The setting couldn’t be more perfect. Tango Porteno operates in a converted art deco MGM movie theatre, beautifully restored. The goal is to take us back to the 1920s, to the golden age of tango. Tables are set, patrons enjoying either a full dinner or – like me – a couple empanadas and a glass of Argentine wine, eager to lose ourselves in an evening of sultry dance, song, and music.
The show begins just after 10pm, and the theatre is mostly full. Over the next hour and a bit, we will be delighted by a series of vignettes featuring fifteen total dancers, a six piece tango band, and one spectacular singer. The sets are complicated, providing a sense of space. One series of dances takes place in a park, another in a plaza, and others in ballrooms or bedrooms. Props are utilized, giving the dancers the feel of everyday people, just ones with significantly more rhythm and grace than those I know.
Tango is thought to have been developed here in Buenos Aires in the late nineteenth century, though nobody seems to know for sure. Originally looked down on by the upper crust of Argentine society in favor of the waltz, it gained popularity over the next thirty years, gradually becoming the dance and musical style of choice both here and across the Rio de la Plata in Montevideo, Uruguay, where it also shares special status. Exported to Europe, it evolved into a ballroom dance, although ballroom tango and true Argentine tango are different.
Ballroom tango has a specific beat, an eight-count of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow, while true Argentine tango is much more free-form. Some tangos in the show use the traditional beat, while others sound and feel significantly different. Ballroom tango is danced with long strides, taking couples all over a floor. Argentine tango can at times be performed almost in place, the steps being done around one’s partner as opposed to through true spatial movement. Argentine tango features kicks of the legs, a sultry combination of movements around one’s partner, and even between the legs of one’s partner, while ballroom tango is rooted more heavily in strides between bodies.
It is these kicks that most capture me. It is playful, sexy, graceful, and adds a sense of movement that simple turns and steps lack. It is also amazing that nobody seems to injure his or her partner, because even with a well-rehearsed routine it would seem that one slightly misplaced limb could result in serious damage. Lifts add to the wonder, and the athleticism necessary to do any of the routines is awe-inspiring.
At Tango Porteno, the band is on a platform above the stage, and at three different times, the dancers and singer give way entirely to the musicians, who seem to be having just as much fun as the audience. A piano, an upright bass, two violins, and two accordions make for a unique sound. The singer, who accompanies dancers at times and is solo at others, is an operatic bass, with a voice that could easily fill the room even without his microphone. I only wish I were able to understand the words, though feelings of loss and sadness come through.
Of course, Tango Porteno is only one of many places around Buenos Aires to see tango performed. More than a dozen theatres cater mainly – I would guess – to tourists, while street shows happen in plazas for passers-by. Public art even features the iconic dance form.
And tango is still an evolving art in Argentina, and around the world. It is taught here in studios, though unfortunately I am not doing a lesson this time, and danced both to traditional tango music and to modern Argentine beats. Tango is even danced to hip hop by the youth.
My show features six couples, with each seeming to be the focal point for one of the vignettes. (Unfortunately my favorite routine was one done under a red strobe, so I don’t have any photos.) Additionally, three dancers (one woman and two men) did an incredible number with what almost appears like ropes with balls on the ends that they’d spin, letting the balls hit the ground with the beat. It was reminiscent of Polynesian dance, and I wonder if something in that is taken from the African or native tribal dances that form part of the basis of tango.
As the show draws to an end, with standing ovations for the dancers, singer, musicians, and even the servers who refilled wine glasses all show long, I take another look around. For most of us, I would guess this was our first experience with Argentine tango. But hopefully not our last. We glance at the art deco theatre, and exit to the bright lights of Buenos Aires’ main drag, Avenida 9 de Julio, and a city lit up at night, the beats of the music and visions of the sultry dance echoing in our heads.
Thank you so much to Tango Porteno for hosting me for a truly wonderful evening of tango!
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