In the mystifying tango salons of Argentina, a writer attempts to mend a broken heart.
A woman dressed in black is sitting alone inside a café, and I wonder if she is waiting for someone. Back in the day, she must have been beautiful, and in a way she still is. One could keep looking at her without getting tired. She shares the table with a skinny cat strolling underneath her legs, each absorbed in some faraway world. I can tell from the pace of her movements that life hasn’t been easy on her. Some people carry their past with them. It gets stuck on their shoulders, buried in their face, and as they go through the years, time simply doesn’t wash it away. How tiring it can be, the simple fact of being alive. If only her eyes could shine as they used to, I think, instead of shadowing now what must have been a smile back then. It’s dark in San Telmo, and I am walking alone. My eyes can’t linger on the woman for too long, so I let her go.
Santo Telmo is the old neighbourhood of Buenos Aires: enchanting, decadent, and mysterious, like that old lady. I have been living here for a couple of weeks, and there are some unsafe spots. I cannot allow myself to end up in one. After all, I’m a 22-year-old Italian chick with a broken heart. Men can sense this sort of thing, I tell myself, so you’d better watch out. The smell of delicious meat chases me through the whole San Telmo neighbourhood, one alley leading to the other. I am after my next tango salon: milonga, that’s what they’re called. Buenos Aires is full of them, of all kinds: fancy milongas, cheap milongas, even forbidden milongas, cosy rooms that welcome the dancing attempts of regular customers, curious tourists, and people like me, who are neither. I guess they call us travellers.
“You need to chase the balance,” my tango teacher says. I already know how to dance, so I can enjoy exploring the technique in a deeper way.
“How did you learn tango?” he asks, curious.
“Long story.” I cut it short. I’m not in the mood for explanations.
One of my classmates…that should have been the answer. We were both studying at university in Italy, and he took the moral philosophy class because of me. The guy was a theatre actor. I couldn’t say if he had a talent or not, but he loved me with his heart wide open, and this is usually a good sign for an artist. I’m pretty sure I inspired him deeply the whole time he was in love with me, even though I couldn’t say how. I would later discover that many of my love stories repeated the same pattern: powerful, mystical encounters that rapidly changed and dissolved, like my travels. This one would make no exception; he couldn’t avoid breaking my heart, or I was a beginner in the art of love. Whatever the case, there I was, healing myself with the same poison that had killed me in the first place.
“It’s not just a dance. Tango is a metaphor of love, darling.” Latins, especially in Argentina, can be overly proud of their culture, but this time I had to agree with my teacher.
“If you want to dance tango, you need to come out of your balance zone.” My teacher explains the technique in detail. I already know the rule he’s talking about, but I keep it to myself. I have to lean on my partner to prevent the fall, without ever weighing too much on him. If it were only so easy.
“If the man decides the moves before the woman, tango will be forced.” He has no idea how sharply his words cross my chest. I can hardly breathe.
“He needs to listen to her. If the woman anticipates her man’s intention, the dance won’t flow: she needs to let him know.”
Where did I go wrong, I wonder, but I can’t find the answer, and that’s the reason I am asking the dance.
“Most importantly, they both need to trust each other.” The talking is finally over, and my teacher steps back.
“One partner counterbalancing the other, always on the edge of the fall. Remember: never lose your axe.”
This is tango: a breath-taking physical experience, just like profound love.
Buenos Aires keeps a few night secrets. Dancers trust tango as their therapist, or their good, old friend. Several orchestras play live all week long, which makes the agenda of the dancer a serious task. Musicians and lovers keep the magic rolling, and it all started with a small instrument called the bandoneon, a handmade rarity, similar to an accordion, but much more difficult to master. The best ones on the market are worth thousands of dollars, and they are not easy to find. Some say the instrument came from Europe, brought over on ships by German immigrants. If this is true, God’s got a real sense of humour, for the instrument was originally built by the poorest churches of Luther that could not afford to buy a proper organ. An instrument that was meant to deliver the word of the Lord became instead the seal of passion, inviting bodies to sweat the night away to the rhythm of a complex dance. No doubt they dance tango in Paradise, too.
As I enter the milonga, I have to adjust to a new environment. My eyes have to make an extra effort due to a softer light as candles illuminate an old wooden room where both chairs and tables seem one step away from falling apart. My senses rely on the music, and I can finally relax: tango will decide from now on. Even the search for a partner has a silent code here, and words seem somehow inappropriate. In the oldest milongas, women sit at the tables while men wander around the salon, looking at what is at stake. The best dancers have a glimpse at the women’s feet, chasing the ones with tango shoes (with a particular kind of high heel). I don’t like traditionalism, and I organize my agenda based on the youngest milongas, where girls dance with flat shoes, improvise a little, and are not afraid to break the dance code. In these places, finding a partner is a natural result of body language: men and women look around, and as soon as they make meaningful eye contact, off they go dancing three tangos in a row. Every three pieces the musicians stop for a minute and give dancers the chance to break up, dissolve into the crowd, and start the chase all over again.
As my first partner draws me into his arms with a fleeting look, I feel my heart sinking. Memories assault me, and I am back at university, my eyes crossing with his in the hallway. We are falling in love. Somehow it’s his hands that are holding me now, not those of a stranger. As I start dancing, I suddenly realize it’s not him. My Argentinean partner holds me a little too tight, and I feel uncomfortable. Tango is a hug, and I should be able to move freely within his arms, but my partner is insecure about the figures and struggles to handle my weight. This is why he traps me and dances with himself. I am just a complement of a wordless monologue. I remember my tango teacher’s words, and I can’t wait for the third piece to end. Finally, I am free, and I can reach the bar for a glass of wine.
“What kind of red do you want?” The waiter is leaning on the bar stool, and, like everything else in this place, he’s at the edge of a fall.
“You choose. You know more than me.” I’m not in the mood for talking. Milongas are the perfect place for this state of mind, as long as you manage to avoid bad dancers.
While I listen to the bandoneon tuning the next tango, my mind goes back to Italy one more time, to a night when he was driving me home. We are on his small motorbike, and I am holding tight to his body. As we get closer to my place, he starts driving the bike with only his right hand. We are holding each other as if we were afraid to be dragged apart, two hands in one soul. That moment must have had no time or space, as it survived both the distance of a continent and the depth of a decade.
I taste the wine and feel relieved. Wines are so good and cheap in Argentina, I think. Such a fortunate combination. I am lost in thought as I hear familiar sounds… it takes me couple of minutes to realize it’s someone speaking Italian. I am quickly drawn into the scene: it’s the contrabass player. He looks at me, and I don’t miss the chance.
“Are you Italian?” Somehow I always seem to find the strength to recover from a fall, another pattern that my future travelling will unveil.
“You too?” He smiles at me, and I feel some pleasure in his presence. I would later find out that he is one of the most interesting people I have ever met.
I get out of my thoughts and dive into a casual conversation about music, tango, and life Buenos Aires. The concert is over, and he doesn’t need to play anymore. As usual, the moment arrives naturally:
“Do you want to dance?” he asks without speaking. I doubt it for a second, and my breath stops as the memory comes back, that bike ride, his hand on mine, me leaning safely on his back. I decide to keep my feelings in my memory and love him behind time and space. I suddenly realize tango gives no answers; rather, it helps you to find some other question. I look at my new dance partner, and I don’t need to say much, for my eyes speak on their own. The wooden floor creaks under my feet as we walk towards the dance floor. A solitary man in the corner watches us silently, for words lose their gravity in the womb of a tango salon.