At the risk of sounding cliché, tango really is everywhere in Buenos Aire—walk around the city long enough and you’ll find elegantly-dressed performers dancing in the street a la gorra, for tips, especially in the more touristy neighborhoods like San Telmo, La Boca, and Recoleta.
But watching a public performance barely scratches the surface of what tango has to offer. To really dive deep and learn more about this intricate, sensual dance, the best way is to try doing a few steps yourself—or at the very least attend a full performance, with an orchestra and dancers showing off the different styles of Argentine tango.
What is Tango?
Tango was born in the lower-class dance halls of Buenos Aires and neighboring Montevideo in the late 1800s. At the time, European immigrants were flooding into the Rio de la Plata region, bringing with them a variety of dances from their home regions, including Andalucian flamenco. These influences combined with Candombe, danced by the descendants of African slaves, to become tango. The popularity of this new dance spread quickly, and by the early 1900s, tango had spread to all levels of Argentine society.
Today, Argentine tango is danced by couples all over the world and in 2009, UNESCO added the music and dance to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Tango is notoriously difficult to master–some dancers say it can take years–but that shouldn’t stop you from dipping your toe in.
You can learn the basic steps with a class at a milonga, a social gathering for dancing tango. You can even practice a few steps on the “vereda del tango,” or tango sidewalk, a section of the sidewalk on Callao Street with the basic tango steps for men and women mapped out. If you want to go deeper, there are several dance schools and private teachers who offer tango classes for all experience levels.
If you have two left feet or would rather avoid the dance floor, there are lots of ways to sit back and enjoy tango without participating, too, including concerts and shows, and just walking around the neighborhood at the right place and the right time. Here are a few different ways to experience tango in Buenos Aires, with some tips on how to get started.
A milonga is essentially a tango dance party, where people go to enjoy the atmosphere and dance. Milongas in Buenos Aires traditionally start very late—think past 1 a.m.—and cater to dancers of different levels.
People of all levels are welcome to attend and watch, but some milongas are crowded and filled with advanced dancers, so jumping into the crowd isn’t always a good idea, explains Kelly Lettieri, a professional dancer and tango teacher who runs TangoBliss. For beginners, the best option is to find a milonga that has a class beforehand and then stay to practice after the class, she says.
“That way you meet people, you get to socialize, and you’re also with people around you who are at your level,” she says. “And you’re there right at the most empty part of the milonga, when it starts.”
Traditionally, men ask women to dance with a head gesture, which women can accept or deny from across the room with a gesture of their own. The couple will dance a “tanda,” or batch, of three to five songs together before going their separate ways. To dance, Kelly’s partner Alejandro Berón recommends taking a class at Viruta Tango Club. You can take a tango class and practice until the more experienced dancers arrive (around 2 a.m.), then stay to watch their moves. And if you want to see a performance and orchestra, check out Salon Canning on Fridays, he adds.
La Catedral Club is an unusual space with bohemian vibes that also has tango classes and a milonga, and Hoy Milonga has up-to-date information on all of the milongas happening in Buenos Aires and its surroundings, every night of the week.
Tango Shows and Concerts
If you’re in Buenos Aires for a short time and want to get the full tango experience without stepping on the dance floor, go to a tango show. Tango shows are aimed at tourists, and they often include a formal sit-down dinner–some will add on extras like hotel pickup, too.
At a tango show, you’ll be able to see dancers perform different tango styles with an orchestra and learn a bit about tango’s history and culture. Some of the more popular tango shows include the performances at Teatro Piazzolla, Café de los Angelitos, and Rojo Tango in Puerto Madero.
Schools and Private Classes
Some people see tango once and fall in love with the dance. To keep your love story going a little bit longer, the next step is finding a tango teacher and signing up for some lessons. There are schools all over the city, and many performers also offer private lessons.
Both Kelly and Alejandro teach at La Escuela Mundial del Tango, which offers both in-person and virtual classes. They recommend you try an online class before arriving Buenos Aires if you want to get a sense of how tango works.
“It’s a little bit more productive than to just go there and not really have a handle on what’s going on,” Kelly says.
Festivals and Competitions
As the world capital of tango, Buenos Aires hosts many yearly tango events. There are usually events around International tango day, on December 11, and the Buenos Aires Tango Festival and World Championship is typically celebrated in September.
Queer and Feminist Tango
Traditionally, tango has very entrenched gender roles—the man asks the woman to dance, and the man leads. But in the last few years, several queer and feminist organizations have sought to redefine tango’s rigid rules and throw different kinds of events, including Tango Queer, the Transfeminist Tango Festival, and Lady’s Tango Festival.