La Catedral

High on the list of Famous Things You Are Supposed To Do in buenos aires is to go to a tango show or to a milonga (a dance hall where locals can meet and tango). Last time I was here, in march of this year, we went to a tango show at Cafe Tortoni, a famous old cafe with a stage downstairs. The dancing was impressive and beautiful, but to me felt a little flat – the dances were choreographed and rote, and the the performers seemed a bit bored – it wasn’t the passionate tango scene I was expecting. I ran out of time on that trip and never made it to a milonga where I hoped to see people dance without being on display, so on this visit I wanted to make sure I went. As I understand it, tango, while being quintessentially Argentinian, isn’t necessarily something that everyone you meet in Argentina dances regularly; but it is an important subculture that’s an integral part of the character and history of buenos aires, and I wanted to investigate a bit more, so I went along with friends to a famous milonga called La Catedral.

La Catedral being so famous, I expected it to feel a bit touristy – nice, perhaps, but also a bit superficial, with waiters dressed in 1920s style tuxes trying to pressure us into buying expensive cocktails and lots of extra costs hidden under the 60-peso entry fee. I was completely surprised and delighted by the space that we found instead – a high-ceilinged, dim, creaky beautiful dance hall, dingy and bohemian and decorated haphazardly with old, strange paintings, odd sculptures, drapes of fabric, half-broken chairs, and threadbare faded low couches lining the dance floor. It reminded me more of the set for a performance of Rent than a touristy tango hall. I was in love immediately.

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We took a tango lesson with a group of mainly foreigners, some of whom already had some experience with tango. In general I am terrible at partnered dancing; I am independent and hate feeling that I’m not in control, which makes me a difficult dance partner – but I was matched with strong leaders and fell in love with the intimate, melancholic dance at once. After the lesson our teachers danced for us together, effortlessly, passionately, beautifully.

We relaxed with drinks after the lesson, trying to decide how long to stay – the proper milonga didn’t start until midnight, and it was only 8:30 – and eventually found out way to a side room where our teachers were relaxing and dancing a bit and we got in some more practice away from the main dance floor.

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At midnight, a live band began to play, violins and ostinatto and a strange small guitar that reminded me of a dulcimer, beautiful and sad. A man came out to dance the gaucho flamenco-like stomping dance – I don’t know the name – proud and flamboyant and violent. Then the milonga began and the floor was full of pacing couples. I don’t know where Catedral figures in the true tango scene, whether it’s a serious dance hall or not, but it was absolutely not a tourist show – there were pairs from every age group, from dignified gentlemen whirling pretty and graceful young women in high heels, next to casually dressed young men in sneakers, to girls in sandals and leggings; even one couple dressed a bit goth, with the woman holding herself gracefully in a laced corset. Even sporting my travel stained flip-flops, I was asked to dance several times and did my best, though my skill level is still so basic that my patient partners all politely escorted me back to my seat after one or two rounds.

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The milonga started at midnight and I expect would have continued until four or five in the morning, in true buenos aires fashion. We left at two, all of us wishing we had the evergy to stay longer while the milonga pulsed on, and vowing to come back within the week to dance again.