Tango Tourism Boom in Buenos Aires

ByABC News
February 2, 2006, 1:50 PM

Feb. 2, 2006 — -- Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the tango capital of the world. It's where the dance was born in the bordellos and immigrant neighborhoods in the late 1800s. The tango is improvised, aggressive and erotic. Every move symbolizes el amor y la passion -- love and passion.

Today thousands of tourists routinely pack tango shows in Buenos Aires as they help fuel the revival of the dance and the city's economy.

But if you want to see the real tango you have to get away from the tourist spots and come to the milongas, the neighborhood dance parties throughout Buenos Aires. The action starts around midnight and doesn't end until five or six in the morning.

Every night of the week, there are different milongas, where people can dance, usually with strangers. They come to socialize and learn from one another. For anyone serious about dancing the tango, the milongas are the place to be.

Ronnie Wilson, an artist from Maine, recently traveled to Buenos Aires on a weeklong tango tour. She takes at least two lessons a day then dances all night at the milongas. Not bad for a 57-year-old divorced mother of two.

"When I came down here I was like, ugh, and I thought I am getting old. I've had it," Wilson said. "But suddenly I am like, hey you are OK, you are not getting old. And you haven't had it and the juices are still flowing, and that's what I am falling in love with. It's about that feeling that you never want to end and that's why this is very addictive."

The tango is a spiritual experience for Wilson. She even gets a little teary-eyed dancing with her instructor.

"When you dance, you are feeling everything -- the music, the smoke in the air and the man's body. But the man's body is telling you what you are gonna do next. And so, it's very, very sensual," she said.

Some tourists, like graduate student Brandon Shaw, come back here again and again because Buenos Aires is such a bargain. He's says he's taken 30 lessons for a total of about $100.

"It's a lot cheaper down here and you get lessons for next to nothing with outstanding teachers and you can dance every night till six or seven in the morning if you want," Shaw said.

There's another benefit as well -- Brandon has met his last four girlfriends on the dance floor.

"If you have a nice connection with someone, you think maybe something else would be nice," he said.

The tango is sort of like a three-minute date, say many dancers. It is a chance to experience passion -- even if only briefly.

Marina Palmer, a New York advertising executive, came to Buenos Aires eight years ago on vacation and became a tangoholic. She even wrote a book about it, "Kiss and Tango."

"The tango just gives you an immediate excuse to touch somebody, and let yourself be embraced," she said.

Palmer quit her job, moved to Buenos Aires and was out dancing at the milongas every single night.

Dancing did lead to love affairs off the dance floor for Palmer. But far from being simply a pick-up scene, the dance is about flirting and teasing. And for Palmer, who worked as a street performer for a time, it has become much more.

"I think that dancing in the streets is a good way of understanding tango," she said. "The tango was probably the first dirty dance ever invented. It really is about getting down and dirty so this is the best way to really breathe in that muck."

For all the tango's spontaneity, there are also strict rules. Couples dance in a counterclockwise direction -- circling the dance floor and respecting each other's space. Out of courtesy, partners dance with each other for an entire set -- usually four songs.

There's even a specific signal men will give women when they want to dance. It's called the cabeza.

"I look at the woman and she looks back at me and if she's interested she'll give a nod," explained Brandon Shaw.

The tango is not just about how well you dance but how good you look doing it. For a woman, there is nothing more important than her shoes -- they need to be flashy but functional. That classic ankle strap is not only sexy but it also keeps a woman from sliding out of her shoes.

For men, tango shoes should have thin, smooth soles to slide across the floor. Black and red are tango colors.

Natasha Poberaj, one of the most renowned dancers in Buenos Aires, teaches beginners how to breathe, how to hold the hands, how to make it all look effortless.

In many ways, the magic of the tango lies in its simplicity.

"Because we need to embrace someone else and feel someone else is embracing us," Poberaj said. "Something the whole world needs -- to feel embraced."