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Whose Tango Is It?

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Last week I was talking to the woman who owns Bien Porteño. She sometimes shares my table in Gricel on Monday nights. I have known her brother Armando for years. We have other Argentine friends in common. I mentioned to her how much I thought the tango had changed. “No,” she told me. “The tango has not changed. You have changed. The magic is not there for you anymore. Now, you know the tango.”

I have since thought about what she said. In some ways I agree with her, but in many ways I do not. Yes, I have changed. When I first came here I was overwhelmed by the milongas in Buenos AIres. (The milonga is the place where people go to dance tango.) I thought everyone could dance. I know now this is not even close to being true. I loved the idea of being able to dance as much as I wanted. I would start my day at an afternoon milonga dancing at 4 in the afternoon and not stop dancing until 4 or 5 in the morning. I could do this 7 days a week until my feet could no longer take it. I remember telling people I felt like the little mermaid in the morning. It felt like knives were stabbing my feet with every step I took.

It didn’t matter. Armed with bottles of ibuprofen, buckets of ice water, and salt, I would deal with my swollen feet, refusing to rest them. I had to dance. The men were waiting for me in the milongas. That is what they told me. I would eagerly rush to the milongas looking for them to dance with. Patiently, they would help me with my dance. I was learning in the style of the milongueros. I was mesmerized by the milonga culture. I didn’t want to spend time in classes. I didn’t learn well that way. I learned by watching, listening, and being corrected.

In the arms of some old guy I would get a music lesson. In the U.S. you dance the same to every song; people dance tango to vals, a tango variation to milonga – the same steps to everything. Here in Buenos Aires I was told that you dance differently to each orchestra. Long back steps to DiSarli, more giros to D’arienzo. It was exciting. There was so much to learn and the milonga was my teacher.

After a couple of years I stopped most of the afternoon milongas. I just went out at night. Every night. The muscles were built up in my feet and they had stopped hurting. I had also discovered a shoemaker who made shoes I could really dance in all night.

Now I have been living here almost five years. I still dance tango. I still love my dance. Now I am wiser. Tourists often ask me, “How do people here stay out all night and then go to work?” Because those people don’t work. They live in the milonga. They get free admission. They are charming. They look for someone to buy their drink. They look for someone to take them home so they have somewhere to sleep. The next day is the same. Maybe if they dance well enough someone will take them out of the country and present them as a tango teacher.

Women who are militantly politically correct in their own country become butter in the arms of a man who sleeps on a chair in a car wash. In the only suit he owns he showers them with compliments they would never accept in their own country, careless caresses they would have him arrested for. Somehow in Buenos Aires it is all right. He dances. He is Argentine.  

Men who never fall prey to the women of the night find themselves feeling sorry for the grandmotherly woman who has not the money to buy her medications, the young woman who can’t buy her son’s books. A sad face and a few tears can buy wonders in the milonga. There is always a small problem a few pesos can resolve.

I have seen it all. I know the cast of characters. They no longer hold any mystique for me. In that regard my friend is correct. There is no longer any magic around the milonga. I go to dance, to listen to the music. Nothing more. Now when I watch, it is more like street theater, the foreigners throwing themselves at the Argentines. One of my friends says to me that her milongueros friends tell her the “foreign women are like rain – always falling.”

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