Dancing in the Cathedral

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’d thought of writing a post about what tango means today in Buenos Aires – whether it was just a half-dead tradition kept on a ventilator for the tourists, or something more vibrant. I’m not going to go into any sort of detailed discussion, though, because a) I don’t know nearly enough to make it worthwhile, and b) Wikipedia is always close at hand.

So I’ve gone for a bit of story-telling instead, which should hopefully shed some light on tango too. Last night, some friends from my house asked me whether I wanted to go to a milonga (a gathering in a café or bar where people listen and dance to tango). This wasn’t a difficult decision to make, and I ended up trumping  their offer by saying I’d go a bit earlier to the place for a dance class and meet them when they got there.

The venue, La catedral, is a warehouse in the district of Almagro which rests, like half of the city, under a web of coloured graffiti. It deserves its name, though. Going inside felt like stepping into a temple to tango, in an alternate dimension. Behind the rusted metal door to the street, I encountered a fat bearded man squeezed behind a shabby table. I asked about the 9 o’clock class; I was just in time.

“The nine o’clock class starts at ten.”  Unforgiving looks from both the man and the cat curled on a half-collapsed sofa in the corner. Fine, I could come back in an hour.

“Or you could take a ticket now and wait upstairs.” Not a question, this. It all seems a bit obvious in retrospect – of course the class would be an hour late, of course I’d have to take a ticket and wait, like you have to for everything else here. I went to buy a magazine to read, paid my 20 pesos, and went upstairs.

The portal to the other dimension must have been just before the first floor. Once through, I found myself in a colossal dance hall with a wooden floor and an enormous vaulted wooden ceiling. On the walls, next to pipes and wires, hung guitars, paintings, bicycle wheels, photographs (I spotted Che, of course). Above the dancefloor, an improvised metal candelabra housed multicoloured bulbs.

I sat down near the bar, changed chair for one that seemed less likely to collapse, and ordered a coffee. There wasn’t enough light at my table (barrel) to read by, but luckily enough my coffee came with a candle. I remember thinking that people must have ruined their eyes in the past. I was just thinking about how the ceiling and its beams reminded me of a Cambridge college dining hall when I noticed that in my copy of Newsweek Argentina there was an article by Lord Eatwell, the President of my college at Cambridge. Strange coincidences, in this dimension.

The tango class was not exactly a success – it took me far too long to work out that my legs are about 50% longer than anyone else’s – but afterwards I found my friends from the house, and we sat drinking wine and watching the dance. It’s wonderfully intimate, and watching couples of all ages enjoy the music and each other’s movements seemed really heart-warming (or maybe that was the wine). A bit later there was a live orquesta típica and singer on the stage, which was piled with layers of boxes, and topped with a enormous poster of the inescapable Carlos Gardel.

There were a fair few tourists there, but plenty of porteños too (and not, I think, just men investigating foreign talent). I decided, at about 2am and with the help of the wine, that tango is in a sense for tourists, that not all young people like it, but that it is clearly a whole lot more than that. Between the music, the lyrics to the songs, and the dance, all of which are constantly changing, there is an entire culture.


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