Once again, Strictly Come Dancing has locked British viewers in its tight embrace. Tonight sees the finalists – Alexandra, Debbie, Gemma and Joe – battle for the Glitterball trophy while the nation, in the time-honoured tradition of wallflowers everywhere, sits on its backside and ogles vicariously the kicks, flicks and spins of four celebrities and their talented, tolerant, trusted teachers.
Shamefully, I’ve been doing something similar for 25 years. Despite living in Buenos Aires – the cradle of Argentine tango – for a decade and revisiting time and again, and, even, learning to love the music of Astor Piazzolla and other legendary maestros, I never took to the floor.
Why? A long story. But I think I can put it down to an oversensitivity to others’ irony. As an expat in my 20s and 30s I had the kinds of male friends who dissed any kind of social life other than steaks, booze, clubbing, and banter. I was young, repressed, ignorant. Like those millions of Strictly fans, I always found it easier to let others do the hard work, leap into the limelight, take on the challenge of… what?
Nothing less than the sharing of tight space with another person’s entire body, of matching their most intimate movements with your own, of communicating fully, while controlling totally, your needs and desires and urges to a person who is as close to you as a lover, but as much an “other” as a complete stranger.
In October I went back to Buenos Aires, aged 51, with the sole aim of taking up the challenge of becoming a man at ease with his dancing self and thus being initiated into the temple of tango: the milonga (dance floor). But tango is uniquely challenging, as was proved to me when I invited a lissom Argentine woman to take a turn with me at a club called Chau Che Clú. I was fresh from a class, in which Nati, my teacher, nodded approvingly at my posture, my “not so English” sense of rhythm and my enthusiasm.
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Yet, when I stepped out with my anonymous partner, I felt stymied by her unyielding calves, plodding footwork and robotic embrace. I smiled at her and confessed, self-deprecatingly, “I’m a beginner. What about you?” She looked up and smiled. “Más o menos.” More or less.
The standard tango set is three songs, known as a tanda – almost 10 minutes of dancing, an epoch of errors and false moves while worrying about what she might mean. When I sat down, I felt relief. But only momentarily, for, as I took my first sip of malbec, I saw my relinquished dance partner accepting an invite from a hoary old tanguero. They moved together as one. They talked – in silence. They were cheeky and yet chaste. They were perfect, more or less.
My reinvention involved the mind as well as the body. I stayed in a tango-themed bedroom at the Legado Mítico hotel. I visited the Museo Mundial del Tango, located above the venerable Café Tortoni. This “world museum” is, in fact, a ramshackle collection of vinyls, dance shoes, fedora hats, sculptures, posters, photographs and instruments, from the fiddle to the bandoneon – the button accordion responsible for tango’s melancholy air.
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From here, I travelled on the underground to Carlos Gardel station to see the Carlos Gardel museum. Newly refurbished, it reopened this year for the centenary of his debut record, Mi Noche Triste, which many experts consider to be the first true tango song.
During the Twenties and Thirties, Gardel embodied a generation’s dreams – the luckless migrants who had come from all over to find themselves in a city short on women, big on bad behaviour, and riven by class and racial divisions.
They missed their homes, families, food, language, friends. Gardel gifted them quintessential songs of exile. Besides photos, film clips, clothing and other memorabilia, the museum had tablets and headphones loaded with 893 Gardel songs. I spent half a day lost in his life and lilting lyricism.
In the evening, I went to a moody old bar I know – Lo de Roberto – to watch a tango guitarist pluck as his friend intoned a medley of melancholy standards: The Last Binge, Nostalgias, Solitude. My feet tapped. My heart beat 2/4 time. My sorrows wouldn’t dissipate. It was time to step out on to the dance floor.
A lovely teacher-cum-guide named Laura escorted me to a dance school. “Tango is a way of life,” she said. “It’s not just something you do on the dance floor. My teacher used to say it was ‘mind, heart and legs’. It cuts across all nations and cultures.”
As she walked me gently around the mirrored room, to thumping orchestral numbers by Roberto Firpo, Carlos di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese, she divulged the five pillars of tangology: one, everything is transmitted through the embrace; two, learn to wait for your partner to complete her move; three, smell nice, because tango is intimate; four, as a man, be patient – you’re the leader and have a lot to learn; five, learn to feel – as tango is, above all, a feeling that you dance.
Being a “leader” was deceptively easy while dancing with an expert like Laura. She made me feel empowered even when I was actually taking cues from her. But I grasped a few more of the basic rules. I learned to keep the soles of my feet close to the floor, not to look around, to travel anti-clockwise round the floor, and to dissociate – that is, let my legs do one thing while my upper body does another.
It was Laura who took me to the Chau Che Clú (meaning “Bye Buddy Club”), where I had the less than successful turn with the anonymous and ambivalent stranger. But the outing was otherwise a real high point of my trip thanks to a concert featuring no less than three tango bands. There has been, of late, a revival in Buenos Aires of the so-called orquesta típica, the classic line-up of strings, piano, guitar and as many as five bandoneons.
The musicianship was astonishing. I was transported back to Argentina pre-Perón, pre-jackboots and generals – a world of cabarets, high culture, belle époque buildings and Borges’ metaphysical homages to his beloved Buenos Aires. This was a proper milonga, with live music. But, shamefully, I didn’t get up. I don’t know why. I wanted to. I wanted to have danced. But I ended up watching, wining and dining – a rather pathetic, passive observer, really, and a reversion to my safe old self.
All was not lost, not quite. For, just it has always taken two to tango, it took two cities to invent the dance of eternal embrace. On the Monday morning, I took the fast catamaran across the mighty Rio de la Plata.
There were tourists heading for the Atlantic coast beaches. Suits going to meetings. I was heading to Montevideo, the small and serene riverside capital, to master some moves among the mellow mate-drinking folk of Uruguay. Once again, my warm-up involved head stuff. I visited a newly opened museum dedicated to La Cumparsita, the most famous of all tango tunes, written by local boy Gerardo Matos Rodríguez.
It was first performed at a bar that stood on the same site in 1917. It’s the dum-dum-DUM-dum one we associate with melodramatic, stiff-armed couples.
“The song is the most famous artistic creation of Uruguay, yet most people round the world do not know it’s Uruguayan,” said Monica Kaphammel, the museum director, referencing the bitter rivalry between her diminutive homeland and its megasized neighbour.
“For Uruguayans, hearing it is something as natural and familiar as gazing at the farmland. The song’s simplicity is the secret of its magic.”
I chatted to Julio Frade, a veteran pianist who once shared the stage with Astor Piazzolla. I had lunch at Facal, and sat beside a bronze of Carlos Gardel. Another bone of contention: Argentines say he was born in Toulouse and raised in Argentina; Uruguayans insist he was born near the pampas town of Tacurembó, in northern Uruguay. Perhaps they could sort out their differences with a dance-a-thon.
Natalia “Tati” Román came to give me a two-hour intensive lesson at my lovely hotel, Alma Histórica, where I was staying in another tango-themed room, this time dedicated to legendary crooner Julio Sosa. The professional dancer was full of energy and wit and oozed attitude. She was also quite tall for a Latina; as I’m 6ft 3in, that’s quite a sell. She wore 3in, dagger-thin heels and smelled of jasmine and oranges.
I didn’t have time to marry her, but after we made our introductions, she began screaming at me: “I love you! I love you, but I’m leaving.”
“No I don’t! I don’t want you!”
“You have betrayed me!!”
She tugged at my arm, pushed me away, then insisted I beg her. I was awkward and English and dropped to my knees obediently. Her role-play got my pulse pounding.
“You can’t dance tango unless you feel it,” she explained. “You can’t dance tango without those big emotions. Now come here and embrace me. Don’t look, just feel your way!”
I approached, and when I procrastinated, she said I had to place my right hand on her bra strap – outside – with my left hovering at the level of her eyes. “Two people have to find one another in a given place,” she said. “But feel the floor too, imagine gravity is pushing you down, really feel the space. Stop shuffling! Don’t move your hips! Watch me!”
So much for mellow – but I began to really enjoy myself.
“It’s a dance that empowers both men and women,” she said, mid-step. “I believe totally in equality. Tango is a long journey, but it’s one you have to take.”
Hot, happy, humbled, I confessed: “I feel I’ve so much to learn.”
“Tango is patient,” she said. “It’ll wait for you.”
She took me to a wonderfully colourful venue with deep connections to the golden age of tango called Baar Fun Fun. One of her male friends was a dancer and I watched him and his female partner do amazing things on a stage the size of a telephone box.
The following evening, brimming with newfound self-assuredness, I invited Tati to join me for dinner at a show in another great place, Primuseum, a slightly mad museum of Primus stoves and tango paraphernalia. We had a delicious meal of barbecued meat and offal, drank a bottle of the local tannat, and enjoyed some superb music.
After only eight days on the banks of the river Plate, I’d got closer to tango than I had in 10 years. I was too contented to feel ashamed of this fact.
The band played song after song. I recognised the tunes. I knew the words. Then, they began Libertango, the zingy, zigzagging Piazzolla composition made into a smash by Grace Jones.
“Bailamos?” I asked. “Shall we dance?”
No, she didn’t say that. Instead, I stood up, Tati did, and, somehow, we spun and stepped and flicked and paraded around the tiny area beside our table. We even got another couple to dance beside us. If that’s not being a “leader”, then what is?
The next, and final, song was La Cumparsita. It had to be. It was scripted. By God. As, sometimes, travel seems to be.
I went back to my hotel, and then flew home to England, with a sense of fulfilment. South America is no longer about conquistadores and their macho conquests.
But I had overcome a small but significant obstacle wedged in my sensibility. I had begun to understand, late in the day perhaps, that you can’t really live Buenos Aires or Montevideo unless you’re willing to stand up and play some part. I was a tanguero, sort of, at last. I had finally let music become more than a mental event, and dance something other than a spectacle enjoyed by others.
Take note, Strictly fans: when the show concludes tonight, that doesn’t mean the dance is over. Not at all. It means that the floor is empty, waiting for you to turn the telly off.
A nine-day tango-focused holiday with Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk, 020 8600 1881), including three nights each at Legado Mítico in BA and Alma Histórica in Montevideo starts from £2,336 per person. The price includes flights, ferry, tango lessons, an evening at Rojo Tango in BA and dinner at Primuseum in Montevideo.