feet1-1280Along Calle Florida, a pedestrianised shopping street in the centre of Buenos Aires, two cries fill the air with the predictability of birdsong. ‘Cambio, cambio,’ goes the call from lone men dotted along the road, black marketeers offering bafflingly high exchange rates to those with US dollars in hand. The other advertisements are more predictable and certainly more legal. ‘Tango show, tango show,’ parrot the ticket hawkers. ‘Tango show, tango show.’

It may be possible to come to Buenos Aires and be unaware of its tango heritage, but you’d probably have to remain in your hotel room for the duration of your stay. It’s the most famous thing to have emerged from the city – although Uruguay, where the photograph of the mural further down the page was taken, makes equal claim to its invention – and undoubtedly the biggest driver of international tourism.

Tango comes in numerous flavours here. An assortment of theatres and dinner-dance palaces stage glossy tango shows at (by Argentinian standards) eye-watering prices. Bars and restaurants all over the city display tango-related decoration and memorabilia; dancehalls advertise dances and classes. In La Boca, a sketchy barrio also famous for its football team, a short street called Caminito offers an unbroken string of gaudy attractions (shops, stalls, restaurants, street dancers in full costume) that together suggest a tango take on Main Street at Disneyland. In the San Telmo apartment where we spent our first 10 days in the city, the soundtrack to our evenings comes from a constant stream of tango music echoing up from Plaza Dorrego below us. While conducting some cursory research for this piece, I even discovered the existence of a form of exercise called, God help me, tangolates.

afronte-1505Many of the flyers for shows, dances and classes are in English, which gives a large clue as to their target audience. But such appearances can deceive; tango remains a point of pride for at least some locals. El Afronte are an 11-piece group, with a powerful front line of four bandoneons, who promote a pair of weekly milongas they stage by playing opposite San Pedro Telmo Church during the neighbourhood’s Sunday market. (Unrelated: they’re the first buskers I’ve ever seen to employ a real piano. My Spanish isn’t strong enough to ask how they get it there every week.) Reflecting the make-up of the market visitors, the audience that horseshoes before them on the cobbles is chiefly imported; CDs are bought with US dollars as often as with pesos. But the next night at their milonga at the nearby Buenos Ayres Club, where the group plays two shortish sets interspersed with lengthy spells when the audience can dance to the more regimented sounds of recorded music, the crowd appears to be at least three-quarters local.

muralA different side of the city’s tango heritage can be found at Los Laureles, a box bar on a streetcorner in the down-at-heel southern neighbourhood of Barracas. Invited by our landlady, we found ourselves the sole outsiders in a room of 100 people – conspicuous enough to be singled out for gentle ribbing by the MC of the evening’s entertainment, the only words spoken in English all night.

The show changes each week, performers passing a hat to raise a wage. We saw an agreeably seat-of-the-pants tribute to the culture of the Río de la Plata, taking in torch song, candombe drumming and even a miniature carnival. For many, though, the show is a warm-up for the apparently more important business to come, when the entertainers leave the floor to the dancers.

As well as being both a style of music and a dance in its own right, a milonga is simply a place where people dance tango. Saturday night at Los Laureles is billed as a milonguita: smaller, more socially cosy and less formal than a milonga, but with many of the same dancefloor rules and rituals. Our landlady is a regular, here each and every week; so, she tells us, are many of the other dancers.

record-1024The DJ, if that’s not too grand a title, pulls a long-playing record from a crate on the windowsill. Resting the sleeve on a music stand so people can see what’s playing, she puts the disc on the record player, starts the turntable and drops the needle on track one. When the side has played out, five or six tracks later, a brief blast of untangoable music known as a cortina (curtain) – Pérez Prado’s Mambo No.5, for instance – signals to everyone on the dancefloor that it’s time to change partners, and the ritual repeats. Tango is a dance first and a style of music very much second. The records played tonight are all of a certain age – spun here at 33-and-a-third, many of them date back to the 78rpm era – and appear important chiefly for their ability to provide dancers with a reliable downbeat.

But what dancers. The most seductive thing about tango is not the seductive nature of it, nor the entrance point it putatively offers into Latino culture, but how achievable it can appear from the sidelines. Ignore the showy, choreographed, big-ticket tangotainments in town, and watch, instead, the regular Joes and Janes – the regular Josés and Juanas – take to the floor. Little sweat is broken, little gymnastic ability is exhibited, few stumbles are made or threatened. It looks, especially if you don’t look too closely at their feet… not easy, far from it, but doable.

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A week earlier, we’d submitted ourselves to a hour-long beginner’s class at El Afronte’s Monday-night milonga, hoping and expecting – what, exactly? Take a piano lesson as an unmusical late starter and you’d be lucky to end it by picking out the first four bars of ‘Three Blind Mice’ with a single finger. We lasted 45 increasingly ugly minutes before giving in to the inevitable. We were the only true beginners on the floor, and no one likes being stuck behind a learner driver.

The dancefloor is the place to be at a milonga. This isn’t meant to be a spectator entertainment; most people here are either dancing or waiting to be asked. But, rather like the nights we’ve spent at the Broken Spoke, a very different but equally traditional dance hall from a culture every bit as alien as this one, there’s great pleasure in watching the improvised grace and style of dancers making the difficult look like a walk in the park, gliding with impossible ease across the chessboard floor of this corner bar with wings on their heels.

from Buenos Aires, Argentina