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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine September 2008 Issue
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The Faces of Tango

The Buenos Aires Tango Festival

Colorful houses in Buenos Aires
Colorful houses made of corrugated aluminum by Italian dock workers in La Boca, Buenos Aires.

February in Buenos Aires is sultry and humid, perfect tango weather. But I arrive in no shape for dancing. I am wearing a winter coat after more than thirty hours traveling. A blizzard in New York had delayed my flight from JFK, re-routing it north through Toronto, then through Miami for a six hour layover, and finally to Buenos Aires. To add insult to injury, I am nursing broken ribs and lingering whiplash from a recent accident. What possessed me to torture myself so? Tango. The Eighth Annual Buenos Aires Tango Festival is due to commence in three days, and I have come to see the city strut its stuff. I want to know how one dance could stir so much imagination around the world.

I come prepared. Before leaving, I filled up on Argentinean history and was briefed by a friend from Buenos Aires. He told me that tango has many faces and lives in many parts of the city. He said that tango is inextricable from the history and politics of Buenos Aires. My friend is part Italian, as are many porteños (natives of Buenos Aires). At the turn of the nineteenth century, millions of Neapolitans, Genoese, and Sicilians immigrated looking for a better life. Their influence is obvious in the spoken language of Buenos Aires. Porteños speak with a musical lilt reminiscent of Italian, soft and gentle on the ears. Some say that Argentinean Spanish is closer to the Neapolitan dialect than any other language.

My books told me that the origins of tango are controversial. Many scholars think that tango originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires’ shanty towns. Most at least agree that tango was a dance of the poor living in the down at heal conventillos (tenements) at the end of the 19th century. Descendants of African slaves also contributed, adding improvisation to the dance. “Tango,” Christine Denniston writes in her book The Meaning of Tango, “was created by people who generally leave no mark on history except for dying in wars: the poor, the under-privileged.”

The first tango song appeared in 1857, but tango’s golden age did not appear until the 1930s. This was the era of the national icon Carlos Gardel, the dulcet voice of tango. It was also the era when Rudolf Valentino made tango into a worldwide phenomenon while dancing it stiff-armed in the film “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Originally considered too risqué for decency, the middle class took to tango in droves, making it popular in the dance halls of Paris.

All this ended in 1955 when General Peron was ousted by the military coup that ushered in almost thirty years of military dictatorship. Tango was driven underground by curfews and bans prohibiting congregations of more than three people. Since General Peron had used tango artists for his nationalist purposes, the new military leadership persecuted tangueros, imprisoning or blacklisting many of them.

When the dictatorship ended in 1983, a Tango Renaissance began that has continued to this day. Aspiring tangueros, however, were thwarted by one problem: most of the younger generation did not know how to dance it. Most of the old-timers who had tangoed in its heyday were no longer around to teach it. Today, as with many aspects of its history, Buenos Aires has surmounted this obstacle, and young people are tangoing again. My Argentinean friend told me that after the economic collapse of 2001, many foreigners, drawn by low prices, set up shop in Buenos Aires. Some foreigners seemed unaware about the hard times that had come to porteños, many of whom had lost their life’s savings. There was understandable resentment. Younger porteños started returning to tango as a way to reclaim their heritage.

Armed with this background, and despite my aching ribs, the city tells me the following: To understand tango’s faces, head to the barrios (neighborhoods) where it originated and is still danced today.  

I stay in Monserrat, on the fringes of San Telmo, one of the reputed birthplaces of tango. “Monserrat,” my Argentinean friend told me, “Is a very porteño neighborhood.” “What does that mean?” I questioned. He hesitated. I pressed on, “Traditional?” He conceded politely, “Yes, traditional.” But this hesitation was revealing: the place is working class. I travel alone, and when I go out at night I take a cab for safety. Upon entering Monserrat, the cabbies tell me to roll up the windows. The front door to my rooming house, an old criollo (creole) house, is locked. I ring the bell, and the night attendant lets me in. The next morning, I exit that same locked door to young men sifting through garbage on the curb. At night, a new group of men do the same thing. hey are thin and bend over their work without looking up. This is a sight I have seen in cities the world over: riches commingled with poverty. It saddens me. One face of tango.

The married couple who runs the rooming house are native porteños as well as tangueros. I ask the husband, “What does tango mean?” His simple reply is, “You need to dance it to understand.” I take this to mean: you have to feel the rhythm of Buenos Aires to understand tango.

I head to San Telmo, which these days is frequented by tourists, especially on weekends. Weekdays are more comfortable for wandering down Avenida La Defensa and for browsing through the antique shops brim full of memories: Discarded candelabra, Marie Antoinette champagne glasses, whole silver sets tarnished with age, and crystal chandeliers. Wandering farther down La Defensa brings me to tango studios and clubs where milongas (dances) are held most nights of the week. On Sundays, the streets of San Telmo open up to pedestrians, and antiquarians peddle their wares in the open air fería (flea market). Street performers play tango music, and pedestrians look for treasures. This place arouses nostalgia for a bygone era of grace and elegance, now cast off like an aging beauty. Another face of tango.

Street scene in Buenos Aires
Street performers play tango and other music..

La Boca, another competitor for the birthplace of tango, lies on the banks of the Rio de la Plata and was the original tenement quarter. The short squat buildings are of corrugated aluminum, leftovers gleaned by Italian dockworkers. In times past, these shanties were made livable with bright paint. These days they’ve been prettied up for tourists. 

In the side streets radiating from the small tourist section, the barrio gravitates to its original state. Its focal point is the soccer stadium La Bombonera, witness to the fiery rivalry between the Boca Juniors and River Plate teams. Buenos Aires, home to the most soccer teams (24) of any city in Latin America, is fanatical about the sport. There is no match the day I visit, and a man working there lets me in. The place feels weathered, like a ship that has withstood many battles. Most of the seats are well-worn, rough wooden benches that lie unshaded under a hot sun. “This neighborhood shuts down on game days,” the man tells me. He points to the unshaded seats and continues, “Those are for the barras bravas (soccer fanatics). Not a pretty place for ladies.” During the bus ride back to the city center, I stare out the window. The houses in this barrio are small, crowded close together. Trees line the streets, providing shade and beauty. One house stands out. It is painted in blue and yellow, the colors of Boca Juniors:  the home of a barra brava.

I pass a shanty town hiding near a freeway overpass. These are the modern day villas miserías (poor areas), which formed the social basis for Peronism. This barrio is not colorful. It is gray, made of bare concrete. The bus driver tells me that new immigrants live there now, the successors of the Italians and Spanish who had expected to return home with riches, but found disappointment. Another face of tango.  

Tango also lives in Abasto, the Broadway of Buenos Aires, bordered by Corrientes and Avenida 9 de Julio (famous for being the widest street in the world). Abasto was the name of the central fruit market from 1893-1984, and is now a modern shopping mall. These days Abasto is a bustling neighborhood, home to plays and Broadway-style musicals. Back in tango’s prime, Carlos Gardel lived for most of his life in this barrio with his mother. Famous tango sites dot the area. The Blanca Podestá Theatre on Ave. Corrientes 1283 is where Federico Garcia Lorca and Carlos Gardel supposedly met in 1933. The Esquina del Tango at Corrientes and Esmeralda got its name from a 1933 tango written by Celedonio Flores and Francisco Pracán. Tango establishments scattered throughout the area still offer shows, lessons, and opportunities to dance. I wonder if this area is only for tourists. “No,” my Argentinean friend assured me, “the area is para todos (for all).”   

I stop in the Plaza de Mayo, flanked by government buildings and the Metropolitan Cathedral (which looks confusingly like a bank). The Plaza is best known for the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who still appear in white head-scarves one afternoon each week to protest the 30,000 desaparecidos (disappeared ones). These unfortunates, 9,000 of whom still need accounting for, vanished during the Dirty War and military coup of 1976. Later that afternoon, I indulge this melancholy mood and visit the La Recoleta cemetery, final resting place of Evita Peron. I wander the lanes of this village of mausoleums, in the shadow of angels, cherubs, and crucifixes. Directly outside, calle RM Ortiz is lined with open-air bars where Buenos Aires’ young and hip drink beer in the shadow of the tombs: life and death juxtaposed. Another face of tango.   

La Recolta Cemetary
The famous La Recolta cemetary.

This peregrination readies me for the Tango Festival, which finally starts a few days later. For ten days at the end of February—the festival will take place from Feb. 28-March 8 in 2009—the city opens its streets to concerts, competitions, classes, and milongas. All are free and open to the public. Most of the milongas heat at night after the sun has set and the streets have begun to cool down.

One of the biggest milongas occurs at Avenida Corrientes. Inhibited by the pain in my ribs, I cannot twist or dip. So I watch. A band plays on a portable stage, the solitary and melancholy Couples maneuver in tight embrace, anticipating but not looking at each other. Elderly couples move fluidly. Younger ones are more tentative, either because of uncertainty over the steps or uncertainty over each other. As I watch in the semi light of a languid February evening in Buenos Aires, I begin to get it. True to its reputation, tango for me is about the yearning between men and women: The joy of first connection; the inherent tension; the anxiety-filled anticipation of the next move; the twisting, circling, skirting, and danger of entangling oneself in the other; and finally the melancholy of the inevitable goodbye (no matter how brief). Like a lover’s eyes, tango is sometimes gentle, sometimes distant, sometimes passionate, but always intense. 

Yet tango, I have learned, is more than that. Tango is about argentinidad (national identity), about a history punctuated by sadness and disappointments, tragedies and joys, and an enduring artistic spirit which makes survival possible. Tango is nostalgia for an imagined past, a disappointment or contentment with the present, and a hope for the future. In El Tango (1969), Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “I hear the echo of those tangos/of Arolas and Greco/danced upon the sidewalk/an instant distilled that remains/without before, or hereafter, an anti-oblivion/having the taste of everything lost, and everything regained.” Yet I am left with uncertainty. Borges, again, “Tango can be discussed and we do talk about it, but like everything genuine it conceals a secret.” (La historia del tango from Obras Completas (1974)). Looking back on this now that my ribs have healed, I plan to return.

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