“I am leaving,” my friend says to me. “I can’t take it anymore. Buenos Aires is like a relationship that has started to go bad.” My friend has lived here almost as long as I have. She came for the tango. In the years that she has lived her she never developed a life outside of tango. It was her whole life.
I don’t want to think about her leaving. I like her. She is an enormously intelligent woman with a quirky sense of humor. We didn’t have much contact over the last few years. We moved in different crowds. Catching up on our lives, the commonality is tango. I tell her about all my other projects and the things I am doing. Most important the wonderful group of friends I have. I mention to her “I could never make my life all tango. I need to be around people that have more in their lives.” By more I mean, an education, literally. I did not want to be around the all the drugs, drinking, and the “sacando de la plata de los extranjeros.” I love my tango, but it is an environment that eats you alive, amargo. Dark. Depressing. Tourists only see one side. They almost never see the other.
I understand how she feels. That is why at times, me dejo el tango. I leave for a bit and I do other things. My vacation. When I come back, I am happy to see my friends. I am happy to be in the milonga. “The tango has changed so much.” she says to me. “People no longer come with the idea of learning to dance Argentine tango or to be a part of the culture.” I know exactly how she feels.
The Campeonato is not for us. It is for tourists. It is for tourism, it is for people who do not dance tango. How well someone dances is not always the criteria for winning. The whole idea of the Campeonato is to bring tourists to Buenos Aires to dance tango. This year tourism is down. The government says by at least 39%. If INDEC is managing these numbers then it is probably more. INDEC lies.
In the past, the city was flooded during the Campeonato with tourists. Hotels, apartments, and guest houses were full before and after. The shoe stores did a landslide business. Everyone who wanted to, profited from the Campeonato. This year was different. Most of the guesthouses and apartments were empty or partially empty. Milongas that would have been overflowing were not.
How were the winners chosen this year? Tourism is down. People are not coming from the US or Europe like they used to. When the winners danced in a local milonga here, the Americans seated at my table looked at me with confused faces. “Huh? I don’t get it.” said one. “What don’t you get?” I asked him. They expect the Japanese to come to Buenos Aires to dance tango. To spend money. Selecting an Argentine couple doesn’t make the competition worth it. Argentine winners don’t bring tourism. People who will come and spend months here practicing and taking lessons, to become “World Champions of Tango.” There is a dream. To win in Buenos Aires. I am not sure what it proves.
One of my Argentine friends remarked “I went to bed as an Argentine dancing tango, but when I woke up it was Japanese tango. It seems these days, being an Argentine doesn’t really even matter.” On the surface a somewhat racist comment. I asked him why he felt that way. “Everyone wants to tell the Argentines how to dance tango. Tango is our heritage. We are losing it. Why? For money.” An American friend of mine who has been coming here for years says “It is the Argentines’ fault. If they don’t like it they should do something about it.”
It’s more than the Campeonato. I see how people react in the milonga. It is not customary for women to dance with women in the traditional milongas. When I came in 2000 it would never happen. Later when it did happen, the women were told politely to leave the floor. I watched in July when a couple of women from Europe decided to dance milonga together in Gricel. I looked around the room. There were some unhappy faces. Several men made some rude comments. The organizer doesn’t care. He wants people to come to his milonga.
A man at my table remarked to me “We are losing our codigos. What next?” The woman at my table visiting from the US said to me, “Don’t the Argentines understand, that tango needs to change. If they want to make money, they can’t have it their way. I should be able to dance with whoever I want.” I don’t think there was anyone in that milonga that cared about making money from tango. As for having it “their” way. A little arrogant.
I try to remove myself from discussions where foreigners try to convince me that “Nuevo” is the way. I don’t want to analyze and over analyze technique. I don’t care. I don’t want to dance tango to cha cha cha. I don’t want to hear the endless debate on the evolution of tango. That the tango needs to change to survive. For who? Someone here from the US drones on and on to me about foot position, axis, and ability to move at a certain degree at a certain point. Nothing is said about the music.
“Argentines need to understand…..” “Exactly what?” I think. “What is it that Argentines need to understand? Do they need to understand why when UNESCO proclaimed tango a cultural heritage, to protect it, why the city of Buenos Aires when celebrating with a free milonga in the streets, invites the Japanese couple to perform rather than one of the many accomplished dancers here in Buenos Aires. Is this how you celebrate your heritage or is it how you use someone to hopefully bring more tourists?
Someone on a tango list wanted to know, would the cultural heritage extend to tango nuevo. You have got to be kidding. People used to come to Buenos Aires to experience the “real tango.” Tango danced in an embrace. You almost have to wonder what they are coming here for now when they insist that you can make tango anything you want it to be. Why bother? Except that Buenos Aires is a hell of a party town and cheap…if you have dollars or euros.
The milongas are quiet now. There are few tourists here. World crisis. Someone posts on Facebook how 18 pesos for a milonga is cheap. It is. For a foreigner. For an Argentine, by the time you add the transportation and something to drink it is not 18 pesos. How many times a week can you afford to go dance? My friends who used to go all the time are down to 3 times a week. Some friends are not going at all.
“I am leaving,” my friend says to me. “I can’t take it anymore. Buenos Aires is like a relationship that has started to go bad.” I think about what she says. Sometimes I feel the same. The crazy political climate. The dirty city. Inflation that keeps driving prices higher and higher. But then I walk down my street. The people in the pasta shop wave to me when I pass by, the butcher calls out to me. I cross the street and head towards Santa Fe. In each block someone I know stops me to say hello and ask me how I am. Like all relationships, you have to take the good with the bad.