A sleep-deprived mistake turning into a wonderful surprise, at Milonga en lo de Balmaceda

Diego has been encouraging me to cabeceo more and more advanced followers, and I have been doing this – very happily here, and with a little more trepidation in London. I did, however, draw the line at teachers and performers.

Until last night, when I danced with at least two, and I suspect more. Entirely by mistake, mind, but hey …

But let’s start at the beginning …


Wednesday’s main goals were for Alessandra to find a nail-bar, and for me to replace the sunglasses I managed to lose a couple of days ago. Coincidentally, those were also bought in BsAs back in 2019, to repla– Anyway.

The sunglasses hunt was successful; the nail bar one not. Point of information: Google Maps pointers to shops here are complete fiction.

Ale thought the new sunglasses deserved a photo in the entrance to our apartment block, even though they are visually indistinguishable from my old ones. (You can blame her for positioning them at a jaunty angle.)

After that, Alessandra went shopping in Galerías Pacífico, while I sat in a cafe and ordered a 10,000-calorie cappuccino.

Ale also found the most delicious peaches I have ever tasted. So Wednesday daytime was mostly successful. The night, not so much …

The bus stops outside the apartment had become the centre of the strikes and protests over driver pay, with loud drumming throughout the day, and a more permanent look every morning!

I’d kind of got used to it, as part of the background sounds of the city. On Wednesday evening, however, they literally kept it up throughout the entire night, and louder than ever – accompanied by much hooting of horns, loud singing and shouting. My 10pm afternoon nap clearly wasn’t going to happen, so I gave up any milonga plans and tried instead to sleep. Tried being the operative word.

While I give the locals full credit for a far more entertaining strike than the British thing of a few drivers standing around with a handful of placards, my appreciation was rapidly waning as the night – and the noise – went on. Even my wax earplugs, rated to block the sound of anything up to and including tactical nuclear weapons, didn’t help. I got literally zero sleep.

Add the effects of a night of no sleep whatsoever to the background level of sleep deprivation which applies to milonga life here, and you have a recipe for a Ben of little brain.

One of the things I did to pass the time during the night was to check out potential milongas over the next few days. Sans Souci again had Los Heredores del Compas playing live on Saturday, so that was a definite, and I WhatsApped them to reserve a table.


Having done this, my sleep-deprived brain decided at 6am that this was (now) tonight. That plan complete, so I thought, I didn’t look at the app again. We instead got on with our daytime plans, which began with introducing Alessandra to El Ateneo, the best bookshop in the world (top photo shows the interior of the former theatre).

There I found a Spanish/English phrasebook. These seem rather quaint in the days of Google Translate, but it actually had a lot of very useful vocabulary, and also indirect grammar. Indirect, because it’s of course a book aimed at Spanish speakers wanting to speak English. But it seemed a useful thing to study during bus rides, so I bought it.

Ale had been drooling over the thought of a proper Argentine parrilla, and while I had in mind to take her to La Brigada, she decided that right now was the time – which put us outside a random restaurant which looked like the real deal.

Alessandra refused to believe me that ordering the mixed grill for two was really not a good idea, as we’d be eating it for the next few years. So she ordered it, and I sat back and waited. When it arrived, her eyes were about as large as the plate.

Unfortunately the quality wasn’t matched by the size. I mean, some of the cuts were better than others, but in general it was tough, fatty, and hugely over-cooked.

The only saving graces were that the Malbec was very nice, and Alessandra managed to be chatted-up by the waiter: after he spent a lot of the meal chatting alongside our table, he asked for her phone number. Indeed, he turned out to be the first of three men she had chasing her that day, the second being a dancer at that evening’s milonga, chatting with him from 3am to 7am after the milonga ended – and then the doorman flirted with her and kissed her shoulder as he opened the door to the lift … Some days you have it, apparently!

Many women in tango worship the same god, and I got dragged to the holiest of temples to advise Ale on her choice of religious artefacts.

In total, we spent around three days there while she tried on 4,189 pairs of shoes. At the end of this, I advised her there was one clear winner, with a really elegant 1930s look:

She of course didn’t buy them. Always good to be useful.

Milonga en lo de Balmaceda

We then headed over to La Nacional for Sans Souci, arriving a little early. Two days early, to be exact. Having established this, and now lacking a table reservation for the actual milonga there that night, both receptionist and hostess looked panicked, with much dashing back-and-forth trying to find a spare table in the very crowded room, before finally deciding that the couple who had reserved two seats at one of the best tables had been given long enough, and we were given their places. So authorised table theft, this time.

Later, they decided the other couple booked for our table were also a no-show, so when the Americans from Comme Il Faut coincidentally turned up at the same milonga, they were seated with us.

I’d never been to, or heard of, Milonga en lo de Balmaceda. But sitting at our table watching, it was clear the level was high. Very high. Alessandra recognised a couple of the leaders as teachers she’d met at Muy Lunes. It was a little intimidating, but one thing I’ve learned is that the longer you sit, the more intimidating it feels, so we jumped up and danced a very nice tanda on a very crowded floor.

After that, the same applied to cabeceoing someone else: it’s better to do it sooner rather than wait. The music was great, so I did so, and danced with a truly incredible dancer.

Between the first and second songs, we did the ‘De donde eres?’ thing and established she lived in BsAs. Between the second and third songs, she asked how long I was staying, and I said a month, though would be working mornings in the final week, so likely only going to afternoon milongas then. She asked what I did, and I told her I was a writer. I asked what she did: “I teach tango.” Ooookay. Ale was watching, and said she’d had her eyes closed and a smile on her face while we were dancing, so it seemed I hadn’t disgraced myself.

After that, I had an equally lovely tanda with another local woman, carefully avoiding any questions about occupation, though she spoke fluent English. The floor was busy, but with a very good ronda, so it was no problem dancing in a small space. At the end of the tanda, we hugged, and she said “May I ask how long you’ve been dancing?” This seemed a potentially worrying question, so I was sweating a little. I said around four years, depending on how you count lockdown. She said she’d only asked because she could tell I was in my first ten years – which is rare at that milonga – but had thought it was at the upper end. So a mixed compliment! She followed this up with a bit of flattery: you dance as well as … some of my ten-year students. So, yeah, another teacher.

Later, another follower asked the same question. At this point I was feeling slight anxiety about an “Are you sure you’re at the right milonga?” vibe (the answer would of course have been ‘no’). But she also expressed surprise, so while the general impression I got is that dancers of my level don’t usually dare to go there, it seemed it wasn’t a completely unacceptable mistake.

Every tanda I had was great except one – a very stiff dancer who took much bigger movements than I was leading, and did some unled over-sized decorations. We didn’t hit anyone, but came worryingly close, and I wasn’t enjoying it at all. The rest were all really beautiful.

It turned out, from Alessandra’s lengthy chat with her latest admirer (also a teacher …) that there was a very high proportion of teachers in the room! So I danced with at least two, and very likely more.

Ale also had a great night. Knowing some of the leaders already helps a lot, of course, but she danced a lot with others too. There was one tanda where I was watching her dance with – you guessed it – a teacher, and there was a very small collision between her leader and the leader behind them. From where I was sitting, just a few feet away, they were both smiling as they seemingly apologised to each other. Then things looked more confrontational, but still with smiles, so I assumed they were friends who were teasing each other. But no, this was a real confrontation! Fortunately things calmed down, and Ale enjoyed the dance.

The hostess there is wonderful! She runs the room like a military operation, but also finds time to dance her way across the floor at the same time.

The only downsides to the evening were very slow table service – a couple of tandas I couldn’t dance because I was just too thirsty! – and the amount of time lost to announcements and performances. I swear the announcements went on for a fortnight, and there were so many performances I finally had to go outside and get some air instead. I ended up having a Spanglish chat with a mixed group of fellow performance refuseniks and smokers.

So, score zero for scheduling ability, but I reckon ten out of ten for continuing to cabeceo and dance even after I realised how many teachers were present!

Tomorrow’s plan is one new milonga, and one favourite – assuming I manage to turn up on the right day …

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