Published on February 8th, 2015 | by Bob Thomas
Argentina Travel Tips: The Best Places to See Tango in Buenos Aires
“If you get all tangled up, just tango on.”
Al Pacino in Scent of Woman
The sense of tango in Buenos Aires is real. The porteños (residents of Buenos Aires, a port city) dance for the turistas, sí, but they dance mostly for themselves. The music is the pulsating soundtrack to any trip to Buenos Aires. Yes, you will certainly hear the international pop tunes in elevators and in stores. But you will also hear an abundance of authentic tango argentino all around town — violin, piano, double bass and the trademark accordion-cousin, the bandoneón.
I’ve seen this seductive dance performed at dinner shows, at flea markets, by an elderly couple at an outdoor café, at commercial establishments such as Café Tortoni and as an art form at cultural venues. This is a musical city that pulsates with the driving rhythms of tango.
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A Taste of Tango
The path of least resistance is the tango dinner show. You can find brochures in the lobby of your hotel or find information online. These folks will pick you up at your lodging, transport you by air-conditioned van to a Vegas-like venue where you will experience an unusually average dinner, meet people from all over the world and enjoy a themed (e.g., the history of tango’s humble beginnings in the slums and brothels to its more lofty status) tango show. At the end of the evening they will transport you back to your hotel. Pricey, safe and effortless. Some evenings, that is just perfect.
But after some time, you will likely find the commercial tourist tango venues a little too pandering. “Dancing with the Stars” MCs pumping up the crowd (“Who is here from Brazil? The U.S.?”) and milking applause wears thin. Given the back-alley roots of this early “dirty dancing,” any kind of overproduced, homogenized and sanitized tango seems out of place. Seeing the Eifel Tower at Disney World is easy but, of course, not the real thing.
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If You Want More Ambiance
For a more authentic experience, better to check out a place like Café Tortoni (historic venue, Metro: Plaza de Mayo), with its faded elegance and tango in the backroom. Yes, this is a commercial venture, but the price is reasonable and the atmosphere is great. Dine on what you choose. This locale will transport you into a sepia-toned Carlos Gardel (the all-time great tango icon) movie like no other. You are suddenly in the scene. Have a drink. People watch. Enjoy the show.
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Tango As Art
But if you want a less commercial feel and to be more genuinely carried away with the tango experience itself, try the Borges Cultural Center, located in the swanky, historic and beautiful Galerías Pacifico shopping center (corner of La Florida and Avenida Cordoba, Metro: San Martin). Just off the major pedestrian shopping street, you will find the Borges upstairs past some lovely restaurants and upscale shops. Super convenient. You can buy some dulces de chocolate for your purse, enjoy a cocktail or scope out some exquisite Argentine leather boots on your way to the show. This mall even has a dozen frescos gracing its historic building – high-end shopping in an artistic atmosphere.
The Borges is more than a venue for tango, however. It showcases many live cultural events, traveling and permanent exhibits. Named for the great 20th-century Argentine novelist and poet Jorge Luis Borges, this venue hosts many fine tango performers. You can buy the reasonably priced tickets at the on-site box office.
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Just You, the Music and the Dance
The Borges theater is intimate – perhaps a few hundred seats. The stage is austere. You won’t confuse this place with the Broadway-style palaces along Avenida Corrientes. No, this is a humble, functional locale that serves as a neutral backdrop, allowing the artists to shine. The talent literally takes center stage. There is no hiding. Few special effects. No crashing chandeliers.
The Borges has an ever-changing roster of top talent in many disciplines, not just tango. But this is Argentina and the capital. You can expect (and get!) the very top tango music and dancing in the world.
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Calor y Frío
Advice: No matter how hot the temperature outside or steamy the performance on stage, take a sweater, light jacket or long-sleeved shirt along with you. They have some serious air conditioning and if you get under a vent, well, try to move. But don’t leave. You will miss some of the best live tango music and dance you will experience. And although the Borges is located above a very upscale urban shopping mall, it is has no feel of commercialism.
The Night is Young
When the show is over, take an escalator downstairs for ice cream at the food court before strolling onto the never-sleep (I’ve seen families out with kids in strollers at midnight) busyness of the streets of Buenos Aires. Since the porteños don’t even begin to eat dinner until after the show, you can easily find a place to make your evening complete. Take a siesta mid-afternoon to prepare. Be awake and ready for a late night, starting with a rewarding stop at the Borges Cultural Center: the music, the dance and the hypnotic embrace of tango.