It was late in the afternoon on a sultry day and there were a handful of people at the tables in Plaza Dorrego. A few craft stalls at the margin gave the palest hint of the bustle of the famous Feria de San Telmo on Sunday afternoons. Bored teenagers sat on the wall, glaring and smoking.
The couple appeared from nowhere, both with Hollywood faces, he in a fedora and waistcoat, she in a thigh-split dress and strappy heels. Someone switched on the music and they took to the floor in the middle of the open-air café.
Think of Buenos Aires and you inevitably think of tango. You might also think of fruity Malbecs and thick-cut steaks, choripanes and empanadas, the harlequin houses of La Boca, Eva Perón and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. But, first, you think of tango.
It is a sexy, stylish dance with carefully choreographed high kicks, lifts and drops, and a close contact which scandalised conservatives for generations. They were uneasy about women being so intimate with their husbands, let alone strangers. When the far right seized power, they banned it and sent it underground until the early 1980’s.
In the nineteenth century, the Argentine government advertised across Europe for labour, and the ambitious and the adventurous came in number to seek fortunes which few of them actually made. The theory goes that they brought the fashionable dances of their old countries with them and that they morphed into one to become what we now know as tango.
But quite why, how and when, nobody really knows, because – as Christine Denniston put it in her insightful history – it “was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars”.
It is a popular cliché that tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires where – with an abundance of men and a shortage of women – queues would form and the girls would dance with the men as they waited. But, as Denniston noted, if the women were free to dance, they were free to do what the men had gone there for. She might well be right, though, that it was at brothels that the middle classes discovered tango and that it is when it started to get written about.
It spread from the courtyards of the poor to the drawing rooms of the rich and from Buenos Aires to the rest of Argentina and, by the early twentieth century, to Paris, Berlin. London and New York.
It is big business now. There are elaborate stage shows for the tourist market at US$100 a ticket and stores-full of tango memorabilia from antique posters to tacky figurines. For locals and the more adventurous tourists, there are milongas, where everyone is expected to take part. The more traditional have a sad, end-of-the-pier quality and are filled with couples in late middle-age trying to re-enact their youth; modern milongas have DJs instead of bands and attract Millennials.
But you don’t really need to go looking for tango. Spend any time around San Telmo or La Boca, and you are likely to see couples dancing for pesos or just for the hell of it. There is no schedule; it is not advertised: you just have to be there at the right time. It seems entirely spontaneous, and it is closer in spirit to tango’s origins than any top dollar stage show.
© Richard Senior 2016