Watching tango in Buenos Aires


Flamboyant tango shows take place every evening all over town. Most include dinner and a floor show. At some, guests are ushered in by a tango dancer and swept on to the dance floor for an impromptu lesson before being escorted to their tables. Most tango/dinner show extravaganzas are pricey, ranging from $50 to $200 per person. Considering the size and excitement of the show as well as the quality of the cuisine, which at some is outstanding, it's well worth the money. For Americans who have only seen tango on stage in large auditoriums, miles from the performers, a Buenos Aires tango show is not to be missed. Tango at close range, enveloped by the music and the dancers, is a highlight of most visitors' Argentina trip.

Street Tango
Depending on the weather, you'll run into tango just by walking around Buenos Aires. The pedestrian promenade, calle Florida in the Microcentro neighborhood, is a likely spot to find tango street dancers. Another sure bet is weekends in the colorful wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. There at an outdoor table of one of the many cafes that line the historic El Caminito area, (named after a tango song,) you'll find young costumed dancers accompanied by boom box tango. With luck (and a tip), they may pose you with a dancer for a souvenir photo so authentic looking that folks back home will think you mastered a new skill on your vacation.

The Milongas
Milongas are ubiquitous in Buenos Aires, held in the backs of restaurants, church basements and in ballrooms that evoke the Golden Age of tango. There are dozens of them, happening at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week in various locations. Admission is cheap, and light snacks and beverages may be ordered. Rings of tables surround the dance floor. To get close to the action, it's a good idea to arrive early, and you may have to use some Spanish with the host who seats you.

Partners usually dance up to four numbers before changing partners, called a tanda. If partners chat, it is between numbers, not during the dance. Intermittently, a different genre of music is played, signaling a break for refreshment. If you watch closely, you'll notice that it is always the man who asks the woman to dance, though the woman first signals her willingness to accept. As in a wildlife mating ritual, he signals his desire to dance using the cabeceo (a subtle nod of the head). In tango, the cabeceo is considered an art, since across a vast dance floor, it is tricky to express one's intentions before a competitor beats him to it. The cabeceo also allows the invitation to be declined without the embarrassment of a face-to-face encounter. Don't worry about accidentally being asked to dance. You'll be pegged as an observer from the get-go, and no milonguero seeks out a novice.

Some guidebooks include a listing of milonga addresses and schedules. Another good source is where one may search by venue, neighborhood or day of the week. The free monthly Buenos Aires magazine El Tangauta contains listings too.

The Festivals
If taking tango lessons and seeing it on the streets, in shows and milongas isn't enough, travelers may want to schedule their Buenos Aires trip during one of the city's tango festivals. Two of the biggest are:

The City of Buenos Aires Tango Festival
A ten-day city-sponsored event held in late February and early March, it consists of free outdoor concerts, performances in theaters, cultural centers and historic bars, master classes, poetry readings, films, art exhibitions, a milonga photography competition and a tango street fair of books, fashion and every other conceivable tango product. The festival is attended by upwards of 200,000 people.

Mundial de Baile de Tango
In August, the world championship dance competition in salon and stage tango takes place. The event attracts dancers from around the world and an audience of some 50,000 visitors and portenos. The festival also includes master classes for intermediate and advanced couples, free concerts and lessons for beginners. Admission to watch the qualifying and final rounds at La Rural Buenos Aires Exhibition Center and other smaller venues is free.

Tango on radio and TV
You don't have to go out to watch tango in Buenos Aires. The cable channel, Solo Tango, airs tango lessons, tango interviews with artists and aficionados and other programs 24-hours a day. Likewise, 95.9 FM Tango plays a range of music from classic tango numbers to the latest in tango electronico.

A note to our travelers
Southern Explorations offers two tango trip extensions for its travelers who are passing through Buenos Aires on the way to their Patagonia adventures. Its "Tango Show" extension consists of a dinner and tango floor show. Its "Real World of Tango" extension includes a visit to a milonga to watch portenos dance and to receive a lesson from a professional teacher plus a drink and tango show at Bar Sur, a small historic tango bar in the San Telmo neighborhood. Not to be missed in Buenos Aires, tango is an Argentina adventure like no other.