La Catedral

October 15, 2009

Last night we went to a tango hall.  It wasn’t touristy, or glossy, or even made to look like anything in particular—no checkered floor, no typical “Argentine” flourishes.  It wasn’t in a perrilla, serving sizzling steaks to over-stuffed tourists.

We took a cab to the middle of the city and got out at a small street.  The driver gestured to the entrance—an unmarked entryway with ‘tango’ scrawled in orange spray paint across the concrete above the door.  We walked in and up the broad 19th century staircase in the fluorescent light to the second floor.  There was a guy sitting at a wooden desk, with some plywood sheets and other assorted torn furniture around him, separating him from the main room.

“Are you here for the lesson?” he asked us? “The next one starts in ten minutes.”  In Spanish.

We answered yes and paid our fifteen pesos each.  We went around his makeshift screen and into the main room.  The cavernous space was better than a movie set, built organically in layers of art and passion and innocence, with odd, perfectly placed pictures and mismatched furniture.  The worn wooden floor creaked as the thirty or so ‘regulars’ tangoed to the voice of the instructor and the serious, dramatic music.  Some wore jeans and sneakers, other skirts and appropriately healed tango shoes.  There was an air of content happiness in the seriousness of the dance, satisfied study.

We crossed the candle-lit room and found Gui, sitting at a large table, facing the dance floor.  I sat on a hard wooden chair, and Scott sat on one upholstered with orange vinyl, the foam stuffing mushrooming out.

A broad bar spanned the back of the room, glittering with bottles and candles and mirrors, glasses, and tempered by chalkboards, a few worn menus.  Splaying out from the bar forming a horseshoe shape around the dance space (patched with pieces of plywood where the planks had come up) were mismatched tables, ringed by chairs that inevitably moved as groups of friends came, sat, ate and drank, got up to dance and shifted to different chattering groups.  Suspended from the ceiling—a wooden beamed peak that would have formed the roof of a forest cathedral barn—was a tangle of red leather or plastic interwoven with black and clear tubes.  It was the heart.  Perhaps seven feet long, it would have been easy to miss, the ceiling was so far above.  Along the walls were paintings—modern, new, old, childish, whimsical.  Old signs, and random objects, sculptures, things like wheels and iron pokers and ornate mirrors sniped from Argentine elite lined the surfaces.

Behind the dance floor was a stage used for storage, with amps and more furniture—a Jenga puzzle of chairs.  A ten by ten photograph of the father of Samba (who’s name I forget) hung high, opposite the heart.  He is said to have brought tango to the masses.

After half an hour of the Regulars’ lesson winding down, it was the beginners’ turn.  The teacher stood in the middle of the circle of fifty people rolling their necks, shrugging their shoulders, loosening up for the unknown.  He was barely taller than me, with limp graying black hair, tanned skin, squinty eyes and an easy grin.  In a black wife-beater, loose jeans, and thin-soled dancing shoes he started us walking.  Not strolling walking, dancing walking.  We walked, altering the rhythms, incorporating the steps.  Uno, dos, uno dos tres.  We walked forward, than backward.  The Argentines were serious.  It was Tuesday night at 11.30pm and they were here to learn.  After a few trips around the circle we grew hungry for dinner and sat back at our table, which had amassed a group of about ten visitors and expats.  All of the food was vegetarian (a very welcome respite from the steaked-out country) and eased with Malbec.

At 12.30am, the beginner lesson was over and the real dancers glided onto the floor.  “They’re here every week,” Gui whispered to me as I watched a slim, serious girl in flowy black pants, a white t-shirt and sneakers in synch with her partner.  Another couple joined them and after a while all four of them moved deliberately, more controlled that I ever would have though possible.  It was intimate, yet so precise, slow, careful.  I was mesmerized.  The live music hadn’t come on yet, and a few more couples joined the floor as a sort of tango overlayed with rap filled the space.

A little while later the band came on.  They took their place at the front of the dance floor—first a guitar player, than a twenty-year-old accordion player with super cool hipster sneakers, and a drummer, who had one loose drum and the wooden crate he was sitting on and playing simultaneously.  They played a tango tune—also slow, and deliberate and soulful, the drummer riffing with whatever he felt like, the accordion player surprising all of us (who’s ever seen a young, cool accordion player rocking out?). The dancers let the musicians play the first song through out of respect, and then the one regular couple eased back onto the floor again.  Dancing for the pleasure of it, they knew everyone was watching.

It was a real night, authentic, with Argentine 20-and 30-somethings learning how to master these traditional moves. The space was extraordinary, and the atmosphere, twinkly and warm and full of laughing and drum beats, was magical.

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