Skip to main content

The tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires, from street corners to cemeteries to the city's many milongas.DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

It is known as the three-minute love affair. You dance it with your heart pressed to your partner's. It is spontaneous and unchoreographed. A process of resisting and yielding. A sensual meander of feet around feet. Human dressage.

Depending, of course, on who is doing it. My husband believes that real men don't dance. Musicality isn't his strength; following isn't mine. He agrees to lessons only as research for a new novel I am planning. Besides, we're going to Buenos Aires.

The instructor says Argentine tango is merely an improvisation of walking, turning, stopping and embellishments. Sounds simple. Even a toddler could manage it. Yet my husband winces through 10 classes. I apply those lethal back-kick flourishes when I feel he needs them. By the end of the course, we've almost got the hang of it. But are we ready for our first milonga?

Old-time dance halls - a bit like small-town social clubs - are everywhere in Buenos Aires. We choose one in the high-style neighbourhood of Palermo Soho, where we stay at the Krista Hotel Boutique, formerly the private residence of Juan Peron's doctor. Every day that I breakfast on croissants and dulce de leche, I can't help but wonder if Evita once sat in the same dining room.

The milonga is a 10-minute walk from lively Campo Bravo, where we eat quite a few of the 12 steak dinners that we consume over the course of two weeks. They serve the lomo, beef tenderloin, at your table and cut it with spoons, just to make the point that Argentine beef truly does live up to its reputation. While some young Argentines mock tango, for tourists and many older portenos (locals), the dance is the pulse that beats beneath everything you do in Buenos Aires.

Salon Canning is supposed to be a tourist trap, but it's not on the night we visit. We seem to be the only foreigners in this shabbily Old World, vast dance hall with its blackout curtains and abused hardwood floor. We choose a low-profile back table, and things don't really kick off until about 2 a.m. A steady stream of well-dressed portenos arrive. Some look too old to walk, never mind dance. But dance they can.

To the push-pull melody of the bandoneon - café tango's instrument, rather like an accordion - I realize that the dance is really an intimate embrace, an exposition of body chemistry between two people that is peppered with episodes of fancy footwork. My husband asks me to dance. But, despite 10 weeks of lessons, now that I'm here, I'm not feeling very brave. Besides, I'm not wearing the right shoes.

Along Calle Suipacha, around 256, is a cluster of stores that specialize in tango footwear with colourful offerings piled in the window like candy. In one, there is even a dance lesson going on while I fish among the vintage racks and boxes. But if you want the Marie Antoinette of shoe boutiques, you have to suss out Comme Il Faut, in a charming courtyard called La Rue des Artisans.

To get into this tiny salon that feels more like a 1920s boudoir, you have to walk up stairs and press a buzzer, and you must look the part. The name is known for its high-quality, handmade works of art that have been dubbed the Manolo Blahniks of tango, and you don't have to be a dancer to wear them.

The two New Yorkers who are being "shoed" on the sofa beside me read about the brand in Vogue magazine. My husband perches on a leopard-print stool looking like a fish out of water, while a girl brings out shoes in boxes from a back room - everything they have in my size. One of the Americans and I take the same size, yet, interestingly, we are never shown the same pair. Rather than me pick the shoes, I feel that the shoes picked me.

My husband is getting tired. So it's recuperation time in one of the many historic confiterias. A combination of coffee house, social club, bistro and bakery, many are spacious, light-filled rooms with long, ornate bars, bevelled mirrors and formally dressed waiters. I have come to love them and could people-watch forever onto the busy Avenida Corrientes, just like the portenos around me who have café-sitting down to a career.

Just as confiterias are more than coffee shops, El Ateneo, on Avenida Santa Fe is more than a bookstore. A splendid theatre in its day, you can peruse a book in your own private box seat, then take to the stage that has been converted into an upscale eatery.

The merging of new ways with old is what gives Buenos Aires much of its charm. Even the capricious clash of architecture is oddly beautiful and simultaneously unlovely: tree-lined boulevards that remind me of Paris; noble French neoclassical mansions; the curved lines of art nouveau alongside a 1970s high-rise concrete jungle.

By evening, I am bursting to visit another milonga to try out my new shoes - perhaps at the less intimidating open-air gathering that happens on Sunday nights in Plaza Dorrego, after the antiques fair and flamboyant street entertainers have packed up. On the way there, we walk through La Recoleta cemetery, where presidents, writers and other national heroes are buried, among them Eva Duarte de Peron.

La Recoleta is like a concrete city. We stroll along wide, leafy boulevards that have narrow side streets branching off them, each containing rows of elaborate marble mausoleums just like mini-houses. Turning a quiet corner, we surprise a young couple who are gingerly practising tango steps.

In San Telmo, the city's oldest barrio, locals and tourists sit on cobblestones or at tables around the edge of Plaza Dorrego. After sunset, the square becomes a softly changing palette of lights: golds, greens and blues projecting onto the gathering crowd of tango-lovers. They come in all shapes and skill levels, dressed in skirts and seamed stockings, or hoodies and runners. I slip on my Comme Il Fauts and somehow, surprisingly, my husband remembers more steps than I had given him credit for. He almost leads, and I almost follow, and we just about tango around the floor.

Special to The Globe and Mail