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.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Tango: The Dark Side

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.


Anonymous said...

Brava! Very well written.
I definitely saw some of the dark side when I was down there, and I guess because it was just so real and so part of the atmosphere, I didn't feel too surprised.

Disturbed? Yeah. But not surprised.
Granted, I saw more of the bright side than anything, but oh yes, that dark side is there and will rear its head at you. And yes, I cried in the bathroom at Gricel on my last night in Buenos Aires. (The bright side of that is that concerned Portenas made sure I was okay when I came out of the stall)

I thankfully didn't have to "tramp out" my clothes to get dances... but I observed some very sad things. Lost people, so changed from plastic surgery that I'm sure their own families wouldn't recognize them...some used drugs...

The humerous side was when someone's Taxi dancer tried to take a break from his job to dance with me. I said no! Goodness, what would people have thought? Then there's the fact of everybody watching every little move you make. Really made me think about my posture, facial express, etc.

I recounted some of the darker things about Tango (as well as some of the sad, tragic things of Buenos Aires) I saw to friends up here and while most weren't to surprised and were ever more curious, others didn't believe me, didn't want to. One person said, "I don't want to think of Buenos Aires that way, or I won't want to go."

Is it a North American cultural thing? Staying happy and focus only on the positive, no matter how far it takes us from reality? Que se yo.
Sorry to have rambled.. ;-)

tangocherie said...

Hi Tina,
Thanks for the great comment! And it's not a ramble at all, but very interesting to read your own observations.

To reply to your question about happy Tango Gringo, here's a quote from an earlier post:

"... a serious dance with emotional complexities, and so people’s faces sometimes look reflective or even grim as all their energies turn inward. The American style of whatever dance form is happy, smiling and outgoing and we look and feel at home in a cheerful swing, foxtrot, or cha cha. We can even converse with our partners, too, something that is never done in Argentine tango while dancing."

Un beso grande!

Anonymous said...

Tina's already said a lot of what I was about to say - crying in the bathroom. Well, I haven't actually cried yet but definitely have endured a couple moments of utter humiliation of being walked off the floor. It was my own fault for being so hung up on the fact that "everybody sees everything." I thought if I made one teeny tiny little mistake, I was doomed to purgatory forever.
I find milongas in Buenos Aires to be the epitome of life itself, a microcosm of all that is good and bad. That's actually the appeal for me. For isn't that what tango is? The embodiment of joy and pain, beauty and ugliness of life. I've also travelled to and lived in third world countries before so it wasn't such a shock or a novelty for me to see the dark side. I've seen worse.
One thing that I did struggle with was dancing with older men who were clearly cokeheads. I don't know if I can ever get used to that. It creeps me out to dance with someone who's on drugs. There's something painfully heartbreaking, desperate and pathetic about an 60-something year old man high on coke.
I've always wanted to sit down and have a conversation with the washroom ladies, they must have seen it all and have amazing stories to tell.

Elizabeth Brinton said...

O.K. Now you are freaking me out a little.

tangocherie said...

Elizabeth, you didn't heed the warning! :)
I had a feeling I should put a special one for you: Danger for sensitive, romantic souls like Elizaabeth!

Don't worry, it's like Caroline says, the milonga (tango) is a microcosm of all that is good and bad in life. Sure there are cokeheads, but there are sane people too. I've met some darn wonderful people in the milonga.

Anonymous said...

excellent post. we need more like this one -- brutally honest and real.

i guess sitting and being observant is more important than ever. it seems that taxi driver could have created problems for you!

i've always wondered how difficult it is to avoid situations like those, as a first-time visiter to BA. how to know if a dance shouldn't be accepted? how to know which couples are in romatic relations, so you don't give them the cabeceo? how to avoid cultural collisions, like accepting an "invitation to coffee"?

i would hate my first B.A. experience to be with a herd of tourists. but alone, it seems i'd be crying in the bathroom 5 minutes off the plane. :(

tangocherie said...

Don't worry, Blanche. You don't have to know who's who, or with who, or anything about the people. You just need to understand the codigos of how to accept an invitation, how to behave while dancing, how much you can dance with the same man, etc. And then you just smile sweetly and say no to anything else. It's not your problem if they have a girlfriend or whatever.

Just sit with me and I'll explain.

BTW, I don't understand what you meant by the taxi driver. I referred in the post to taxi dancers, but they are harmless (Ruben does it, and so do I on occasion.)

Anonymous said...

Nuit - about couples, don't worry it's pretty easy to tell who you can invite down there, as they have the men on one side of the room, and the women on the other. Couples and groups sit in the other spaces. It's really quite fun.

Anonymous said...

chère cherie!

OOPS, i meant "taxi dancer", haha. (living in nyc, i am always cursing at the "taxi drivers", who honk at anything for no apparent reason at all times of the day and night.)

and, um, i also confused what tina said about refusing that taxi dancer who wanted to dance with her, and thought it was in the original post. (argh, those darn manhattan cabbies are making me lose my mind!)

tina -- i love that! women on one side, and men on the other. not only is it practical for the cabeceo, but it would prevent any unwanted morons from sitting at a woman's table and bothering her for a dance/date/number. something which, unfortunately, always happens over here in the states...

Elizabeth Brinton said...

Cherie, the warnings just entice me...

Anonymous said...

Hey Cherie,
The Dark Side of Life exists everywhere, even beyond the BA milongas :-)

Many people have marveled that I never once had the urge (ok, maybe once - fleetingly) to pack up my stilletos and move to Buenos Aires where I could satisfy my habit 24/7. There are two reasons for my not doing so:

1 - I grew up in Mexico and am completely and thoroughly familiar with Latin culture, even considering myself a Latina hybrid. So much of the behaviors you describe are more Latino than they are strictly "Tango". Yes, Latinos are a ton of fun (generous, gregarious, spontaneous, etc.), but they also have their dark side, which manifests in the many behaviors you've described. Been there, done that.

2 - Going from a visiting curiosity to a permanent fixture. As a temporary guest, I can indulge in the luxury of overlooking the crud in the corners, the grime on the fixtures. And as a guest, I marvel at the complex rituals and happily indulge them. I also am exceedingly fortunate to be recognized as an advanced dancer and enjoy numerous quality tandas without ever thinking about my partners reputation, intentions, or extra-curricular liaisons. The single most important thing to remember as a guest is to be respectful of the local customs and not try to impose your imported attitude. If "when in Rome"... you'll have a grand time. The infighting, gossip, pettiness, meanness, and seating pseudo-socio-political dramas I can get at home.

Ultimately, whether at home or abroad, each of us has the power to decide whether or not to roll in the grime.

tangocherie said...

Hi Johanna,

Yes, you are so correct! To quote the post, "At the milongas are real people, with all the attributes of anyone else, good and bad."

It's just that
1) The emotions and the abrazo of tango open you up;
2) Tourists, only being here a short time, are more vulnerable;
3) Some places are grimier than others.


Anonymous said...

For sure. Hey, some people can't live without grime!

But I think the biggest, most common mistake most people of both genders make is the inability to distinguish between what happens on the dance floor (Vegas) and real life. It is the entire premise of my book; how to achieve that bliss off the dance floor

tangobaby said...

This post and all of these comments really crystallize the essence of why tango in Buenos Aires is so powerfully affecting.

To me being in BA, tango permeates you in every second whether you are dancing or not because it is such an important part of the culture. I felt much more alive and engaged on some level, even though not all of my experiences were pleasant. But all of the experiences were important. It did take a lot of emotional energy to keep up the pace, though. I could not live with that type of intensity for a prolonged time. I think we Americans crave that intensity of feeling because our own culture doesn't give it to us.

Malena said...

So it turns out there is a positive side to tango outside of BsAs after all! Being more sterile, it is naturally devoid of the darkest aspects. Since here in US it is not an intricate part of the culture, we have less of the negative aspects you were describing, Cherie. But then hand in hand comes the fact that we don't have too much of the authenticity of tango either. Tango catch 22.
I remember Borges having said that some pure form of tango must await us in the realms past this life. Until then, let's be strong and pursue our dreams, wherever they may lead us...
Saludos, M