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Buenos Aires Folktales

I thought that I'd write about popular stories about Buenos Aires that I was told before I went there and still see perpetuated on websites in many countries. Some tango scenes that we've visited seem to be trying to be more BA than BA, itself.

I need to highlight, in case it's not obvious, that this post is based on my experience on many trips to BA since 2004. I've watched and danced in a wide range of milongas, from very touristy through to almost completely local, in downtown and in the barrios. Perhaps these stories came from before that time but I can't really comment on that.

Your experiences may conflict with mine, particularly if they extend to before that time, but that's the great thing about the internet. Write about it and tell me stories of your own.

The Short Version

A condensed version of this post can be contained in the experience of a dear friend on her first visit from New York.. We arranged to meet at a particular milonga and we danced a little and watched for a while until she turned to me and said, "Look, we need to go somewhere where there are locals. This is just a room full of tourists. We need to go where the good dancers are."

I gently told her that we were the only tourists in the room and she replied, "But they are terrible, terrible dancers! Look, we must be in the wrong place!"

I agreed to move on to another milonga and in the taxi she explained, "You need to understand that for 12 years I've been told amazing stories about Buenoa Aires. The men are all amazing leaders, the old men wear suits with carnations, they are very polite and dance with all the ladies, everyone dances in perfect lanes on the dance floor, there are no collisions. Nothing at that milonga fit any of that description. We MUST be in the wrong place!"

I replied that yes, I'd been told all those things as well, and that simply wasn't my experience of BA.

We arrived at the new milonga and after our first tanda I asked how her experience measured up to her expectations.

"It's a war zone! There's only a marginal line of dance, there are collisions all the time! By locals hitting us, not the other way around!"

I told her that both our first venue and our second venue were perfectly normal in my experience, and that much of what I'd been told about BA bore little resemblance to what I found.

The Longer Version

I thought that I'd write about a few of the more common disparities that I read and hear about, starting with…

La Ronda (Line of Dance)

Most of what I hear about la ronda as performed in BA is along the line of 'people dancing in perfect lanes with the best dancers on the outside, beginners in the middle', 'no collisions', and most spectacularly of all, 'the whole floor moving as a single organism'.

I. Have. Never. Seen. This.

There's a wide range of ability of leaders and followers among the locals and while there is a general anti-clockwise movement, as usual around the world, they are pretty much moving to where there is space, also as usual around the world. I need to qualify this with an experience in Germany where an almost completely empty and very large dance floor was slowly filled by one couple at a time, with tens of metres separating each couple, each of whom carefully shuffled their way around the very outside edge of the dance floor. They appeared to have been told a rule about dancing the outside lane and were sticking to it. I've never seen anything like this in BA.

Cabeceo (Catching a Prospective Partner's Eye)

Our first landlady laughed when I first asked her about the cabeceo and told me that I shouldn't be so concerned about it. She was a performance partner of one of the milonguero legends, was a local and had been dancing since 1990. She told me that she heard all kinds of things about the cabeceo from tourists but it was just a way of discreetly asking someone to dance if you did not know them. If you were friends then you should know whether you could go over and ask or not.

I had read that to ask a woman to dance at her table was extremely rude and that men who came to the table to ask should know this, and so were probably bad dancers who couldn't get dances any other way. However I saw kind local men doing this with tourists if they suspected that the women didn't know about cabeceo.

Dance Standard

Oh dear, here's a can of worms.

My view is that much of one's perspective of the standard of dancing in BA depends on one's own level of dancing. When one first goes there it seems like everyone is great but as the lessons and experience roll by over the years then one's perspective changes, as one would expect.

For example, I told a German friend that a Wellington dancer had written back from BA, "Well, it had to happen, eventually. After 4 years of visits to Buenos Aires I FINALLY danced with a porteña (BA local lady) who WASN'T a fantastic dancer!" My German friend burst out laughing and asked if perhaps the guy had walked down a different air bridge off the airplane into a parallel universe.

The standard of dancing varies widely across both the tourist and local dancing populations. Many of the locals cannot afford lessons and a surprising number of porteñas have told me that they didn't need lessons because "Tango is in our blood", as they disconnected from me and walked around on their own. Oh dear.

My wife has had similar experiences with local leaders i.e. a wide variation in ability and with many of the proudest leaders being some of the least enjoyable with whom to dance.

The standard also varies widely between milongas and days of the week. Some say the touristy milongas 'are not the real tango' but I've also been told that many locals dance more in the spring and autumn (prime tourist season, not too hot, not too cold) because the presence of the tourists adds to the flavour of the milongas.

The difference in standard between milongas could be expressed in the number of collisions per tanda. For example, on some nights at El Beso I will be surrounded by couples who can perform a giro within a 1-metre diameter, and at other milongas the majority of couples will easily fill a 3-metre diameter with the same giro.

Guess where I'd rather dance when it gets crowded?

In Closing...

Every tango dancer needs to go to Buenos Aires at least once for at least 3-4 weeks. It is not a tango paradise but is the spiritual home of tango, has an enormous number of teachers and milongas and living the tango tourist lifestyle is absolutely addictive. It will help give them perspective on their own dancing and their home dance scene, and perhaps give them motivation to improve their home scene in some way all their own.

Giving Wellington as an example, there was a constant flow of Wellington dancers to Buenos Aires and back again over the past 10 years due to the simplicity of a 13 hour direct flight from Auckland. Each of those returning dancers brought back a changed perspective, technique, cultural and musical appreciation that substantially improved our local scene.

Ten years ago some dancers returning from Buenos Aires to Wellington abandoned tango in despair that it would ever be as enjoyable in their lifetime. For the past few years local dancers returning from Buenos Aires say that they now appreciate Wellington tango so much more, and the number of travelers to BA has declined as the standard has improved in Wellington.

It's now my favourite place to dance in the world.



  1. Hi Geoff.. this was a fascinating and illuminating post. May I ask what the names of the two milongas referred to in the short version are? And also, what milongas do you dance in generally? I've never been to BA myself but I would be interested to tally your observations with what I've heard elsewhere about the various milongas there.

    I'll be in Wellington in February and am looking forward to it!

  2. Hi Mr T,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I'm loath to identify the first milonga because it was just a club night with very nice, very friendly social dancers out for a a nice evening. In that way it was a typical social club and could have been any one of many in BA. The standard wasn't very good but they weren't worried about that, but my friend had travelled a long way and expected more.
    The second Milonga is certainly big enough to stand on its own two feet: Parakultural at Salon Canning on a Monday. I've met locals who complain about the tourists lowering the standard at places like Canning but in my experience it's the locals, particularly the professional dancers, who are the worst offenders when it comes to collisions and other annoying behaviour.
    The milongas that I've enjoyed most in BA, for a range of reasons, are Cachirulo, Parakultural, Mano a Mano, La Marshal, Los Consagrados, Porteño y Bailarin, El Beso.
    I've been to a lot more but these are the ones that have enjoyed the most, from the perspective of any combination of dance standard, atmosphere, friendliness, music, freedom (eg La Marshal is a gay milonga where my wife can lead me, and a more flamboyant dance style is accepted)

  3. This is a comment by Janis Kenyon of Tango Chamuyo
    Janis has lived and danced in Buenos Aires for a number of years and her website is well worth a visit.

    The codes are clear and have been around for decades so that anyone who observes at a milonga will get the idea.

    To invite a woman at her table shows lack of respect and obligates her to dance. Only those who do not dance well or do not know any better, do so. I ignore them. The worst dancers are the ones who invite the foreigners first. The foreigners don't know who dances well and accept invitations from anyone...that is, until they learn. The men know the foreigners are easy prey for tandas.



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