Tango showcases fancy footwork at its finest—a mesmerizing display of dance mastery, an impassioned physical portrayal of seduction and despair. A newly afflicted "tangoholic" with no foreseeable recourse, I’ve spent the last two months based in Buenos Aires, tirelessly trolling its extensive tango circuit, succumbing to the sultry tango’s timeless spell.
Birthed in BA’s backstreet brothels by lonely immigrants more than a century ago (and since designated on UNESCO’s list for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind), Argentina’s most famous cultural export draws devotees from around the globe who come to perfect their steps and indulge in the drama that is tango, with its inimitable sounds and movements. Indeed, you can’t escape tango here, whether it’s via a street-side tanguero busking for spare change, a flashy marquee of a tango show palace, or a tucked-away milonga (tango dance hall) rolling on into the wee hours of the morning.
Since the options for taking on tango in BA can be downright overwhelming, I’ve done the (high-heeled and long-strode) legwork for you—read on for five essential Buenos Aires stops for any tango aficionado.
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1. Tango Tuition
Tango doesn’t look easy, and that’s because it’s not. The single most important step you’ll take into the world of tango is the one that leads to a qualified instructor. After careful vetting and tried-and-true results, my recommendations go to psychologist-cum-tango teacher Alejandro Gee for his flawless English, endless patience, and more than 20 years of dance experience—he schools students in the improvised social tango of the milonga. At Gee’s elegant home studio, you’ll learn body awareness, gain cultural insight, and can even delve into the psychology of tango with his "tango therapy" approach.
For showier moves and footwork with flair, team up with local legend Carlos Copello, a talented tanguero who stars in the hip Faena Hotel’s Rojo Tango show (see below), and who offers classic showmanship and embellishments around tango’s eight basic steps; classes are taught at his dance academy, Tango Escuela Carlos Copello. Just keep your expectations realistic—tango can take years to master, and you’ll need a minimum of 10 classes for even a chance at getting your foot in the milonga door.
2. Stylin’ Shoes
Of course, looking the part is half the battle (or at least a fractional percentage of it). Don’t leave town without picking up a killer pair of tango shoes, since tango is more than just the dance itself, but how good you look doing it. Try Comme il Faut for sophisticated, high-quality high heels for women in a fabulous array of styles; Neotango for men and women’s shoes that are a perfect blend of flashy and functional; or 2X4 al pie, for one of BA’s best selections of modern men’s shoes in both casual and dress styles.
3. Milonga Nights
The heart of tango isn’t found in the highly choreographed professional shows, where most visitors’ experience of tango ends (though those are fun, too—see below). Rather, look to the authentic neighborhood milongas, teeming with locals gathered for the "real" social tango of the everyday folk. Here, you’ll observe impassioned, intertwined tangueros in action, caught in the grip of a tango fever, as they circle round and round the dance floor. Often not starting till close to midnight (BA is a nocturnal city), milongas come packed with dancing devotees from across generations and skill sets, and, sometimes, live orchestras or exhibition dance performances. Many of the halls also offer lessons to help you get comfortable on the dance floor (if that fails, try a well-placed glass of Malbec). Intimidated by it all? Team up with Narrative Tango Tours whose excellent guides will accompany you and offer insight into the milonga’s unique culture, rituals, and etiquette.
Top milonga picks include the classic Salon Canning, with its high ceilings and high-quality dance floors; La Viruta, a no-frills favorite with a lively, unpretentious atmosphere that packs in the crowds; El Beso for traditional tango, with separate seating sections for men and women (tip: come on Tuesday nights for the Cachirulo event); or La Catedral, a late 19th-century warehouse-cum-milonga that attracts tango hipsters with its grungy, eclectic décor.
4. Spectacular Shows
Buenos Aires comes chockablock with glitzy professional show palaces, rife with impressive (though pricey) productions of choreographed tango dance routines, highlighting impossibly high kicks and showy lifts. Some propose group tango lessons with show dancers, and all offer dinner-and-drinks, or drinks-only packages (tip: skip out on the blah food, come for the entertainment). We like the exclusive, cabaret-style Rojo Tango, set in Puerto Madero’s hyper-hip, Philippe Starck-designed Faena Hotel, with room for just 100. The flashy Broadway-style Tango Porteño delivers artistic set design and some of the city’s most sensational dancers. Try Esquina Carlos Gardel, an old haunt of tango icon Carlos Gardel, and longstanding tourist favorite for its authentic roots, classy atmosphere, live orchestra, and flawless dancing. For a more intimate and casual evening, the one-year-old We Are Tango touts front-row seating for just 20 patrons, for live music, a dance showcase, and lighthearted insight into the history of tango.
5. Museums & Festivals
Pop into the Carlos Gardel House Museum, a former residence of the legendary tango crooner, filled to the brim with Gardel memorabilia. The World Tango Museum at the National Academy of Tango, meanwhile, chronicles the history and evolution of tango through several rooms of colorful displays. For an added bonus, plan your BA visit to coincide with the Buenos Aires Tango Festival & World Championship, the city’s leading tango event, held each year in August. The two-week-long festival comes jam-packed with free concerts, classes, shows, and more, in venues across the city, anchored on the championship competition.
Modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe Elissa Richard has set out circumnavigating the globe on an ambitious 14-month adventure. Tag along on her travels through Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America—and on the high seas in between—as she reports back to Fodors.com on captivating cruises, hot hotels, and timely travel trends.
Photo Credits: Tango Tuition, Milonga, and World Tango Championships: Courtesy of John Garay; Tango Shoes: Courtesy of iStock Photo; Tango Show: Courtesy of Rojo Tango