourself, not treat it like your stock portfolio.