Finding My Feet in
Buenos Aires

Tango buskers in the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Photo by Darrin Ratajczak.
Tango buskers in the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Photo by Darrin Ratajczak.

By Darrin Ratajczak

I was told about a tango club in Buenos Aires by a young dreadlocked Seattleite while drifting north through Argentina’s Lake District from Patagonia. He had fallen in love with a porteña (a woman from Buenos Aires), and clearly strong memories of their time together lingered.

Late one night, he went into vivid and at times disturbingly erotic detail of steamy nights of wine, dancing and passion, while in my mind I conjured a Moulin Rouge in the Paris of the south. He spoke particularly of a place called La Catedral (The Cathedral), a milonga or dance hall in the inner-city barrio of Almagro.

Less than two days after that meeting, I found myself on my way there, in a cab, at night, a long way from home, and, of all things, going to a tango lesson.

To understand what a particularly strange and wonderful thing this was, there are two things you need to know. Firstly, as a skinny, six-foot-tall Anglo-Saxon man, I have all the physical grace of an arthritic Preying Mantis. So, as you can image, the dance floor is about as natural to me as wearing socks with sandals. (Apologies to our German friends.)

Secondly, you need to understand the effect the tango exerts on the city and the people who visit her. It’s pervasive. It’s the city’s passion, it’s celebration, and it’s history, played out on glamorous stages and in smoky back rooms across an expanse of 13 million souls. And to the visitor it’s hypnotic and irresistible.

My hostel offered a good example. By day it was a typical shop-front bistro in the trendily disheveled old San Telmo district, with a collection of rooms above and a small courtyard shaded by two sprawling mango trees out back.

After dinner, it became a makeshift milonga. The chairs and tables shunted against walls to make way for the dance floor and space for local singers and musicians to play.

It was here that I began to learn the art and the science of the dance. Traditionally, it begins with a quick nod from the guy, what they call the cabezazo. She’ll respond with a nod and a smile if she’s interested, and the dance begins. The man approaches, she rises to meet him and they make for the floor. They face each other. The man places the hand he’ll use to guide her on the small of her back. Her corresponding hand grasps his shoulder and their free hands are held outstretched.

Most of the action happens below the waist. This is where it gets tricky. Although he leads, he must carefully flow with her movements as she slides, swivels and kicks around and between his legs. The man adds his own twists and flourishes as he guides her around the floor. It’s for good reason it’s called the most sophisticated dance in the world.

Like many of the clubs around BA, La Catedral offers tango lessons earlier in the evening, after which the real thing begins, usually heating up after midnight.

A couple dances in front of a café, La Boca, Buenos Aires. Photo: Darrin Ratajczak.
A couple dances in front of a café, La Boca, Buenos Aires. Photo: Darrin Ratajczak.

I arrived at a steel door of a non-descript warehouse building and was buzzed upstairs. The girl in the ticket booth was clearly perplexed by someone actually turning up at the advertised time, 9pm. It was not surprising. Alexandro, a travelling Brazilian student I had met at my hostel had summed it up succinctly for me: “Hey, when a South American gives you a time to meet, the only thing you can be sure of is they won’t be there before that.”

After paying my tuition fee of five pesos (about $2 Australian), I was ushered into a cavernous space. At one end a substantial stage and at the other a bar stretched the width of the room. With funky art works lining the walls and an eclectic array of chairs, tables and sofas gathered around a central dance floor, it seemed more like a trendy underground nightclub than how I imagined a tango venue.

Like a true South American, Christiano, the instructor, arrived right on time, sometime after nine-thirty. For some reason, he reminded me of an Argentine joke: A man walks up to a Porteño and asks him for a light. He carefully pats himself up and down checking every pocket and says, “No! But, man, I have a great body.”

Males and females were separated into two groups. “Jew speek eh Spaneesh,” Christiano said, picking me as an imposter. I admitted I didn’t. “Jew look.” He pointed at his eyes with parted fingers and then at his feet. He slid, spun and twisted – I think the moonwalk was in there somewhere – and then returned to the exact spot he had begun. Obviously he realised I had just come off the set of Fame. I nodded, and under Christiano’s raised eyebrow, did my best to follow, fumbling over my ill-fitting sneakers and almost wiping out my male peers in an attempted pirouette.

After an all too brief display of incompetence, I was partnered with a girl. A girl? A woman. She wasn’t the dusky, olive-skinned Latina that I had dreamt of, pumping water from a well in some dusty pueblo in a far-too-loose white peasant blouse. No, Instead she was a green-eyed, flaxen-haired beauty with flawless alabaster shoulders and hips that had a life of their own.

Blessed with the patients of a saint she carefully repeated each step, as I tripped and entangled myself around her, using her limited English to offer me encouragement. At the end of our allotted two hours, we pecked cheeks and she was gone. I never learnt her name.

Come midnight La Catedral starts to fill, an even mix of lithe Latinos strutting their stuff, foreign Tango tragics practicing their Arthur Murray moves, and pure out-and-out gawkers. I ordered a tall beer and joined the latter.

I slumped down in a lumpy red couch alongside a trio of dumpy American girls who stared longingly and lustfully at the dancers and I felt myself doing the same. In my short stay in Buenos Aires I thought I had seen Tango, but nothing like this. Partners were chosen, the DJ played Roger Sanchez’s Another Chance, and the room erupted into a swirl of feet and hips moving in unison. I wanted to be up there. I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to be them!

At around 3am, I spilled out onto the warm and still bustling streets of the city like Gene Kelly in the rain. My head spinning and my body sliding to newly learned steps. I glided over to the class timetable tacked to the wall and vowed to return. I had found my feet in Buenos Aires.

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