Tango Tourism
A trip to Buenos Aires to learn the tango as only the porteños know how
by Maria Schamis Turner

I stand on a piece of paper as Eduardo, the persuasive salesman who runs the store, carelessly traces the outline of my sweaty feet, thus initiating me into the rites of buying a pair of tango shoes at Flabella. And then, as all Argentines are accustomed to doing, I wait.

As anyone who dances tango knows, shoes are a vital part of the dancer's outfit, and of the dance itself. Buying tango shoes in Buenos Aires is about more than just getting a good pair of shoes—it also provides me with concrete proof of my time in the tango capital, just in case the improvement in my dancing isn't noticeable.

Flabella is a tiny shoe store located at 263 Suipacha, one of the small and slightly shabby streets that run through the city center, not far from the Confitería Ideal-an aging café from the turn of the last century that is also a tango hot spot. Unlike most shoe stores, Flabella does not actually have a whole lot of shoes in stock, the idea being that you order from a selection of styles, which are then custom made to fit your feet.

More than a month after placing my order, (I am lucky-for some the waiting period extends beyond the time of their stay in Argentina), I receive a phone call telling me that my shoes are ready. After the anxiety of waiting, comes the real fear: will they be the right shoes? It is not unusual at Flabella to find that your custom-made shoes are not quite as you imagined them. A Size 6 can come out a Size 5. If you have ordered suede soles, you may get leather. Silver trim ends up red, and so on. As I worry that my toes feel a little too cramped, Eduardo dances me around the store proclaiming that the most beautiful women come from Montreal-my home town. I buy the shoes and leave the store with a beautiful pair of open-toed, cross-strapped, 3-inch heeled tango shoes that fit, more or less. All I need is to learn how to dance.


I am one of a special breed of tourists to be found in Buenos Aires: the tango tourist. We are not interested in trekking through Patagonia, or beating off the mosquitoes at Iguazu, but in finding the best places to dance in Argentina's bustling cosmopolitan capital. Encouraged by the devaluation of the peso and plummeting prices, and in spite of the political instability of the country, we come here with one sole purpose: to learn to tango as only the porteños, the residents of Buenos Aires, know how.

Like many other tango tourists, I am not a neophyte. I know the basics and can dance passably well, but am far from being the seductive, long-legged, and nimble-footed dancer that tango brings to mind.

I begin by testing the waters in a group class held by Fernando Galera and Vilma Vega at El Beso, a nondescript tango club in the center of the city at the corner of Riobamba and Corrientes. I had heard from a reliable source that they are good dancers and, more important, good teachers. I immediately recognize the other tango tourists in my class by the hesitant way they enter the room, as I had done, double-checking a dog-eared copy of el tangauta (an indispensable guide to tango in Buenos Aires for tourists and locals alike) to make sure that they are in the right place.

In fact, most of the students in the class are foreigners, or extranjeros as the locals call us. Some have gone to a lot of trouble to learn Spanish, to be able to quote tango lyrics and impress their fellow dancers back home, as well as to better negotiate their way around the city. Others, as with tourists everywhere, speak only their own language and a broken English, the default international language. Fernando sticks to Spanish, but Vilma quickly adjusts to teaching in Spanglish—a mixture of Spanish and English that most tourists become fluent in after a few weeks. "Do not lean backward si? You go forward with your pecho, entendés?" She pokes my partner Frank, a German living in Italy, in the chest. Frank adds to the linguistic confusion by greeting everyone with a cheery "Ciao." Ciao (spelled chau in Argentine Spanish) is used in Italy for both hello and goodbye, but only for parting in Argentina. As a result, we never know if Frank is coming or going.

Guillermo, one of the only Argentines present, confuses me further by speaking to me in perfect French, learned from several years lived in France. I spend at least a week thinking that he is French before finding out that he is from Bahía Blanca, an industrial port town south of Buenos Aires, but now lives in San Francisco. Although the envy of his friends and family for having escaped the country and its dire economic problems, Guillermo is experiencing nostalgia for his mother country because he is learning what all tango tourists find out at one moment or another: Buenos Aires is a tango eldorado. Here you can dance tango day and night, seven days a week.


Like the most enterprising and obsessed tango tourists I spend my days taking classes and my nights dancing at the various milongas (tango balls) around town, showing off my newfound talents. Armed with a current version of el tangauta and el Guia T—an excellent pocket guide to the city with maps, and bus and subway routes—I discover milongas in all kinds of venues around Buenos Aires, from once-beautiful cafés such as the Confitería Ideal, which gives off a slight smell of decay and a keen sense of nostalgia, to the basement of an Armenian cultural center.

I quickly develop a routine. My Friday night begins by rushing off to La Viruta to take a pre-milonga class that starts at 10:30  pm (Rushing, because for Argentines dinner begins some time around 10 pm and can be as late as midnight.) The classes at La Viruta are always a bit of a gamble. As in all group classes, you can show up alone but you are then at the mercy of the un-partnered men who are there. The classes are divided according to skill, and after testing out the different levels I put myself in a group that seems to be advanced-intermediate where I am crushed against the hairy chests of older Argentine men who overestimate their dancing abilities and deem themselves superior to me by virtue of being Argentine born. Try as I might to tell my partner that he has completely misunderstood the teacher, I am ignored, even scolded, and there is no apology forthcoming if the teacher proves me right.

From La Viruta, I walk the few blocks to Scalabrini Ortiz to attend the Parakultural milonga held at Salón Canning—the place to be on a Friday night. Although this milonga attracts many professional dancers, there are a number of beginners and intermediates who grace the dance floor with their presence. No matter how good the dancer, demonstrations of expertise are limited by the crowded dance floor. Dancing here seems to consist of being walked about in a close embrace, desperately avoiding collisions with other couples who are similarly parading around.

It is a little intimidating. I have, as yet, an incomplete understanding of Argentine tango etiquette where an invitation to dance is subtle, and easily missed or misinterpreted by the newly arrived tango tourist, unaccustomed to this kind of interaction. Rather than approach a woman directly, a man summons his partner to dance with a slight nod or eye movement towards the dance floor. In order to solicit these kinds of invitations the woman has to be alert and, in her own, more passive way, tempt the man to ask her to dance by looking at him.

I usually arrive at Canning around 1 am—early, by Argentine standards. The night the popular orchestra Color Tango is to play, I take a seat next to Christine, a French woman who was living in Scotland, a tango fanatic. She had learned to dance only the previous year and is already back in Argentina for a second dose. I consume glass after glass of Coca-Cola in an effort to stay awake but by 2 o'clock in the morning I am falling asleep and the orchestra has not yet started. I look at my watch in disbelief. When they do finally come on, around 3 am, they are greeted enthusiastically by the crowd, who do not seem to notice the time or resent the fact that they will probably be up until 5 in the morning if they stay to the end of the show. I bail out at around 4, my body clock still not quite adjusted to Argentine time.


One evening I get a call from a friend looking for someone to accompany her to La Calesita, a milonga held outdoors on the grounds of a sports club in the suburb of Nuñez. La Calesita is organized by Julio Mendez, a tango dancer and teacher, who spends much of his time teaching in Europe. Julio epitomizes the stereotype of an Argentine tango dancer—tall (by Argentine standards), dark, and handsome—although many Argentines are of such mixed European heritage that they do not fit this image. As we speed down Avenida del Libertador, our taxi ducks in and out of imaginary lanes between other cars, dodging the hundreds of other taxis that also seem hell bent on suicide or murder. We spend at least 20 minutes lost in the residential streets of Nuñez and in the end still make it to the milonga unfashionably early.

At the end of the night, to our dismay, we discover that there is no telephone on the grounds with which we can call a taxi to return us to the city center. Christine takes matters into her own hands and accosts a fellow dancer as he is getting into his car. With no choice but to be gallant and offer us a lift, Osvaldo takes advantage of having a captive audience for the 40-minute drive to give us his thoughts on milongas, tango, and the state of corruption in his country. (It must have something to do with driving-taxi drivers are also prone to eloquence when it comes to Argentina's politics.) Christine decides to finish the evening, or start the morning, at La Viruta, the after-hours milonga of choice.


My experiences with group classes and milongas not entirely satisfying, I decide to take a few private classes with a well-known dancer by the name of Roberto Herrera, who charges a fixed fee of 80 pesos per class. While most group classes are the same price for extranjeros as for locals (5-10 pesos for approximately 1 hour) the price of private classes often depends on your nationality. The going rate for foreigners is around $US 50 a class while for Argentines, the price ranges from 50-100 pesos per class. Prohibitive for many of them, but a good third of what we extranjeros have to pay. With the exchange rate, 80 pesos works out to a pretty favorable price and I have to admit that I feel better paying it knowing I am not being fleeced because of my Canadian passport and gringo accent.

It is my classes with Roberto that finally convince me it is worthwhile paying over $1,000 for a plane ticket to Argentina to learn tango. Private classes have the benefit of guaranteeing you a good dance partner (it really does take two to tango) and in Roberto, a gracious one. I arrive late and profusely apologetic for my first class at his studio on Sarandí, in the neighborhood of Balvanera. After five weeks in Argentina, I have adopted many Argentine habits-eating late at night, drinking maté (a bitter Argentine tea, full of caffeine), staying out until dawn-but still have a sense of Canadian punctuality. Roberto waves off my apologies and then gets straight to work, which means, for a tango teacher, putting on a tango and inviting me to dance.

It is with some trepidation that I step into his arms. Dancing tango with someone for the first time is weighted with social codes, stigmas, and insecurities, and can even be fraught with physical discomfort and emotional distress. With the right partner, dancing is a joy; with the wrong one, a nightmare. Even dancing with the best dancers does not always bring with it a guarantee of a good tango. Many good dancers, if you are lucky enough to dance with them at all, will quickly and abruptly reject a partner who in their eyes is not up to par.

I needn't have feared. Roberto does not try to intimidate me with his talent. Nor does he fall into the category of men who swing their partners around the dance floor as if trying to dislocate a shoulder. And as I relax in his embrace, I begin to enjoy the sensation that I am actually dancing, and not just following a set of prescribed steps.


Although Buenos Aires is undoubtedly the capital of tango, as well as of the country, tango is popular throughout Argentina. I lug my tango shoes with me as I follow a strange route across the country to Rosario, Bahía Blanca, and then down to Bariloche in Patagonia to visit various relatives. I travel by coche cama, buses with seats that recline into camas, or beds, which is the most affordable, and therefore most popular, form of transport for Argentines and tourists alike.

Bahía Blanca is not a tourist destination. Unlike at the milongas of Buenos Aires, I am the only tango tourist I encounter. As the new girl in town I am a popular dance partner and the locals ask me questions about where I am from, what I do for a living, and where I learned to tango. "You speak Spanish, you dance tango, and you're unemployed. Are you sure you're not Argentine?" jokes one of my partners. Carlitos, like other Argentines, cannot understand why I have left my job to go traveling. In Argentina, if you are lucky enough to have a job, you don't quit.

It is in Bahía I begin to understand that tango is more than just a dance for some Argentines, that perhaps, as Roberto Herrera suggested, tango's embrace offers a necessary solace in these hard times—not just a financial opportunity. This becomes especially clear to me when I meet Damien and Gustavo, who have in common poverty and a passion for tango. Gustavo, the older and more experienced of the two, has been dancing for over nine years and is lucky enough to have performed all over Argentina, including at the Cosquín national folklore festival -one of the country's most prestigious folk music festivals.

One Sunday night, I am invited to hang out at Gustavo's house—which he shares with his grandmother, a stray cat, and photos of his four-year-old child from a failed marriage. He lives in an area of town that my relatives, who I desperately need a break from, inform me is on the wrong side of the tracks. I walk over there with Damien, who uses the opportunity to complain about his situation. Like many other twenty-something Argentines that I meet, he is frustrated and bitter with the country that he has inherited. He wants to work in the performing arts but knows that it is hard to make money doing so. He doesn't appear to believe me when I tell him that working in the arts is difficult even in Canada.

I sit in Gustavo's kitchen, sipping maté while Gustavo shows Damien, who acts like his protegé how to do a certain tango step. Watching the two men dance together I feel like I have gone back in time to the beginning of the 20th century, and I am witnessing the birth of the tango. I think of something else Roberto said: "Don't forget that the tango was born from a melting pot of races. People who had left everything behind got together with others with whom they had nothing in common, with nothing but nostalgia to unite them." And though it is  2003, the nostalgia of the tango seems somehow appropriate in a country that is in mourning for better times.