Salons with live bands are few and far between nowadays, charging the quivalent of $75 cover or more. Some are in five-star hotels, like the Plaza, or at Cano 14, a night club across from Recoleta Cemetery. The traditional orchestras of the forties and fifties, with as many as six accordions, pianos, guitars, violins, and more, like those of Osvaldo Pugliese or Juan D'Arienzo, are expensive to maintain and pretty much a thing of the past. It has been a long journey from the days when tango was played in the cheap sailors' bars and cantinas of Boca, and men only danced with each other.
On our last night in the Argentine capital we decide to try out a place called the Salon Augusteo, where a brass plaque outside tells us that tango legend Carlos Gardel used to perform here. It's a four-storey, neo-classical building with a magnificent doorway and a huge "For Sale" sign on the second floor.
Arriving close to midnight, we find the huge room, entered through heavy curtains of red velvet, almost full. The Louis Quatorze mirrors have been painted over with tacky drawings of big-bosomed women, a mirror ball has replaced the chandeliers, and one of the enormous old electric fans falls off the wall while we're there.
Here the sets of tangos are liberally interspersed with Mexican disco music. It's a bit disconcerting to notice how the floor packs out far more when it's on than during the tango sets: Once you're hooked by tango it seems impossible to listen to anything that isn't similarly melodic and sophisticated.
Still, dancing with my husband in an atmosphere as undemanding and authentic as this, I do finally get the impression that learning to dance tango means learning to feel its peculiar urban magic. In the end, I figure, anyone can learn to tango, either by systematically picking up its techniques, or just by falling for its marvellous nostalgic sound on a steamy Buenos Aires night. Of course, for women at least, learning to follow is de rigueur as well.
Augusta Dwyer is a writer living in Mexico City and Toronto. Her books include Into the Amazon: Chico Mendes and the Struggle for the Rain Forest and On the Line: Life on the U.S.-Mexican Border.
WHERE TO LEARN TANGO IN CANADA
Vancouver. Susana Dominguez Dance, 604-602-1831; Arthur Murray Dance Studios, 511-929 Granville (604) 684-2477; Carlos Loyola Studio, 927 Granville, 2nd floor, (604) 876-9061. Calgary. The Studio, 1120-10 Ave., S.W. (403) 228-5668. Winnipeg. Ted Motyka Dance Studio, 1335 Main St. (204) 989-0704.
Montreal. L'Academie de Tango Argentin, 4445 Blvd. St. Laurent, (514) 840-9246; Studio Tango, 1447 Bleury, (514) 844-2786; La Tangueria, 5390 Blvd St. Laurent (514) 495-8645; Tango Libre, 1650 Marie-Anne Est (514) 527-5197.
Halifax. Edgett International Dance Ltd., 3667 Strawberry Hill, (902) 455-1924; Dancing With Michel & Co., 5460 Inglis St., (902) 422-1040. Toronto area. El Tango, Courtney Park Ctr., 6435 Dixie Rd., Mississauga, (905) 670 - 7549l; Pollock Dance Studio, 2000 Yonge St. (416) 485-9305; International School of Dance, 18 Chauncey Ave. (416) 234-5201; El Rancho, 430 College St. (416) 921-2752; Corona Nightclub, every Thursday with Keith Elshaw, 1720 Queen St. W., (416) 919-5520; Rita Ridaz Dance Academy, 147 Spadina, Ste. 204, (416) 598-4395; Club Viva Tango, every second Friday at Citta, 20 Victoria St. (416) 968-2782 Tango 'tea' Sunday afternoons, at Dancing on King, 79 King Street East - 721-6498 or 955-0504