One to tango

A tango lesson at the famed Confitería Ideal in Buenos Aires

Tango lessons at the Confiteria Ideal in Buenos Aires
Tango lessons at the Confitería Ideal in Buenos Aires
It takes two to tango, but I showed up alone for my tango lesson at Buenos Aires' storied Confitería Ideal.

The upstairs tango room at the Ideal was long and low, divided by Corinthian columns into three wide aisles, a bit like a church. It a gorgeous Art Deco space that, with the exception of two battered speakers gently blaring tango music, looked untouched since 1912.

Over the central nave ran an oblong domed skylight filtering weak sunlight through cracked and grimy stained glass webbed with wrought iron frills that flaked gold paint. Globe lamp chandeliers brought the lighting level up to "atmospherically dim," and phalanxes of old wire wall fans pushed the sultry air around the room.

In short, a perfect setting to learn the tango.

The tango class

When you go
The Confitería Ideal (tel. +54-11-5265-8069, is at Suipacha 384 (a block off av. 9 de Julio between av. Corrientes and the Diagonal Norte).

It offers tango lessons for 15 pesos (about $5) daily except Sundays, but guaranteed in English only Thursdays 4–6pm and 6:30–8:30pm and Saturdays 9–11pm.
Once a quorum of 12 nervous tourists had assembled, the instructors herded us into the room's left aisle, where ranks of plastic chairs between the columns prudently corralled us away from the nave, which was slowly filling up with locals who had come to tango the afternoon away.

I admit, I was intimidated. I mean, everyone in the world of Argentinean tango had danced at the Ideal. Famous people, too. Maurice Chevalier had danced here. Even Madonna had danced here. And now I was going to dance at the Ideal. If, that is, I could find a partner.

Luckily Mary Stearns, a nurse from Arizona, had also showed up alone. Mary was renting an apartment in B.A. for two months to learn more about the city its culture by living like a local. And in Argentina, there's no skill more local than the tango.

Our instructors embodied Buenos Aires' famous split identity balanced between the Latin and the European. Gustavo was lean as rapier, with tawny olive skin and black hair slicked back into curly locks cascading past his shoulders.

Lorena wore her blond curls back, her pale face lightly splashed with freckles, her red dress with its plunging neckline designed to stop traffic.

This wasn't getting any less intimidating.

Tango 101

Gustavo, the postcard Argentine tango teacher, taking a coupel of tourists in hand to teach them the tango.
Gustavo, the postcard Argentine tango teacher, taking a couple of tourists in hand to teach them the tango.
Gustavo and Lorena demonstrated a few steps they described as simple, and we all watched their feet intently. I can only assume the others felt the same level of confidence I did, namely: "OK, after that third step he lost me." One thing was certain: it bore no resemblance to the tango I vaguely remembered from ballroom dancing class in college.

I had learned that arch, gothic version of the tango you occasionally see Bugs Bunny do when he's in drag and putting one over on Elmer Fudd.

That tango consisted of clamping onto your partner and lockstepping forward with great deliberation, staring straight ahead, clasped hands leading the way on arms stiff enough to go jousting. When the beat paused, you whipped your head around to glare at your partner briefly, then faced front again to continue marching.

At the end, you attempted to dip her without dropping her.

What Gustavo and Lorena were doing bore absolutely no resemblance to the Bugs Bunny tango. Their dance was fluid and sinuous, not rigid and measured, their steps precise without being enslaved to the beat.

They also stared at each other the whole time with a gaze so intense it could only mean one of three things: "I feel deep, Latin passions for you;" "I hate you so much I will kill you as soon as this song has ended;" or "Alas, your stiletto heel has once again pierced my foot, but my Latin machismo refuses to let me acknowledge the pain."

Mary and I did our best. We clasped our other hands in the air dramatically and shuffled through the eight paces of the basic Argentine tango step. We tried to give each other that "love/hate/ow, my foot" glare, but found it hard not to giggle. The best we managed was a sort of smoldering smirk.

Many squished toes and mumbled apologies later, we mastered the basic step just in time for Gustavo and Lorena to show us several impressive-looking variations and flourishes, all of which we utterly failed to work into our repertoire.

Tango variations: the milonga and the jazzy steps

Reid and Mary pose as if they could actually tango.
Reid and Mary from Arizona pose as if they could actually tango.
Weary and frustrated after half an hour of attempting the more complicated steps, the instructors gave us a break by introducing the milonga. This much faster-paced dance is the endurance sport of the tango family and is wildly popular among younger Porteños (what Argentines call Argentines).

The milonga requires a six-stepped box step maneuver, relentlessly repeated, like dancing a waltz recorded at 78 and played back at 45. It was simple, it was fun, and, after about a dozen repetitions, it was easy to understand how Porteños develop such shapely legs.

Finally, Gustavo and Lorena attempted to teach us one last jazzy move guaranteed to impress our friends back home.

Alas, our respective friends shall remain unimpressed.

We got the first half: three slow steps, then three quick ones. The tricky bit came where I had to step back, flare one leg rakishly out, then rock back to the starting point all while flinging Mary through a wide arc to catch up with my right leg, then back around again to the starting position. Meanwhile, she was expected to swivel her hips and achieve some sort of backward balletic footwork that, frankly, looked anatomically unattainable by the human leg.

Gustavo and Lorena, of course, made it all look easy. I think maybe she was double-jointed.

Our instructors finished off the move with flair. While Gustavo stuck his leg out in that classic, hose-reveling pose struck by female hitchhikers in old movies, Lorena wrapped herself around him, crooked her leg through his, then bent her knee to flick her stiletto heel up between his legs, stopping mere millimeters short of the spot where a man keeps his Latin machismo.

Mary and I did not attempt this.

Instead, while the advanced couples graduated to the other side of the plastic chairs to join the locals, Gustavo and Lorena patiently posed Mary and me in a precarious but striking position that made it appear as if we had just achieved tango perfection.

Gustavo took a picture with my camera, Mary and I said our good-byes, and I sat down to watch, with renewed respect, the Porteños who come here every afternoon to tango effortlessly amid the gently decaying Deco grandeur of the Ideal.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in December 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.