Felipe takes us under his wing, suggesting places to practise, such as the Estrella in Old Palermo, and even cheaper, the large gazebo in Belgrano Park, where the cost-conscious just show up and dance to tapes or CDs in someone's boom box. He also invites us to attend the opening night of a new dance place, the Trovador, in the suburb of Vicente Lopez.
Large and spare with grey concrete walls, it looks like a hall rented for a wedding, and is bright enough for a game of floor hockey. There is no band, but a sound system with big black speakers, and a large shiny dance floor. We are given numbered tickets for the raffle later that night, then take our places at the big, white-covered tables with the rest of the crowd: middle-aged couples, old people, teenagers, even a few children, all dressed in their glittering best.
When the music starts it seems as though everyone there has been dancing tango all their lives, making it difficult to find the courage to take to the floor and do those few basic steps. What catches my attention as I watch the dancers, however, is the fantastic grace of simple everyday tango, skillful and elegant moves that Hollywood transformed into the image most of us have of tango, including the dramatic backwards dip at the end, in which no one at a place like the Trovador ever indulges.
There are really two types of tango, the smooth, synchronized moves of the people, and the theatrical, almost frenetic style of the professional tango couple, known as tango de fantasia. Both come from the same roots, roots that are apparent here at the Trovador, from working-class immigrants in often seedy dance halls or backyard patios, combining everything from the Cuban Habanera to the Italian canzonetta to Andalusian flamenco, the primary instrument of which is a kind of accordion, the bandoneon.
A few days later we try out a place called the Ideal, on Suipacha Street in downtown Buenos Aires. Open since sometime around the beginning of the First World War, the Ideal is a pastry shop and tearoom of enormous proportions, slightly down-at-heel these days. The upper floor, once popular for engagement parties, according to my husband's Aunt Cecilia, now features dancing from 3 p.m. to 10 every weekday.
The place is packed when we arrive, every table taken up with retired men and groups of women who attempt to defy the effects of age with makeup, hair dye, and short dresses, fanning themselves as they wait for an invitation to dance. The single, understandably sullen waiter runs around with trays of tea, coffee, and mineral water, no one ordering anything much more expensive, or anything liable to fog up the reflexes. The walls are lined with carved wood and large mirrors, dusty chandeliers hang from the ceiling. To one side of the massive pillared dance floor, an elderly man sits on the stage and acts as disc jockey, providing a short commentary on every shift he plays.
Here we also learn some tango etiquette. The dancers always stand and chat for the first few bars of each song and all couples have to move counter clockwise. Dancing is divided into relays or sets of tango, waltzes, and milongas -- a faster rhythm, closer to the Cuban dance tradition -- with brief musical interludes. Finally we make some progress. I start to close my eyes and follow, our movements become more fluid as we negotiate our way among all the excellent dancers, and, best of all, we don't bump into anyone. There's no doubt that our fellow dancers have little patience for neophytes, and concentration is essential.
Research suggests plenty of other places to keep up our practising, including the Nino Bien in the traditional barrio of San Telmo, the Gricel, the Almagro, and other clubs with romantic names like the North Wind and the Embrace. All charge between five and 10 pesos to get in, and offer lessons mid-week.