When it first emerged in the city’s brothels and slums sometime in the 1890s, the world’s sexiest ballroom dance, the tango, horrified the genteel residents of Buenos Aires. Some of the city’s more liberal-minded upper-class youths fell in love with tango, though, and brought it to Paris, where the dance’s characteristic haunting melodies, seductive gazes and prostitute-inspired split skirts took the capital of passion by storm. By the 1910s tango’s popularity had gone global, but Buenos Aires was and remains the spiritual and professional home of both the music form and dance.
If you want to keep a low profile, head to a tango show. Aimed squarely at tourists, these are glitzy, polished, expensive affairs where the dance is performed on stage by professionals. More earthy and authentic – and worth seeking out – are the milongas, or tango gatherings, where everyone takes part. These range from stately mid-afternoon affairs in the city’s exquisite Art Deco tea salons to smoky, late-night events behind unmarked doors deep in the suburbs and youthful tango-meets-techno milongas in the city’s trendy districts. Long-running milongas include the traditional Tango Ideal at the Confitería Ideal and the hip Parakultural events in Palermo.
For those who want to take part, some milongas are preceded by a tango lesson – you’ll need several of these, and, if you’re a woman, a killer pair of heels – before you can master the basics of the fairly complex dance. It’s also perfectly acceptable to turn up, albeit smartly dressed, and simply enjoy the music while watching the dancers glide with apparent ease across the floor. Beware, though: the music and the locals may have you under their spell – and in their arms – faster than you may have anticipated.
Venues and times of milongas are constantly changing, so seek local advice; a good place to start is www.tangobuenosaires.gov.ar.