Tango Show Palaces

Tango is an essential part of the Buenos Aires experience. Numerous show palaces, from the simple Café Tortoni to the over-the-top, special-effects-laden Señor Tango, compete for your tourist dollar. Many shows are excellent, and each is surprisingly unique. Here, I've listed some of the top show palaces, but new ones seem to open up all the time. Many show palaces include dinner, or you can arrive just in time for the show only. Prices vary tremendously, depending on the venue and how you have booked; the price for a show only is around $75 to $125, with dinner and show about $125 to $400 for VIP seating. Seeing a variety of tango palaces is important, as each show has its own style. Smaller spaces lead to a greater intimacy and more interaction between the dancers and the audience. Sometimes the dancers even grab a few people, so watch out if you're close to the stage! Most shows have bus services that pick you up at your hotel. Book directly, or ask your hotel for help and bus transfer times, which can be up to an hour before the show. Many local bars also have informal tango shows, where locals come to see decades-old favorites singing.

The Disappearing Bandoneón -- With just two dancers and a bandoneón, an accordion-like instrument introduced into Argentina in the mid-1800's by German immigrants, a tango performance can be held. Tourists have so come to love these instruments that thousands of them are leaving the country as souvenirs, fueling a black market in stolen bandoneóns. Only a few dozen of these instruments are built every year, and like Stradivarious violins, new ones never match the tone of those that are decades old. American TV journalist Luciana Arias recently covered the issue, releasing a special video on You Tube. The rapid dwindling of the instruments has reached such a crisis point that in 2010 the Argentine government proposed a law registering every bandoneón and forbidding the exportation of those that were above a certain age or that had been used by famous tango musicians. If you're thinking about purchasing one to bring home with you, reflect on how you might be slowly silencing the music that made Buenos Aires famous around the world.

Tango: Lessons in the Dance of Seduction & Despair

It seems impossible to imagine Argentina without thinking of tango, its greatest export to the world. Tango originated with a guitar and violin toward the end of the 19th century and was first danced by working-class men in La Boca, San Telmo, and the port area. Combining African rhythms with the habañera and candombe, it was not the sophisticated dance you know today -- rather, the tango originated in brothels, known locally as quilombos. At that time the dance was considered too obscene for women, and men would dance it with each other in the brothel lounges.

Increasing waves of immigrants added Italian elements to the tango and helped bring the dance to Europe, where it was embraced in Paris. Spurred by European approval, Argentine middle and upper classes began to accept the newly refined dance as part of their cultural identity, and the form blossomed with the extraordinary voice of Carlos Gardel, who brought tango to Broadway and Hollywood and is nothing short of legendary among Argentines. Astor Piazzolla further internationalized the tango, elevating it to a more complex form incorporating classical elements.

Tango music can range from two musicians to a complete orchestra, but a piano and bandoneón -- an instrument akin to an accordion -- are usually included. Lyrics often come from Argentina's great poets, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Homero Manzi, and Horacio Ferrer. Common themes tend to be a downtrodden life or a woman's betrayal, making this style akin to American jazz and blues, which developed at the same time. The dance itself is improvised rather than standardized, consisting of a series of long walks and intertwined movements, usually in eight-step. In the tango, the man and woman glide across the floor as an exquisitely orchestrated duo with early flirtatious movements giving way to dramatic leads and heartfelt turns, with the man always leading the way. These movements, such as the kicks that simulate knife movements, or the sliding, shuffled feet that mimic the walk of a gangster sidling up to someone to stab them, echo the dance's rough roots as the favored dance of La Boca gangsters in spite of its glamorous beauty as performed nowadays.

Learning to dance the tango is an excellent way for a visitor to get a sense of what makes the music -- and the dance -- so alluring. Entering a tango salon -- called a salón de baile or milonga -- can be intimidating for the novice. The style of tango danced in salons is more subdued than "show tango." Most respectable dancers would not show up before midnight, giving you the perfect opportunity to sneak in for a group lesson, offered at most of the salons starting around 7 to 9pm. These usually cost between $10 and $14 for an hour; you can request private instruction for between $25 and $50 per hour, depending on the instructor. In summer, the city of Buenos Aires promotes tango by offering free classes in many locations. Visit the nearest tourist information center for updated information. Before you head to Argentina, free tango lessons are also provided by select Argentine consulates in the United States.

For additional advice on places to dance and learn tango, get a copy of B.A. Tango or El Tangauta, the city's dedicated tango magazines. Ongoing evening lessons are also offered at the Academia Nacional de Tango, located above Café Tortoni, at Av. de Mayo 833 (tel. 11/4345-6968), which is an institute rather than a tango salon.

Milongas (Tango Salons & Dance Halls)

While the show palaces and their dance shows are wonderful must-sees, there is nothing like the allure of Buenos Aires's milongas (tango salons and the events that take place at these venues). As with the show palaces, there are more now than ever before. Rather than destroy tango, the 2001 peso crisis created a greater awareness of the dance along with all things traditionally Argentine. In the same way that the ancestors of today's Porteños turned to tango more than 100 years ago to alleviate their pain, isolation, and worries, so too did Porteños in the wake of the peso crisis, resulting in an unprecedented flourishing of milongas. This recent history, coupled with the increase in tourism and an influx of expats from Europe and North America who have embraced the dance and the culture surrounding it, means that there are more tango opportunities than ever before. This scene is not without its rules and obstacles, however, especially surrounding interactions with dancers of the opposite sex. Be sure to read "Some Tango Rules" for tips on milonga etiquette before heading out. (Note also that most milongas charge an entry fee of $5-$8.)

You should also pick up the Tango Map, which has a comprehensive list of milongas in all regions of the city. Find it at the tourism kiosks, the various tango-associated venues listed in this guide, and also in select locations in San Telmo. Be aware that the same location may have different events by different names, so keeping track of the address of the venue is important. Also, check the listings in B.A. Tango, El Tangauta, and La Milonga, the city's main tango magazines. Also look for Punto Tango, a pocket-size guide with similar information. The numbers that are listed in this section and in the magazines or maps are not necessarily those of the venues, but may be the numbers of the various dance organizations or individual promoters that hold events in the specific dance venue on any given night. 

Some Tango Rules -- Certainly the seductive sound of the tango is one of the reasons you came to Buenos Aires in the first place. Maybe you just want to see those fancy kicks and moves performed onstage. Maybe you'd like to learn some of the steps yourself. Or maybe you're nearly an expert and want your own turn on the wooden dance floors where Buenos Aires's best have danced for decades.

The only places most tourists see tango in Buenos Aires are in the big, and expensive, show palace-restaurants, which feature dancers onstage as patrons enjoy meals in which steak is usually the centerpiece. While aimed at tourists, these shows are beautifully and artistically executed, and even jaded Porteños cannot help but be impressed. In spite of the quantity of these stage spectaculars, each has its own personality and focus. Some concentrate on the dance's history, others on the intimacy of the performers with the audience; some throw in other dance forms, especially folkloric, or seem to forget tango all together in an ode to Broadway.

However, I think every tourist should also venture beyond the show palaces. If you can, head to a milonga, a place where regulars and novices alike come to dance the tango, usually following a strict protocol of interactions between the sexes. A key concept in these places is milonga eyes -- perhaps you've heard stories about two sets of eyes meeting across the room and their owners then finding their way to each other on the dance floor. In some milongas, men and women sit on opposite sides of the room, couples only mingling in certain spots. Men and women will try to catch each other's eyes, flirting from a distance with nods, smiles, and hand movements. The man finally approaches the woman, offering to dance. Often, not a word passes between the two until they take the floor.

This ritual means that tourists need to be aware of a few things. Firstly, never, ever block anyone's view, especially a woman who is sitting by herself. Be aware of divisions between the sexes in seating (which might be enforced by the management anyway), and follow the rules. Avoid eye contact with members of the opposite sex if you have no idea what you're doing. If a woman wants to dance with new men in order to practice the tango, she should not be seen entering the salon with a male friend, because most of the other men will assume she is already taken. If couples want to practice dancing with new people, they should enter the room separately. If you are coming in a group, divide yourselves up by sex for the same reason.

Each milonga, however, maintains its own grip on these rules: Some are very strict, others abide only by some. Some of the stricter milongas may tell you that they have no seats if they realize you're a foreigner; if this happens, tell them you're meeting a friend who arrived earlier. It's also best not to go to these places in large groups, and rather with a few people at a time or as a couple. The sudden entrance of a large group of noisy curious foreigners who don't know the place can instantly change the overall atmosphere. And most importantly, show respect for the venue in terms of your appearance. While you needn't dress to the nines, a baseball cap and sneakers can mar the atmosphere of the place (if you're even allowed in).

Find a copy of the Tango Map, which lists almost all of the city's milongas as well as specific events by date. It is, incidentally, among the best maps of Buenos Aires, and it even includes neighborhoods generally off the beaten tourist path.

Tango Tours

There are literally hundreds of tango tours here in Buenos Aires, the city where it all began. I've listed just a few. All of these individuals and groups also offer lessons. I've also listed additional instructors below.

Tango Teachers

All of the tour groups listed offer tango lessons, either in a group or individually. Alternatively, you can try the professional tango teachers I've listed here. Check out the magazines B.A. Tango, Tangauta, and La Milonga for more listings. Also consider group and individual lessons through Escuela Argentina de Tango, inside Galerías Pacífico (tel. 11/4312-4990; www.eatango.org).

  • Estudio Zarasa Tango, Av. Independencia 2845 at Pichincha (tel. 11/3527-7840, or 11/15-4405-6464 and 11/15-5528-9826 [cells]; www.julioycorina.com.ar), is run by Julio Balmaceda and Corina DeLaRosa, one of the most accomplished tango couples in Buenos Aires. They have toured the world with their shows, including performing in New York's Carnegie Hall, and now impart their incredible talent to their students.
  • Julietta Lotti (tel. 11/4328-9842 or 11/15-5750-2008; julietalotti@hotmail.com) has taught and danced tango for years. She is a member of the Las Fulanas troupe of dance professionals. She does not speak much English, however.
  • Julio Corazza (tel. 11/4752-0213 or 11/15-6058-6189; www.tango-milonga-tour.9f.com) has taught tango for more than 20 years, and can work with individuals and groups, as well as arrange tango tours for experts and beginners.
  • Helen Halldórsdóttir (tel. 11/4383-6229 or 11/15-5865-8279 [cell]; www.lavikinga.eu), a striking blonde who resembles the actress Brigitte Nielson, is nicknamed La Vikinga because she is from Iceland. She ran the now-closed milonga Mano a Mano and teaches tango lessons in Argentina, Europe, and North America. Her spectacular home near Congreso is a beautiful setting for tango lessons. She also sells tango clothing at her home and via her website.
  • Pedro Sánchez (tel. 11/4923-2774 or 11/15-6295-1015 [cell]; pedromilonguero@yahoo.com.ar) has been dancing tango for more than 50 years, and many women I know swear by his instruction methods. He speaks little English, but always makes himself understood. He will give private lessons, and also has Monday evening sessions for small groups, which might be a good way to get to know him and see his techniques.
  • Patricia Herrera (Yuyu; tel. 11/4805-1457 or 11/15-6716-5351; yuyutango@yahoo.com.ar; www.yuyutango.blogspot.com), an excellent and patient teacher who goes by the nickname Yuyu, teaches from her home in Recoleta or will visit people at their home or hotel.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.