Archive for February 3rd, 2011

In Spanish, the word for the incline of one’s head that is a nod is a “cabezada”.  But a nod can be so much more than a nod when you are in Buenos Aires.    For the gesture is central to the ritualized dance of tango, a dance that is intertwined with Buenos Aires in the imagination of travellers.

The Dance:

Every visitor to BA will experience tango:  on the street, at a glitzy dinner show, or in the local dance halls called “Milongas”. We were fortunate enough to spend our tango evening as the guest of an Australian who has made tango his passion, indeed his life.   The venue was the Milonga Canning,  close to the charming and lively neighbourhood of Palermo Soho where we stayed for several days. Milongas are open every night, but regulars have their favourites for each night of the week, and will show up around midnight, often dancing until 3 or 4. Little alcohol is consumed and there is no sign that the dance is prelude to something more. For these enthusiasts, the dance is the end in itself.  They hold their heads high, frames seemingly rigid, while they effortlessly circle the dance floor, often with eyes closed, their still upper bodies belying the intricate footwork taking place below.  There are no dramatic sweeps across the dance floor with rose in teeth:  these movements are often dramatic but are complex, studied and more graceful than erotic.

The Rules:

We have never taken a lesson, (and frankly, a year of lessons in Canada would not be sufficient to brave the floor in this kind of venue) and so put our chairs in to face the table, not the dance floor. The placement of chairs only one part of the unspoken code of the tango.  The invitation to dance, and the subsequent agreement or refusal is proscribed as well.  A man will see a woman across the floor that he wishes to dance with, and will attempt to get her eye.  She may already be dancing or sitting between sets. Each set is at four dances, and you must dance all four dances with the same partner or risk insulting him or her terribly.

The Invitation (The “cabezada”)

After making eye contact, the man nods slowly to indicate an invitation, the “cabezada”.  If the lady is disinclined to dance with him, she does so with a casual look up and away over her shoulder.  Since the man has made the nod as he walks towards the lady (the music has started and time is wasting!) the subtle look away allows him to save face and walk on, none the wiser that he has been turned down. Indeed in those traditional Milongas, the ladies were all seated in a row outside the men’s room, so the spurned partner could simply walk on to the facilities, no one the wiser. If she agrees, she simply takes his extended hand as he pauses in front of her chair

The Partner:

So how does a man decide whom to choose?  (Women do not ask men to dance in a Milonga;  tango is a very traditional dance at heart) Well, it may be his wife or novia, but more likely not.  People come to dance, not to couple or create couples.  One thing that struck us about the evening is that age and age differences are no barrier to tango.  Women of more than a certain age danced with men on the fresh side of 30.  Women danced together as seriously as they danced with men.  In one case, a couple of petite Asian ladies danced together most of the evening, their eyes closed, and heads touching lightly just at the forehead. Their moves were so complex and their approach so delicate and refined, our host was desperate to catch the eye of the prettiest one who was dancing lead. Most often, dancers will recognize each other from another nights’ Milonga, or they have seen the other dance that evening.

Hence, the first set of the evening is critical. That is where the man demonstrates his skill at covering the floor, mastering tempo changes, and most important, showing off the lady to best advantage.  The lady for her part shows her willingness to be led, her ability to move her feet effortlessly in intricate moves around his feet and legs, and her flexibility and stamina.  If you or your partner makes a bad or indifferent showing early in the night, your options will be limited!

Women wear dresses, or wide pants with slits up to the thigh, to show off toned, hyper – extended legs terminating in elegant yet impossibly high heels.  Either tango leads to great legs or it is a pre-requisite for the dance. Either way, it certainly seemed to be much more fun than aerobics class back home!

The Shoes:

There are of course special shoes for tango (all proper sports have specialized equipment after all!) which are have higher heels than ball room dance shoes, and have very flexible soles, allowing the variety of weight shifting and extensions.

In our funky neighbourhood of Palermo, there were an astonishing number of stores featuring the original work of independent shoe designers.  Yes, of course, a country that produces so much beef has a lot of cow hide as a by-product. But that alone does not account for the sheer brilliance of some of these shoes.  Architectural constructs in striking colours, mixing shiny patent leather and glowing kid: I joked about buying a set of three to display on my living room mantel,  they were that close to works of art! And there were purses in every colour, style, and size.   I restricted myself to three but could have bought a dozen and never repeated a theme.  Did I mention that very few of these shoes or handbags topped $100 USD each?

If you have always wanted to have a very well made and convincing knockoff of a Jimmy Choo, Louboutin or Manolo, you will also not be disappointed.  I felt like SJP before she started making bad movies!

Yet another reason for women (and men too I suppose) to love Buenos Aires is that they appreciate women of a generous figure. There is no fear of the muffin top here, and bountiful booties abound. Perhaps it can be attributed to the regular consumption of beef, likely the highest in the world per person, but there were fewer obese people there than I have seen in other Latin or South American countries.  Gyms are everywhere, but pastries are a national obsession as well, and most portenos (the correct name for residents of BA) eat 4 or 5 times a day.  You and I will find it easy to get into one of the best and most popular restaurants at 8:30 or 9 pm because the locals won’t be there until midnight.

What else to love in this beautiful city? The stunning architecture, the fabulous food, funky street cafe’s, elegant boutique hotels, the excellent shopping, and I could go on. But I will do one better:  put Buenos Aires on your “bucket list” as it was on Ben’s, and experience one of the world’s most enjoyable cities for travelers. You cannot possibly be disappointed.

p.s. If you are interested and are going soon, I will gladly share my “finds” for shoes, bags, hotels, restaurants etc. I

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