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October 10, 2010
Learning to tango in Buenos Aires

One of the best ways to get a feel for local life when traveling is by sampling popular passions. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, that means learning to tango. The passion inherent in the tango has inspired an entire culture in this romantic South American city a culture with all the charms of Europe but without the high price tags. Buenos Aires is a bargain for travelers, whether the city is a port on a cruise or your primary destination.

On our first night in Buenos Aires, my husband, Larry, and I put on our dancing shoes for an evening tour that included group lessons on basic tango steps followed by a professional performance and traditional steak-and-wine dinner. Classes are offered at local tango clubs or private dance studios, but the idea of a reward — dinner and a show — was too appealing to pass up. A typical tour including tango lesson, traditional tango show, drinks and dinner runs about $85 per person.

We arrived at Complejo Tango for our introduction to this famous form of art and entertainment. Listening to the music's beat, we mimicked our instructor's slinky walking steps and quick kicks. We learned to shuffle our feet to the music, nowhere near the agile, athletic moves we later saw in a professional performance. Twirls, spins and dips (best left to the experts) are performed with only the lower body moving, a challenge from the start.

We never got past the so-called Tourist Tango — strolling to the music — but that's all we expected from our introductory class. Still, we learned that tango is an intricate, precise partner dance, and the need for connectivity explains the saying "It takes two to tango."

As one of the richest countries in the world during the early 1900s, Argentina attracted immigrants from many nations. Music united people from different heritages, and tango reflected a blending of rhythms brought from Africa and Europe. Rooted in tenements populated by transplants, the tango was originally performed by men and was once considered scandalous. Shunned by polite society in Buenos Aires, the dance was transported to Europe when wealthy parents sent children across the ocean to become educated and cultured. Tango became quite popular, creating a craze of new fashions and social events in cities like London and Paris.

Eventually the passionate and flamboyant style of tango was welcomed back to Argentina. From the mid-1930s on, practically everyone in Buenos Aires danced the tango — and it's still embraced by various socio-economic groups. Over time, it has evolved into the glamorous choreographed dances presented today by women in slit sequined skirts and men in tight pants and fedoras.

Shows are available nightly in hotels, clubs and ballrooms. Most feature dances that highlight the history of tango through movement. Live music accompanies svelte dancers clad in glittering costumes and floaty feathers as they twist and turn their nimble bodies, quickly changing directions in moves that we could only dream of emulating.

Although graceful and glamorous dancing entertains visitors, tango isn't just for show. It's a popular dance with local residents, who twirl around in milongas (dance halls) in a social version as different from the professional performance as ballet is from the Texas two-step.

More than 70 milongas all over the city are available for locals and visitors to sample. Unwritten rules dictate that men and women sit separately, and a nod of the head is an invitation to dance. Improvisation, close embrace and small steps characterize the best tango dancers. The elegance of finely danced tango is a joy to watch, even from amateurs.

Tourists can step out on the floor of milongas — if they're brave or skillful enough and willing to stay up late. Local dances don't really get swinging until 11 p.m. and last until the wee hours. If that's too late for you, there are dancing opportunities in afternoon milongas. Services are available to help visitors determine the place that's right for them. Where you go for social tango depends on factors such as your age, dance style, formality desired and time of day or night. My preference? People-watching while sipping a refreshing drink.


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