Cafe Tortoni; Pablo & Noelia class; and a sociable night at Bilongón

I was awake and out of bed at the crack of noon, as I had a packed afternoon schedule ahead of me: drinking a hot chocolate at Cafe Tortoni, one of the city’s Grand Cafes.

While most of the city virtually defines ‘faded grandeur,’ there’s nothing faded about the grand cafes. They’ve been beautifully maintained or restored, and the impressive settings leads to queues of people at the door …

I’m not a fan of their food. To my mind, it trades too much on its coffee and reputation, and doesn’t make much of an effort where food is concerned. But the hot chocolate … on my god the hot chocolate!

It arrives in the form of a three-part kit: cup, jug of essentially pure melted chocolate, and a second jug of foaming hot milk. Mix to your own taste.

Being Argentina, it’s of course very, very sweet, even by my standards. They still bring you sugar with it, but not even I would go that far.

Alessandra had an espresso.

She declared it was the first good coffee she’d found in the city (coffee-addicted Italians are hard to please).

She also ordered a three-layer cake, and was very happy with it. I tasted it, and it was perfectly fine, but I have high expectations when consuming that many calories, and this one didn’t pass the ‘worth the calorie budget’ test.

Alessandra then went off to arrange some shoe repairs, while I waited in vain for a bus home. The frequency was billed as every three minutes; 20 minutes later, with every other bus but the one I needed coming past at regular intervals. I gave up and took a taxi. I later learned that, in addition to the protest outside our apartment, individual bus lines are striking randomly.

Pablo & Noelia class

I don’t generally get much out of group classes, even when they’re in English. But when you have a chance to do a 90-minute class with Pablo Rodriguez and Noelia Hurtado for £2.27 (including entry to the milonga afterwards), it’s kind of hard to say no.

I was a little dubious about the level, as it was billed as intermediate/advanced. Assuming they use a similar scale to the old DNI one, where London intermediate is Improver 1, then it might be way beyond me. But with teachers of that quality, I decided it was unlikely that I’d get nothing from it.

The address varies depending on whether you asked Hoy Milonga or Google Maps, but since Pablo had given Alessandra the general location when they spoke at Parakultural, we took a bus to that one. We did, of course, have to spot the bus stop first …

The building itself was easier to find, being in the Academia Argentina de Actuación para Cine. Typical of the city, you have a beautiful building with broken kerbs and a random pile of rubble outside.

The beginner class was in progress as we arrived, and clearly comprised total beginners through to London intermediate or beyond.

It was a joy to see! Even with the absolute beginners, being introduced to project-and-push, they were teaching musicality from the first minute. The more experienced dancers were helping out the newbies, and Pablo and Noelia were super-active in offering individual help. Oh, and the cost of the beginner’s class, with two of the world’s most famous tango teachers and performers? Free.

The class was clearly structured to offer something to all levels, starting with first principles of the walk through to a turning sequence. Regular readers will know that sequences and I are Not Friends. But we joined in and decided to give it a go. To my surprise, I got it right. Once. By accident.

Both Pablo and Noelia came over to help, with limited success. Still, I shall now be able to drop into casual conversation “Oh yes, that reminds me of the time I was leading Noelia in Buenos Aires,” so not all was lost.

The other good news was that the general type of movement made sense, and was a useful 360-degree pivot which advanced down the dance floor. I’m confident I can figure out my own version of it.

The intermediate/advanced class focused more on technique, and some of it was repeated in English. It was really helpful, but I also recognised a danger sign! Let me explain …

I’ve often described learning tango as an upward spiral. Take the walk, as an example. First, you learn to walk to the beat and the phrase. Just a normal step. Maybe you do a couple of other things, then you circle back to the walk and learn to project and push. When you are reliably doing that, and have done some other things, perhaps you work next on dissociation in the walk. I still vividly remember the time I was introduced to that. It was an ‘OMG, I haven’t really been walking at all’ moment. Suddenly I was thinking about it so much that I couldn’t walk. At all!

There have been a few other times like this, when I’m introduced to the next level of something, and my brain is fried by the realisation that what I was doing before was just a poor approximation. It can actually be days or more before I can again do something I was happily doing before.

I did not want to have this experience while I was in Buenos Aires to dance! Not even if the end result would be worth it. So when Pablo and Noelia started introducing a technique concept which I was sure was going to lead to this experience, I decided to get out while the going was good – and later ask my teachers back in London to work with me on this!

There’s not a chance I’m going to be able to justice to it here. But just to give you some sense of it, they said we normally think of initiating turns by upper-body dissociation. But this is only one option. We can actually keep the upper body still and rotate the hips and legs, and then … something something!

It vaguely made sense. I mean, if you think of the follower back ocho movement, for example, the torso remains still and the hips and legs rotate. They were talking about using this kind of approach not just to follow, but also to lead.

I just knew that this was going to melt my brain and render me unable to lead the simplest of pivots for days, so I beat a retreat to a milonga while I could still turn.

Alessandra stayed, and had a wonderful time at the milonga.


This wasn’t a milonga I knew, but it was billed as having live music, so seemed worth a try. It was held in a very funky rooftop venue, with a bar and outside seating area.

Then an inside area for the milonga.

Of course, the 10pm start time was pure fiction, so when I arrived a little after 10.30pm, I sat on the terrace and eavesdropped on the rapid-fire conversation of the guys next to me to see how many words I recognised, and whether I could make sense of any of the conversation. The answer was not many, and not at all. Whatever they were discussing, however, I can tell you that they had very strong feelings on the matter.

By 11pm, a few people were drifting into the dance floor, but when I looked in, it was still very empty, and I decided to stick to the terrace for the time being and risk some Spanglish conversation. This clearly required wine. After ordering it, a couple of women in their 20s came to say hello. I assumed it was my animal magnetism which drew them in, but it turned out they’d heard my one-word-per-minute Spanish at the bar, and wanted to practice their English, and talk about … their planned trip to London. This was not exactly my plan, but we had an enjoyable conversation anyway.

After that, I heard English accents, and introduced myself to a couple and their friend, named Benjamin. This created a comic moment when I introduced myself as Ben, he replied “Benjamin” and I said “Only to the passport office – to everyone else, I’m Ben” before Rach pointed out that this was his name! To add to the fun, they later bought me a glass of wine … called Benjamin.

They weren’t tango dancers, and made the mistake of asking about it. Several days later, I’d finished my opening sentences on the topic. Later, in the dance room, Rach decided she wanted an immediate lesson! So we had one on the terrace, and she was an amazingly fast learner. We went from practice embrace changes of weight to close embrace ochos in about ten minutes! They later sent video of this – framegrab below.

It became clear that Bilongón is more about socialising than dance. Even when the room got busier, there were only a handful of couples dancing at any one time.

I cabeceod a woman who warned me she wasn’t very good … It was a bit of a challenging tanda, but in a good way – I had to figure out how to make my lead so clear that nothing else was possible. So I found it satisfying, and she seemed very happy about it.

After that, I had mixed success with cabeceo – roughly 50% acceptances. I got chatting to a local leader who was having the same experience, and he explained that a lot of the people there didn’t dance tango, they just came to watch and hang out with their dancing friends.

Both live and recorded music was … mixed. There were some lovely modern arrangements of traditional tango songs, some softer electronic music, some … um … <insert unknown genre labels here>. The dancing was mostly open-embrace, and overall wasn’t really my style, but I still enjoyed the evening, though left before 2am.

Overall, I’d say this is a great venue to visit with friends, to do a mix of socialising and dancing, but not ideal for a solo dancer whose tastes run more toward the traditional.

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