It’s Midnight in Buenos Aires when the couple climb the dark stairs, she in a dress that flares like a flower, he in jeans and a white shirt. They find themselves in a dim, vaulted room, a former silo turned milonga, or tango club, known as La Catedral.
They kiss and setoff in opposite directions. A new song begins: voluptuous bandoneon, melancholy violin. Couples glide across the parquet floor, the women swiveling on the balls of their feet in strappy tango heels, ankles flicking around their partners’ legs.
Sipping her wine at one of the small tables, the wife sees her husband make eye contact with a woman in a red sequin dress. She waits until she herself gets a look, returns it, and soon she and her husband are crossing each other on the dance floor, their temples pressed against a stranger’s.
Meanwhile, a young blond woman sits at another table, alone. She’s an agile dancer, she gets plenty of invitations, but she waits patiently for the man she deems the best tango dancer in the city to arrive.
Tango is all about flirting with the forbidden. Born in the late 1880s among urbanized gauchos in houses of ill repute at the edges of Buenos Aires, tango, like jazz, is a fusion of elements: the jerky, athletic contortions of the candombe, a dance developed by enslaved Africans; European imports such as the polka and mazurka; and the Cuban-Spanish rhythm habanera.
Once considered an over sexualized, low-life dance, tango was initially rejected by Argentinian society, until the rich kids, who also frequented the casas malas, brought it to Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, where it became all the rage before World War I, provoking the Argentinian elite to reclaim it.
Led by Carlos Gardel, the singer “with the tear in his throat,” its popularity peaked in mid-century, only to be revived more recently with innovations like electronic tango and queer tango, inspiring young people to flood back to the dance.
At one recent tango matinee, two women with their hands on each other’s sacrum floated across the room, the younger one, in jean shorts and tango shoes, with a tattoo of a butterfly on her bade, taking the lead; the other, in black high-tops, striding swiftly backward.
But the music is not only played at the 30-plus balls that thrum into the early morning on any given day. It permeates the city’s cafes and bars and any taxi you step into. A tango, it is said, is a Greek tragedy in three minutes.
The lyrics tell stories of nostalgia, sweet and bitter. A man has been wounded by a woman, once a simple girl who lived in a boarding house but has gone on to embrace a life of luxury in the arms of many suitors.
The Argentine exiled in Paris longs for his beloved Buenos Aires—the street corner, the general store. “To study tango is to study the vicissitudes of the Argentine soul,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote.
With their Italian roots, Argentines have inherited a taste for intensity and drama, though standing outside the European tradition has given them a playfully transgressive edge.
According to the tango dancer and choreographer known as El Pulpo, “Tango is not just about sadness, it’s about the pleasure of being sad.”
Finally, at three in the morning, the dancer whom the pretty blond has waited for all night makes his entrance at La Catedral. He’s 70 years old, short, balding, a bit portly, but none of that makes any difference in tango.
The more experienced two dancers become, the more they can say to each other, as with a foreign language. You start with stock phrases, you understand the literal meanings of the words, then the more you know, the subtler the communication gets. The music begins: “First you learn to suffer / Then to love, then to leave, / And finally to walk without thinking.”
The so-called tango face that professional dancers don for performances is all fiery gazes and brooding mouths. But as the blond woman is spun around the room, her eyes remain closed above a serene smile.