Saturday, March 3, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 6

March 3rd, 2012

Buenos Aires, the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere . . .

My interest in Buenos Aires was first sparked two summers ago when I was persuaded to take a tango class with a friend in Ann Arbor. Tango is a dance between couples, and can be either a social dance (Argentine style) or an artistic/competitive one (American, International, and Ballroom tango -- there are significant stylistic differences between the two approaches). I found myself drawn in by the passionate, melancholy music and by the improvised dance itself – the intimate embrace combined with the risk of total catastrophe is an exhilarating experience, particularly in a culture like ours that avoids physical contact of any kind. Buenos Aires is the birthplace of tango, and when I found out that we had an overnight stay I was excited to go see tango danced in its natural habitat.

There are two main ways to see tango in Buenos Aires. The first option is to go see a tango show. There are many venues for such shows, all usually combining a meal, drinks, and dancing. There is no audience participation – your only job is to soak up the food and drink while the dancers and orchestra provide the evening’s entertainment. These shows are usually geared towards tourists, and range from the gaudy “Senor Tango,” which seats hundreds of people and features a chorus line, to tiny, intimate venues with four or five tables. They can be quite pricey, but usually feature excellent ballroom tango, with complicated pre-choreographed routines and athletic lifts, kicks, and such.

The other way is to go to a milonga. A milonga is a social event where people come to dance in the Argentine style – a subtle, improvised dance more suited to crowded dance floors. Milongas can vary widely in style, music, venue, clientele, and degree of formality. It is estimated that in Buenos Aires there are anywhere between fifteen and twenty milongas each night, most of them running well past three in the morning. There are a well-defined set of social rules that govern milongas – I could go on about the mechanics of tango, but for those who would like to know more I point towards google.

The difference between the two approaches is focus. In performance tango, the energy is focused outward towards the audience, while in social tango the energy is focused inwards into the connection between dancers. The type I studied in Ann Arbor was social tango, the more intimate of the two, and so I decided to research milongas instead of tagging along with my shipmates to a show (I haven’t traveled all the way to the Southern Hemisphere just to see some damn Disney tango!).

After finishing work, I got my maps together and set off into the city. It was a perfect evening – cooler after the heat of the day, with a bit of a breeze off of the ocean and just enough humidity to smell like summer. In most ports it is something of an adventure getting from the industrial area into the city proper by foot, and Buenos Aires is no exception. Widespread poverty stalks Buenos Aires just as with all cities in South America, and on my way to the train station I passed through one of the transitional zones. It was an odd little collision of worlds – on one side of the boulevard was a wide park with the English clock tower, while on the other side streets ran away into a shanty town where mountains of white garbage bags stood piled against walls. Along the sidewalks (and at some points integrated into the train and bus stations) was a long open-air market where people of all incomes mingled among racks of cheap handbags and kabob stands. It was a strange place – not quite anywhere, but not nowhere, either. I was reminded of the body of water Buenos Aires is located on, the Rio de la Plata, and how it is neither an ocean nor a river. Perhaps this is the urban equivalent.

Speaking of streets, Buenos Aires is a city of massive boulevards. They can be fourteen, sixteen, even eighteen lanes wide. I used to think that I liked large boulevards . . . but after two hours in Buenos Aires and I have changed my mind. They look pretty and carry huge loads of traffic, but from a pedestrian’s standpoint they are a pain. Imagine the length of a crosswalk when you’ve got to get across eighteen lanes of traffic! I am lucky to be young and in good shape, because there were a few instances where I found myself playing real-life frogger during my exploration of Buenos Aires.

Despite the various hazards to life and limb, I made it safely to the more pedestrian-friendly urban center. Here the Casa Rosada is located, where Eva Perón made her famous speeches to the people of Argentina. A short walk away from the water is the Plaza de Independencia, where a huge obelisk has been built(reminiscent of the Washington monument in D.C.). I stopped for a quick bite at a dollar pizza joint (four pesos) before reaching my first destination of the night, a milonga at La Confiteria Ideal.

I stopped for a moment outside. So far, Buenos Aires had been much like any other large city that I’ve visited in the past twenty three years or so. La Confiteria Ideal was the first thing I’d seen to set the city apart. An ornate marble front bordered the little side street it was located on. Behind dark wooden doors and plate glass windows I could see an elegant dining room, with cloth napkins folded up into flowers on each table and ceiling fans spinning lazy circles above. A dark-haired waiter stood outside, sleeves rolled up and smoking a cigarette. The big French doors on the second story veranda were open, and from within I could hear the sounds of music . . . I headed inside.

The interior was just as rich as the exterior was. A stone staircase twisted around the wrought iron elevator cage, depositing me at the head of a long room. Warm colored stone and wood were everywhere, reminding me of the strange café in Santiago de Compostela where I ate with the Koreans (only a month and a half ago!). Tables, draped in red and black, surrounded the floor in little groups. I was early (it was only midnight, after all) and got a spot in the front row.

I stayed planted there for a few hours, sipping red wine and enjoying the music. The dancers were of various skills and ages, but all moved smoothly and comfortably. The music itself was exactly what I was looking for – old school tango from the thirties and forties. The crowd was roughly half and half foreigners and locals, judging by the mixture of languages I could hear, but I’ve heard there is a large expatriate population in Buenos Aires and so more of them may be locals than I thought.

After an hour or so the floor was cleared and an exceptionally good couple (professionals – they were here with their students, I believe) danced a tanda (set of three to five songs) to wild applause. “Si, senor!” “Otra, otra!” “Bravo!” I stayed there through the next several tandas until a different couple was featured, a couple that I enjoyed watching much less – I took this a sign to move on, as I still had lots to do. One night in Buenos Aires is hardly sufficient.

Half an hour’s walk later, I arrived at a converted warehouse that is known as “La Catedral.” The club was on the second floor – I paid for my ticket at the folding table set up in the entry way and climbed the chipped tile stairs towards the music.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The central room of the warehouse had become the club, and was kept in near darkness except for a few strings of lights hung from wall to wall. The offices surrounding this space are filled with beaten leather couches and low tables where people come to smoke and relax a bit. A bar stretched along the entire opposite wall. I paid for what I thought was a glass of wine and received the entire bottle – after I asked, the bartender gave me a glass as well. Stumbling to an empty table in the dark, I settled in to watch the show.

It was a much younger crowd at La Catedral, and as a consequence the rules of milonga were more relaxed. People got up or sat down in the middle of tandas, wore jeans and T-shirts, and were teaching each other steps at the edges of the dance floor. Looking for a bit of assistance in consuming the entire bottle of wine I’d found myself in possession of, I made friends with another American, two Irish brothers, and a pair of Chilean guys who were quite excited to find out that I knew their country’s cheer (“C-H-I! L-E! Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Viva Chile!”).

The style of dance was less reserved here as well. Perhaps it was just a function of the advancing hour, increasing inebriation, or lowered lighting, but people were dancing with much less restraint. I finally left at almost four thirty in the morning, and they showed no signs of stopping. A few guys I’d seen dancing earlier had acquired instruments, and as I passed them on the stairs they were playing tangos with two guitars and a chromatic harmonica.

Climbing the gangway at six in the morning, I stopped for a moment to admire the glow of the advancing sunrise. Finally, a city that keeps the same hours I do . . .

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