You’ll have to excuse the blobby photos from milongas. I’m really trying not to take photos this trip. Instead, I’m shooting very short video clips with my phone, and will then edit them into maybe a 5-10 minute overview of the whole trip. This means most of my photos are in fact screengrabs from video, thus not the greatest quality.
The daytime part of the blog is rather brief. We had breakfast in bed, then I lazed (apart from accidentally writing a blog post) while Steph went shoe-shopping for some very nice women’s leading shoes before visiting her Spanish teacher.
I made up for this laziness in the evening, managing one-and-a-bit classes and three milongas …
Milonga 7: Patio de Tango
Another Diego recommendation, he described it as ‘a beautiful, crowded, friendly milonga in an historical place.’ Walking in and seeing the space was a delight!
It’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, parts of which date to 1730. Here’s what Lonely Planet has to say about it:
In colonial times, the Manzana de las Luces was Buenos Aires’ most important center of culture and learning, and today the block still symbolizes education and enlightenment. Two of the five original buildings remain.
There was a milonga class at 6pm, and a tango one at 7pm. I didn’t feel ready to attempt to learn any new milonga steps, so timed my arrival for a few minutes to 7pm. They were finishing the milonga class, and were short of leaders. I had a look at what they were doing, and it looked both easy and somewhat familiar, so I jumped in.
Sure enough, the pattern was simple, and I figured out how to switch between that sequence and the 6-step pattern. It turned out it was familiar because Juan Martin and Stefania introduced it on one of their classes.
The tango lesson followed. I think the lessons mostly attract non-tango tourists: the teachers asked those there for their very first lesson to come into the centre, which was about half the group, and I think most of the rest had had only a handful of lessons. Still, it gave me a chance to ‘pay it forward’ to some newbies.
The lesson was on some funky variations of the cross. They started with the two-step cross, something I’ve been wanting for some time, but although they showed it, we didn’t get the chance to practice it – I get the impression they thought it was too obvious.
I’m aiming to get one simple thing from each class, and tonight it was the second thing they showed. It was simply this (‘simply’ once one of the teachers came to explain it in English):
- Lead the intention of a forward step, but the leader doesn’t step
- When the follower steps back onto her right foot, barrida the left foot into a cross
From there, you can simply walk out of it as you would for any other parallel cross.
There was another version where you started with a forward ocho and then barrida’d the trailing foot, but I let that one slip quietly by. One thing at a time.
Finally, there was a variation on the classic cross where you pivot the follower to the right to end up at right angles and her crossed the other way, but that just looked weird to me even when the teachers did it.
Steph and co had talked before about followers who were ‘fridges.’ I’d never quite been sure what they meant. I like a lot more forward intention from a follower than they do, so wondered whether they just meant this, but today I found out! This woman didn’t respond to a normal lead, didn’t respond to a stronger one, didn’t respond to an exaggerated one. Getting her to take a step really did feel like having to put my shoulder against a fridge.
My next partner was good, though. We had a slightly confused conversation when I asked her if she could speak English and she replied in German. I assumed that meant no, and I summoned up what little remains of my German. She said something else which I didn’t catch so I just smiled and we started dancing. It turned out two songs later that she was convinced she knew me from Berlin. Once we established that she didn’t, she switched to English.
When it was time to switch partners again, I turned to the woman to my right. She spoke English and asked if she could lead. I said sure, but warned her I had all of about five hours of following experience and the last woman who led me in a cross practically had to pick me up and put me back down on the floor. She said that was fine, we could swap, so off we went.
Today, I followed the classic cross easily. I too could lead her easily in the same, but neither of us could lead the barrida: both ways round, the follower’s foot was gone. One of the teachers came over and explained something obvious we’d both missed: what you lead is the intention of a back-step for the follower, but the leader doesn’t move. When the follower takes the step, that frees up the weight on their other foot and then you can do the barrida.
Once we had that, both of us were able to lead it. It would take some practice, of course, but I really liked it! I found instead of walking out of it, a pivot and parada worked well. This is a combination I’m sure I must have seen in classes, but have never done it before.
We decided to remain working together so that we could keep swapping roles. We just danced and then introduced both this and the classic cross every now and then. It seemed to work very easily, but of course we both knew what the leader was aiming to do even if we didn’t know when. The real test will be leading it cold.
I told her I wasn’t interested in trying the ocho version but she was welcome to. She said no, she wanted to get comfortable with the first version. I said in that case I was happy to follow for the rest of the lesson as I was finding it really useful to practice the cross as a follower, so we both happily did that.
It only occurred to me after the lesson that I could put her in touch with Steph via WhatsApp to arrange some role-swapping practice, but she apparently didn’t stay for the milonga – and indeed it seemed most experienced followers also left after the lesson.
That being the case, I decided it was about time to do some ‘paying it forward,’ so danced with a couple of first-lesson beginners. One spoke no English, but I demonstrated project and push in the back-step and she got it right away. That one thing immediately gets people from shuffling around to doing a first version of a tango walk. A couple of songs later, I was able to happily lead her in a walk and side-steps, and she was very smiley about it.
A French follower also apparently spoke no English; I didn’t think that was even possible! She was trying to guess what I was about to lead and getting ahead of me. I tried to summon up the French for ‘wait’ but couldn’t, so settled for lentement (slowly) while holding up a hand in a stop signal, and that did the trick. Again, after a few songs she was following walking and side-steps perfectly comfortably.
Milonga 8: La Viruta
This was another one I found by searching for live music. It was about 30 minutes out of the centre, near Palermo, so our most expensive taxi ride so far: over three quid!
We were seated at a decent table, between the dance floor and the bar. Coincidentally, it turned out we were sat next to a guy Steph had danced with at Maldita a couple of days earlier, where they had swapped roles. Buenos Aires is turning out to be quite a small world: we later bumped into two fellow students from the milonga class she did earlier in the week, and then Steph met David and Anne, a couple of tango friends from London, while I was dancing.
When we arrived at La Viruta shortly before midnight, it was a disco. Steph told me some places do this – have a mix of tango music and other forms of dance. We weren’t tempted to join in, so sat and drank fizzy wine (me) and Mohitos (Steph) while we waited around an hour for the nonsense to end.
And then, just as the disco appeared to be ending, they did … chacarera! (For the benefit of fellow beginners, this is the Argentine folk dance that is like some ungodly cross between Morris Dancing and Line Dancing and is every bit as silly as it sounds.) Two bloody songs worth! Give me strength.
When the tango finally began, I had an absolutely wonderful Pugliese tanda with Steph. It was one of the ‘less accessible’ ones, but Steph knew the music, and I did more following her than the other way around. Previously, in this situation, I’ve done my best to follow Steph’s lead, but not knowing where she was going, it’s always felt like I was reacting. This time, I felt I was picking up on what she had in mind, and then working with her much more as an equal partner.
As a simple example, there was a time when Steph was doing very small back-and-forth steps to the side of me, and I realised I could slowly turn so she could just do those steps all forward while walking around me. That worked well, and I spent the rest of the tanda taking the same approach, of figuring out how to work with what she wanted to do so it felt like I was more actively dancing with her, and it felt great!
Steph noticed there was a woman at the table behind us with a sign saying she was blind and asking for verbal invitations to dance. I did so, and led her onto the dance floor. It was rather crowded, and I did feel the pressure a bit more to avoid anyone bumping us as it must be far more jarring when you can’t see what is happening. I adopted the diagonal dance approach again. Although those ahead and behind me weren’t doing the same thing, it still helps a lot.
It was an interesting ronda. The floorcraft didn’t have the same discipline I found at La Maria and would later find at Salon Canning, but it did work. I only had to take mild evasive action a couple of times, and the ronda moved consistently. It was a very large dance floor, and in the course of four songs we made it almost the whole way around.
The live band was great! I always love dancing to live music, and they were playing well-known songs well. I’ll add some video clips to the blogs once I’m home; there really isn’t time here.
I was looking for someone to cabeceo when I had two new experiences. There’s a phrase used to describe the rather creepy way some men invite followers, of walking up to them and holding out a hand: handeceo. Steph and other experienced followers have said this is always a sign of a terrible dancer, as not only do they not know or respect the codigos, but they can only get dances by putting women under pressure in that way. They all refuse.
Tonight I got a … shoulderceo. As I was looking around, a woman came up from behind me and tapped me on my shoulder and verbally asked me to dance. I should have realised this wasn’t going to end well, but again am British and was taken by surprise, so I accepted.
It was horrible. She was putting a huge amount of downward weight on my right arm. I felt like I’d at least be safe from more shoulderceos as I wouldn’t have a shoulder left by the end of the dance – she’d have pulled it out of its socket. I have never before ‘thank you’d’ anyone, as I know it’s a big deal and if you can make it through a tanda, you do, but I also know that physical pain is an acceptable reason to call a halt, so I did at the end of the first song. It was slightly less awkward given it was a live band and there were no cortinas.
Followed by a delight
I spotted a woman standing at the corner of the dance floor looking very attentive, and realised she’d been there a couple of tandas ago. I tried a long-range cabeceo from the other corner. She kept looking at me, but I didn’t get a visible response to my nod. I kept looking as I walked toward her, then smiled and nodded again as I was about halfway toward her, and this time she did the same.
It was fantastic fun! She was clearly very skilled, and after what I think was five songs (no cortinas …), I decided to take a chance. There was rather a fast song, and we felt very well connected, so I decided this was the time to risk the experiment that had worked with Steph: Just Moving.
Steph said I needed to not worry about steps, just move my chest. That’s advice I’ve had before, but I didn’t feel like I could just do random stuff with my feet without the risk of tripping over each other. Steph said that as long as the direction was clear, and we were moving in sync, our feet wouldn’t get tangled.
I was sceptical, so we tried it. I was literally not thinking about either steps or figures, just aiming to keep us (a) moving and (b) in the kind of space we’d have in the non-moving ronda I’d seen in the video.
There were two or three times when our feet contacted. Even then, not in a problematic way – no danger of tripping or treading. The rest of the time, it Just Worked.
I was, frankly, astonished. It felt completely effortless because I wasn’t having to make any decisions about what to do.
There were a few slightly clunky moments, but it did work! I’m not going to routinely attempt this in milongas just yet, but I do want to take this approach in practicas and see if I can get it to the stage where the clunks are rarer. If I can, it will be amazing!
Again, that awkwardness over the lack of cortinas. I was very happy dancing with her, but also didn’t want to outstay my welcome. My uncertainty over whether to continue or not was ended when the band started playing a milonga, and she beamed and gave me a questioning look. I smiled and nodded.
I did manage to mix-and-match the little step sequence from the class earlier, which made me very happy. The floor was also a little clearer, so I was able to incorporate larger as well as smaller steps, so I had great fun! That seemed a good place to end, so I thanked her and escorted her back to where I’d collected her. No awkwardness or uncertainty here about that: it is clearly expected.
The band set was disappointingly short – about 40 minutes. Then …. more disco. Or Samba. Or rock. Or who knows what. Having no idea how long we might have to endure this before more tango, I suggested to Steph that we go on somewhere else.
We had Salon Canning on our must-do list, but I hadn’t realised it was literally two streets away from La Viruta. Steph knew the way, so we made our way there.
However, Steph’s foot was now really painful, so she was limping her way there with my support, and it didn’t appear she’d be doing any dancing.
Milonga 9: Salon Canning
Salon Canning, for anyone unfamiliar, is one of the most famous milongas in the world. The Parakultural milongas held on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays attract some of the most famous dancers. It is very traditional, and very high level.
I’d read some reports saying that the dance floor is not necessarily welcoming of foreigners, especially on Parakultural nights. They said that tourists get seated at the worst tables, and everyone knows which those are, so no-one will invite you or accept your invitation. Given all of this, and the state of Steph’s foot, I’d thought this might be simply a tourist visit, just to soak up the atmosphere.
However, we were able to immediately disprove the table part of the reports. We were given a table next to the chocolate lady, which was a great place to be, as lots of people came up to speak to her and her companion. It was also en-route to the bathrooms for one side of the room, so there was plenty of traffic.
We’d arrived at 2am. Arriving at one milonga at midnight and another at 2am was already starting to feel perfectly normal. I fear for Monday morning, when I’m going to have to start work at 8am …
There was a demo dance as we were settling in. I’m not sure who it was – a gentleman of a certain age with a very much younger follower.
After the performance, the dance floor was the most crowded I have ever seen anywhere. Literally around 10cm between couples! That reinforced the idea this was going to be an evening of spectating.
Except … I noticed that the floorcraft was military in its precision! Everyone in the outer ronda was dancing diagonally. I didn’t see any collisions. I saw lots of eye-contact between leaders and nods. The ronda was progressing slowly but consistently. This was clearly a very, very disciplined floor. If I could trust myself not to mess up, I felt that it ought to be safe. It wouldn’t be much of a dance, just tiny, tiny steps, but at least I’d have danced at Salon Canning. That was an irresistible draw. I decided to chance it.
My first tanda in Salon Canning
I’m trying not to do the tanda-by-tanda thing, but I have to talk through this one …
I cabeceod a woman sitting at the table opposite, and led her to the edge of the floor. There was no gap into which to enter, but I made eye contact with the next leader in the ronda, and he gave me a small nod. I waited until the couple to our right moved off.
There had been a time when I’d worked with a woman who had a really old E-Class Merc which barely fitted into any parking space, and she’d asked me to drive it a few times when we were heading to or from meetings. Getting it into a normal parking space left millimetres to spare. Inserting ourselves into the ronda felt very much like that. I was proud that we simply managed to enter and turn into the diagonal position without any bumps.
I entered the embrace slowly, and did some weight changes. And then dancing was … microscopic steps. The couple ahead of us was somehow managing giros in their own space. I was absolutely not going to attempt that! I was firmly convinced this was going to be an entire tanda of nothing more than the world’s smallest steps and rebounds.
But then when the couple ahead moved forward one step, I wondered whether circular ochos might be possible. I took the step forward and the couple right next to us in the inner ronda started doing back ochos. I thought that if I could synchronise with them, it would work. Could I do that, I wondered?
As I was looking to the left and wondering, the leader made eye-contact with me and nodded. He then lead a back ocho away from us. I waiting until he completed that one, smiled and nodded back and then we did one in sync. It was magical!
Just one. At which point I realised I hadn’t thought any further ahead than that. I now needed a way to end the ocho. Was there enough space to lead a parada? I did so, but didn’t lead the step. I looked back and made eye-contact with the leader behind us. He nodded and led a tiny step to their left, creating just enough space for my follower to step over. I normally hate these kind of cramped conditions, but this was actually quite wonderful!
I’ve read about this. Couples dancing with other couples as well as each other. The ronda moving as one. And here I was experiencing it, in Salon Canning no less!
I’d like to claim the entire tanda was a succession of these experiences. It wasn’t. The vast majority of it was indeed tiny steps and rebounds. But two or three times per song, this happened. Eye-contact between leaders, nods, and either a bigger step or an ocho – and one time I led a cross! That one because the couple ahead moved forward a step while the couple to our left did something that took them a step left, then paused. I looked, got a nod, returned it and led (with very small steps!) the cross.
My follower was from Brazil, and perhaps used to such conditions – she certainly seemed happy in them!
I still massively prefer a floor with room to walk, but I have to say that tanda felt truly special. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Steph trying to persuade me to go home
My plan had been too quit while I was ahead. I’d danced at Salon Canning! In the most crowded of conditions. And it had been wonderful. I didn’t want to tempt the tango gods.
But the floor got a little less busy as time went on, and I really wanted to dance again. There were no followers near us looking around, so I went wandering and cabeceod a woman in another part of the room. I really stuck it lucky here! She was local, and very much a Steph-style follower. I was able to lead some ochos and giros, but she soon decided to take charge. She essentially back-led some fantastic back-and-forth movements and then when I thought I was leading a forward ocho, she turned it into a planeo. It’s possible that my lead was unclear, but I would put very good money on that being entirely deliberate. Certainly she was right, it was the perfect moment for one.
That was a really fun tanda!
Steph’s foot was hurting quite a lot, so she was sat at the table with her foot up. It was 4am and she decided it was time to go home. She was right, but … I wanted just one more wafer-thin tanda. The floor by this time was very clear – there was loads of room. I cabeceod a follower close by and again got a very active follower, and a really fun dance. In particular, she did amazing giros! I literally just pivoted and held on for dear life!
As I returned to our table, I had a feeling it was missing something. Something slim, about five foot seven and with purple hair. Yep, Steph had, despite her protestations of injury and wanting to be home in bed, accepted a cabeceo and danced the final song of the tanda.
We were in bed by 5am and, thankfully, slept through until 11am. That’s a night I’m never going to forget!