Lightning blazes in windows but no one looks. No one even speaks. Tables across the room are covered with empty Quilmes bottles and fernet glasses. In the middle of the floor a man sitting on crates is playing the erhu, and even though people have been drinking and tangoing for hours, no one anywhere will disrupt the saddest song they’ve ever heard. Strings quiver to the background of the pounding rain and thunder, then, after a few minutes, the song ends and it’s back to the dance.
Tango in Buenos Aires is serious business. Stemming from Argentina and Uruguay, it’s curled outward worldwide. The dance of lovers. In San Telmo, women in fitted black dresses and high heels glide with their partners over cobblestone streets during the Sunday market. Tiny cabarets host tango shows for the romantics, while avant-guarde shows feature revolving circular stages and unconventional lighting. If you want to see how the locals take to the floor though, milongas are the place to go. Many venues open a little before midnight and close around dawn, and some even serve breakfast to those who make it until 6:00am.
Our milonga of choice came recommended during a tango lesson. This “lesson” ended up being the most touristy thing we did while in Argentina. It was less a class and more a 3-course dinner with tango entertainment and a 45 minute dance break. There was also booze. Lots of booze. Everyone was offered unlimited fernet and cokes and cachaca and orange juice, causing a young couple in the group to break three glasses in the two hours we were there. Seated next to us at dinner was a pair of loud, middleaged, Texan women (like I said, touristy), but they only enhanced the experience. There were only about a dozen people there, each group at their own table, so it managed to be intimate, drunk, and slightly uncomfortable all at once.
I’ve taken a fair amount of Salsa classes (brushes shoulders off), so I figured I’d just “adapt” to tango. Big nope. This dance is all about anticipating your partners steps and slow, sultry movements. As a couple, Carl and I are pretty awkward. He forgets his nouns while talking and I often get food in my hair while eating. Suffice it to say, we don’t particularly smolder on the dance floor.
When it came time for the two dancers, a male and female, to teach the group a few moves, the man chose me as his partner (the other pickin’s were a mom, some wives, the Texans, and the glass breaker). I wasn’t good. I was so not good that half way through the instructions my new companion looked at his partner with pleading, “What have I done?” eyes. Her response? A flat, non-sympathetic, “You picked her”. I know I’m not Ginger Rogers at this stuff but daannnggg. After the event ended we asked the oh-so-gorgeous host for the best milongas in the city. He immediately said La Catedral. Sold. To the apartment we went to nap and prepare, then around 11:00pm we took off.
La Catedral looks like a gypsy’s bedroom. Above the bar is a stuffed fabric human heart, coiled in wires and lit by nearby lights. The walls are covered in paintings, street signs, portraits, and a hodgepodge of patterns and color, while the floors and furniture are scuffed and worn. Likely converted from a barn or a warehouse, the size is massive, yet It’s insanely romantic and vibrant, filled with so many beautiful people in such fluid motion, that it really does have a pulse.
Looking around the room I’m almost transported to middle school. Men and women sit in a circle around the floor eyeing up those in the middle. There’s even the cool kids who dance with a never ending carousel of partners. It becomes very apparent very fast who is desired on the floor. Those with the right step, the right turn, the right body language, are never at their table for long. While others sit sipping cocktails, waiting and watching, visions of grade school flooding back.
There’s an odd exception to the usual school rules though. It doesn’t much matter what your partner looks like, as long as they know how to move their feet. 60 year old men ask gorgeous 20 year olds to join them, and the girls almost always say yes. No one really looks their partners in the eyes even, only those who came together or intend to go home together, really make direct eye contact. The rest just turn and turn, then there’s a hand on your back that moves you just so, then you’re spinning and spinning, with colors to the left, to the right, and the music just goes round and round…Or so I imagine.
I never took a turn around the room that night. Instead, we walked into the rain at 3:00am and hailed a cab. Looking at the streets through a streaked window though, everything still swirled.