I would say that without the evenings and nights of Buenos Aires, a tango cannot be made and that the Platonic idea of the tango, its universal form, awaits us in heaven,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, Argentine writer and poet.
With only four days to explore sprawling Buenos Aires, I decided to focus my energies and see it through a lens that is unique to the city: the tango. My first mission was to find tango shoes. I don’t even know how to dance the tango, but I love shoes and knew I needed to pick up at least one pair in the city where tango was born.
Let’s dance: The tango originated in the brothels and poor neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires.
I was directed to Comme il Faut, French for “as it must be”, a well-known tango shoe store on the Rue des Artisans, a historic Buenos Aires street reminiscent of Paris. These heels aren’t just shoes, but unique, handmade works of art. When I met founder and designer Alicia Muñiz, I immediately knew where the brand got its bold style.
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Ascending the narrow stairwell to the store, I felt as if I was entering a private residence. An eye peered at me through a small trap door and the lock clicked open to reveal a room that resembled something out of Alice in Wonderland, with pastel walls, whimsical furniture and a fanciful chandelier. Muñiz was seated at her desk, clad in bright pink accented with a leopard-print scarf, which matched the furniture. Women were sitting on the carpet, surrounded by tango shoes. I felt my eyes grow wide.
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“Treinta y ocho,” I said in my halting Spanish, requesting size 38 European since I didn’t know my Argentine size. Before I knew it, 10 boxes of shoes were at my feet, and then 10 more, then another 10. I must have tried on at least 40 pairs, maybe 50, before deciding on a pair of open-toed black satin and lace beauties (Rs5,300) and another more pricey pair made of fish scales with ankle cuffs (Rs6,600). For high heels, the shoes were surprisingly comfortable. I vowed to take tango lessons as soon as I could so that the open-toed masterpieces could serve their purpose. It seemed almost sinful to subject them to rough city sidewalks.
The next stop on my tango tour was La Confitería Ideal to watch some real tango called milonga, an interpretive tango that is highly improvisational. In milonga, men sit on one side of the room, women on the other; the man gestures with a slight flick of his wrist or a suggestive glance, and the woman to whom he is gesturing joins him for the next dance. La Confitería Ideal is brimming with history, and was made prominent by the many famous personalities who have graced its ballroom (a scene from the 1996 movie Evita, starring Madonna, was filmed here). Entering La Confitería Ideal was like stepping back in time, when people danced to gramophone music without stopping to glance at a clock. On the dance floor, I spied a pair of Comme il Faut shoes, black with white polka dots and flaming red heels and straps. I felt like such an insider, I had to smile.
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Later, I tango-hopped to Torquato Tasso to experience the most authentic tango music in Buenos Aires. Serious tango musicians, both established and up-and-coming, play at this local gem. Unfortunately, I came on a Sunday, which is the only night they don’t play live music. That night, the floor was populated with young people dancing milonga.
Marilyn, a friend and longtime resident of Buenos Aires, knew the owners of Torquato Tasso, and we were escorted up to the balcony overlooking the dance floor, where I could have a quick chat with one of the owners, Hernan Greco.
Greco founded Torquato Tasso 16 years ago with his business partner, Federico Moya, when he was just 20 years old. They founded the Torquato Tasso Cultural Centre in the heart of the historical neighbourhood of San Telmo. “The foundations of Buenos Aires are just around the corner,” Greco told me. He felt that it was very important to have the city’s origins in close proximity to the artists and music. He said he wanted each guest to feel like a true porteño, or local person, while they enjoyed the music and immersed themselves in the rich Argentine culture, food, and wine.
I asked Greco what he envisioned for Torquato Tasso’s future, since it had already achieved cult status in the Buenos Aires tango community and attracted such renowned artists as Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall and Bono. “There is no future, there is no past, it’s classic,” he said. “Good music, great performance, good food, lovely girls…it’s a formula.” I asked him why there was no tango dancing when the musicians played. “When there is a Frank Sinatra concert, you don’t see people dancing on the stage,” he said. Greco is a tango purist; he doesn’t allow dancing out of respect for the musicians. He believes when there is dancing with tango music, it is not serious tango.
In parting, I promised Greco I would soon return to witness one of Torquato Tasso’s bona fide tango concerts. As a final question, I asked Greco what made him want to go to work every morning. “Tango is my life,” he said. I realized that in Buenos Aires, tango penetrates every porteño’slife, and even the lives of visitors who spend a short time in the “good winds” city.
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Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint