Warning: Dark! Read if you dare!
The Tango Tourist should expect tears in Argentina. One’s own. It’s a given that before the trip is over, there will be sobs in the restrooms, or in the late night dark of a hotel, or choked back and swallowed in public. The passion of the music, the dance of close embrace and tangled legs and pheromones, as well as the Latin culture from which tango springs, make feelings and normally suppressed emotions and longings rise to the surface.
At a milonga in Buenos Aires, I may be invited to dance or not. And I may never know if it’s because of how I look, where I sit, with whom I sit, my age, my clothes, if I’ve been seen before--and yes, also how I dance.
The importance of outward appearance is one reason Argentina is the plastic surgery capital of the world. (And perhaps why it’s the psychoanalyst capital as well—one shrink for every eight Argentines.)
Possibly the best women dancers are the ones I see sitting alone at their tables with a glass of wine and a cigarette, but are partnerless and are now too old to receive many invitations.
On the other hand, the bright side, people come to dance in the milongas with disabilities, arms in casts, patches on eyes. Remember Al Pacino’s blind tango in “Scent of a Woman?” Not unlikely at all. One of my favorite partners is an old, fat, bald man a head shorter than I am. I love to dance with him because of his feeling and sensitivity to the music, his secure balance, his musicality, his pure joy of the dance--he is not at all a part of the Dark Side (as far as I can tell).
The scene can be very hot, very sensual, and very dangerous.
Like a viper, it can pierce your soul and spirit. –Edie Espinoza
In Buenos Aires where most serious tango dancers end up at least once, the dark side of the milongas isn’t apparent at first. Just like me on my first visit in 1997, the female tango tourist looks around at the many good dancers who are eying her as fresh meat, and feels like she’s died and already in paradise. But I’ve learned how many are either buying or selling, and several are doing both. At first glance, it is all so wonderful and artful and everyone is there because they love to dance. Observing and participating in the Romance of Tango in Buenos Aires, the Real Empanada. Wow.
While the love and skill of tango permeates the tango salon, now I know that under the facade are ambition, desperation, insecurity, frustration, poverty, buying and selling of favors and dancing, jealousy, backstabbing, deceit, lying, people using people, manipulation, self-centeredness, --and greed for both money and attention. For many dancers in Argentina, their bodies, their dance skills, and talent for charm are all that they own in this world. Who can blame them for marketing and selling what they have in a country where jobs are few and economic disaster is a fact of recent history?
For tourists who have saved up and traveled so far to spend their entire year's vacation of two weeks in the milongas of Buenos Aires, they just want to have some fun, gosh darn it, and dance. Who can blame them for what they do? Female tourists learn that they have to dress as short, tight, and low as possible in order to dance, and to smile, smile, smile. And that in addition to selling themselves, they can also buy partners by hiring taxi dancers, taking high priced private lessons, inviting them for meals, giving them presents and perhaps a ticket to the U.S. or Stockholm, as well as cold cash.
Sex is also a commodity which is bartered, bought and sold by both genders. The local tangueras hate the women tango tourists because their men rush after them. The local men think the foreigners are rich, sex-starved, and at the very least, they are only staying a few weeks and then will be gone, a real plus to their popularity.
Male tourists are not immune either, to the charms of local dancers who have ulterior motives. And even if they don’t have something larger in mind than a nice dinner in a good restaurant, the porteñas welcome the tango male tourist with open arms, especially in the recent hard times. Everyone is a teacher. Many of the traveling teachers are making a living teaching Argentine Tango to the starry-eyed in far away places. Besides Argentine beef, tango is the one thing foreigners are buying.
To imagine that tango isn't commercialized, that Waikiki Beach is just like it was before the war, and that you never see beer cans and fast food wrappers in the canals of Venice, is to not be in the real world. Buenos Aires isn't Disneyland. Just because the Confiteria Ideal has been in all the tango movies doesn't mean it's a stage set. At the milongas are real people, with all the attributes of anyone else, good and bad. Relationships of ALL kinds form and break apart here to the music of Tanturi and D'Arienzo.
Life isn't a cabaret, my friends, it's a milonga.
For another perspective, check out The Tango Goddess' posts on Learning the Milonga Codes the Hard Way, and Of Milongueros y Milongueras.