After eleven years living, dancing, teaching tango, and writing in Buenos Aires, I came home to L.A. in 2014, where I'm reconstructing my life.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

La Confiteria Ideal--the Soul of Tango

La Confitería Ideal is the iconic tango salon of Buenos Aires. When tourists and dancers alike pass through the double doors on Suipacha near Corrientes, they feel in their gut they are entering the historic soul of tango.

However La Ideal spent almost all of its life since it was built in 1912 as a pastry shop and salon de te´, and it wasn't until the 1990s that tango dancing became its raison d'etre. The original owners were pastry chefs and entrepreneurs from Spain, who required that the building be constructed of expensive materials from all over Europe.

The French Fleur de Lys became the enigmatic emblem because at that time all of the expensive buildings in Buenos Aires were influenced by French architectural design, albeit La Belle Epoque of a few decades past. For that reason the premises seem much older than a scant century, and also because it is now derelict and decrepit. The gorgeous cage elevator hasn't worked in decades, and the iconic stained glass pastry quiosco glorieta empty but for the occasional tango shoe display.

The gorgeous elevator that hasn't moved in decades

Emblematic empty display case

I will never forget walking up its marble staircase for the first time, smelling the mustiness, the cat piss, the burning incense lit to hide the odors of a building past its prime. I was a beginning tanguera in a culture that had seen very few tango tourists up to then. The milonga habitués looked upon our tour group from America as exotic creatures from another world, as I suppose we were. That's how we viewed the salon and the dancers of La Ideal.

All of this adds to its faded glamor.

Through the decades it was the place to meet your friends for afternoon tea, particularly after work. It became de riguer for the bourgoisie of Buenos Aires (especially the English) to meet there and have their private parties on Saturdays.

The upstairs ballroom was used for special occasions; the ground floor for tea, coffee, and the delicious pastries La Ideal was famous for, as well as live music. It's said that the miga sandwich was invented there as a copy of English finger sandwiches.

Between 1979 and 1981 it was converted into a café-concert with all types of live music, including a famous all-girl orchestra and The Five Latins. The salon has been visited over the years by many celebrities, such as Maurice Chevalier, Charles Aznavour, Mirta Legrand and Daniel Tinayre, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato, Yoko Ono, Sting, Charly García, Diego Maradona, Julio Bocca, Moria Casán, Willem Dafoe, Robert Duvall, María Félix, Dolores del Río, Vittorio Gassman..
It also has been used as a location for all of the tango movies, so first-time visitors feel a déja-vu, of having dreamed this place. As indeed it is the stuff of dreams--many scenes in my memoir, The Church of Tango, take place in La Ideal.

Lots of rumors surround La Ideal, and no one seems to actually know who owns it--some say the government--but the truth is that it is owned by a private organization that receives no government help to maintain this historic structure. (It is managed by Jorge Vieites Rouco.) Unfortunately, it is falling apart before our eyes, even though it is now proclaimed an official Bar Notable. I wouldn't be surprised if one day a foreigner steps in to save it--in the manner of Versailles in France. Sometimes foreigners value a place's heritage more than the locals.

Several years ago the gigantic central chandelier below the skylight on the first floor, worthy of the Phantom of the Opera, crashed to the floor, and I presume never to be seen again.

My photo from '97: see the huge chandelier? Now gone.

And on Oct 12, 2008--the ceiling falls:

Once upon a time there was the Gran Ciné Ideal (recently a porno theater) next door which insured that the confiteria was even more heavily used before and after film showings.

La Confiteria is at the right of the theater.

And a story which I find fascinating:  originally the ceiling of the ground floor was open in an oval shape matching the skylight, and upstairs was a gallery around this opening for people to look down, and for light and the skylight to be seen from below. Years later the stone dance floor was laid down.

Here you can see the oval on the ceiling of the ground floor that used to be open
When I first visited La Ideal and took my first tango classes in Buenos Aires, there was only one milonga there, the Friday afternoon dance of Diego y Zoraida. Now there are more than twelve milongas every week in the same space, with classes from different teachers every day. Another recent change is that Suipacha has recently been made into a pedestrian street.

A visiting tourist might not actually know what tango is, but feels certain that the tango was born at La Ideal, although tango didn't arrive there until the middle of the 1990s, just shortly before I visited for the first time in 1997. I too thought I saw the ghosts of tangueros of dusty years past in the mirrors lining the walls. The building itself has a haunting presence and a life of its own. May it live forever.

The BBC Documentary

Read more: La Confiteria Ideal


Angelina Tanguera said...

Thank you Cherie - for the history and the link to the doco. I do hope it gets rescued before it falls into complete disrepair it has so many ghosts and such atmosphere.

Chris said...

Thank you for that fond reminder Cherie.

Re the endearing dilapidation...

The first time I danced at Ideal, it was to live music that my date had warned would probably stop if the expected rain was strong. My puzzlement at this was resolved when we met and she explained that in-leaking rain often reached the stage's electrical supply and blew the fuses. The rain that afternoon wasn't enough to blow the fuses - just enough to make puddles on the dance floor. We took extra special care to keep our feet out of those puddles :)

Anonymous said...

Oh Querida Cherie
I was covered in goose bumps reading your wonderful summary of La ideal.
In early 1999 I entered the milonga there on my first day arriving in BsAs. As you wrote ( in other words) we few were admired as novelties and hence learned to dance on the salon floor with many of the besieging milongueros many of whom have since passed on.
Thank you dear Cherie for a voyage down memory lane.

Paul said...

I love this place too, Cherie--I don't think there's anywhere else that does BA's characteristic faded glamor so well as La Ideal. Too bad that amazing cinema facade next door has disappeared!