Bringing a little Buenos Aires back to London with me

Last time when I returned home from BsAs, I found myself wishing that London tango were more like, well, Argentine tango. I mean, I looked forward to dancing with friends and favourite partners, of course. But I felt the contrast keenly in a number of ways.

This time too. The difference was deciding that, while there are factors I can’t control, there are others that I can – whether directly or indirectly …

Maintaining my own connection with the essence of tango

I realised while I was in BsAs that I’d forgotten, or at least lost touch with, some of the lessons I learned last time. I rediscovered the most fundamental of these – and am determined now to remain in touch with my view of what tango is all about.

Tango is all about connection, and for me, being back in BsAs is all about reconnection. Reconnecting with what is really at the heart of tango. The reason tango exists. The reason she has me enraptured. 

Being reminded that, whatever complexities may be involved in the learning process, the essence of tango can be summed up in a few simple words: this person, this music, this moment.

Helpfully, Laura Heredia used almost the same words just a few hours later in a video interview I conducted with her, so I have that available anytime I need a reminder.

Milongas as more rounded social experiences

One huge difference is that Argentines view milongas as social events as much as dance events. Sitting at tables, chatting with friends, making new ones, drinking £1.50 glasses of ‘champagne,’ eating empanadas – and dancing when the music moves you.

London milongas, in contrast, are almost exclusively geared to dance. A single line of chairs around the outside of the floor makes it hard to chat with more than one person at a time. If there’s food, it’s generally just biscuits and a bit of cake. There’s no table service because there are no tables. You’re basically either dancing or waiting to dance.

But while there’s nothing I can do about the layouts of milongas (aside from thank those few organisers who do have tables), I can choose to approach milongas in a more Argentine fashion. At one recent milonga I went to, I spent as much time chatting at the bar, and the area just outside the pista, as I did dancing – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fewer plans, more spontaneity

One of the joys of dancing in BsAs is the huge range of milongas on offer in the city. On any given day, there will be 20 or more to choose from, and whether it’s 2pm or 2am, there’s always a tanda waiting for you.

BsAs milongas also tend to be lengthy, and almost nobody comes at the start and stays ‘til the end. Both factors mean that there was rarely a need to make plans.

London doesn’t have that luxury, of course (though there do seem to be a growing number of milongas now). But I am going to take a more Argentine approach, and mostly decide on the day which milongas I’m going to – and won’t necessarily be there at the start and stay until the end.

Learning the music is learning the dance

Right from the start, the one thing I had going for me was my musicality – and I spent a lot of time listening to tango music.

But what I realised in BsAs is that what made the dancing there so absolutely wonderful to watch is the way the dancers know every note. They don’t just know the songs in the way I know the most popular ones; they know them like they know their closest friend, and that’s what gives them the ability to express the music so perfectly.

Ironically, part of what brought about this realisation was dancing to an unfamiliar song with an unfamiliar follower. It was a vals, but I don’t think I’d ever heard it before. I remembered what a follower had told me in my very early days: ‘If you simply dance the vals rhythm, 99% of followers will be smiling. Anything else is just a bonus.’ So I danced the vals rhythm. Nothing more. Afterwards, my follower said to me ‘Thank you, that was perfect – you made my evening.’ My dance couldn’t have been simpler, but it was a very basic example of dancing every note.

So I need to return to listening to tango music all the time – and doing so with a whole new level of attention. It will take years, of course. But every new element I notice in any popular song is an opportunity to enhance my dance.

And another thing …

There are a couple more things to cover from the trip: about how two of my teachers ganged up on me, and how I came to have a whole new understanding about floorcraft. But I’ll get to those in future posts.

For now, I’ll be aiming to keep as much of the Buenos Aires experience alive in London as I possibly can.

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