La Dulce in Buenos Aires

My journal of my trip to Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires 5: My Shoe Heaven

I feel I owe it to my sisters in stilettos to report on my visit (er, visits) to that fount of footwear fantasies, that haute of tango shoe couture, that Taj Mahal for tangueras the world over – the Comme Il Faut shoe shop.

It’s in Recoleta, one of the smartest areas of Buenos Aires, down an alley of expensive-looking little emporia. A discreet black and white sign is all that indicates that here lies the box Pandora wishes she’d opened; instead of disease and war and poverty, we’d have had a world full of satin and lace and contented, though poor, women.

Back to one woman with her pesos burning a hole in her pocket as she sets off on a quest for sartorial satisfaction. But wait, she wants to share the joy, so scoot up a flight of stairs with me, chicas, stop to genuflect at the row of colourful shoes depicted on the sign outside the locked door, then listen to the tinkle as I ring the bell for admittance to the inner sanctum of shoes. It opens slowly. A friendly woman, in black, on seeing my camera, tells me politely that no pictures may be taken inside. Okay, no problem, I’ll promise her my firstborn if she’ll just let me in.

Now I’m in, and surprised - this multi-million-peso business, boasts a flagship store no bigger than an average 2-up & 2-down sitting room. Three plush pink benches are arranged around a small square of carpet in front of an enormous gilt-framed mirror. Aside from the dozen women staring enraptured at the reflection of their feet encased in CIF creations (in jade or azure or magenta or gold, with bows, frills, fretwork or sequins, in snakeskin or suede or satin or lace.)

If it weren’t for the adoring looks women are giving their newly shod feet, you wouldn’t know you were in a shoe store. There is not a shoe rack in sight; no styles to point a quivering finger at and breathlessly ask: “Do you have it in a size 37?” Not only is there no shop window to press your nose against, but in-store there are only four shoes in a small display case situated too high up for one to drool over. As you’ve no doubt noticed, CIF’s web page is similarly enigmatic.)

Once you’re ensconced on a bench, an assistant approaches and asks you for your size and colour preference. And that’s it - no discussion about style, heel- height, fabric or leather. ( I was gutted. I’d learned all the Spanish terminology for pointy heel cage – “talón de caja en puente”, T-bar style in suede – “estilo con T-bar en gamuza” and I wouldn’t be seen dead in those…… “¡mentirosa! )

Hushed-tone English is spoken here, and similarly subdued Japanese and French and Italian and Russian. We were all trying to be cool about the confections presented to us by assistants who whip lids off shoe boxes like they are silver salvers at a grand banquet. Actually, it was sweeter than that -- like being offered a whole trayful of Godiva chocolates. And better still, these treats are calorie-free. A girl’s gotta go-diva in. So I did, spurring on my tanguera sisters with cries of “Bellisima”, “Muy lindo” and “Those are to die for. You must have them!” confident that even if she settled on the same style as mine, they’d be gracing a floor in a different part of the world. )

How many pairs did I buy? Well, all I say is, not as many as the small Chinese woman with the large credit card. She was dwarfed by a shoe box wall as long as the great wall of China.
“How many?” I whispered to Maru, the manager, by now my new best friend.
“¡santo cielo! She must be buying them to sell back home, “
“No, all for her.”
“But she’d have to be a centipede to wear them all in one dance lifetime.”
Maru did the Argentine equivalent of sucking her teeth before she pointed me to an article on the noticeboard. It was about a woman who owned 400 pairs of CIFs. And only two legs.

Perhaps she uses them as objets d’arte? Sandra of Gallo Ciego tango, keeps hers on display on her bookshelves.

~ La Dulce que quiero estar un sentipid

Buenos Aires 4: Ocho cortados

Seems to me, milongas in Buenos Aires are adornment-free zones. No wonder. Bumping into another couple on a teeming floor like El Beso's, earns the leader daggered glares -- you'd think the bumpee's firstborn had been eviscerated by a nine-centimeter CIF.

Demonstrations are performed every night at every milonga by seriously good dancers; these could be professionals or talented amateurs, ranging from 13 to 113. Though these ‘shows' can be drenched in decoration, they seem to be improvised in true Argentine tango style.

One night, a host who obviously knew that the demo had been choreographed, requested a bonus dance from the overly-slick couple. They obliged and the impromptu dance received rousing applause.


Imagine a volcada executed at a 75-degree off-axis angle by both dancers. I saw these and other gravity-defying feats at a concert in the park one sticky, picnicky night. Along with half of Buenos Aires, we’d queued for hours to see this famous aerial tango troupe. The show was thrilling.

Suspended via harnesses fastened around their middles, the dancers executed. extreme moves 10-foot off the ground. (Very tough on the abdominal muscles, says Moscow’s main maestra, Mila Vigdorova, with whom I had a daily lesson. She’s tried aerial and says it wrecks.)



Shout out to Stokie, back in Blighty -- stay well away from core challenges, big boy.

La Dulce learned he suffered tango trauma soon after being introduced to the concept of using his abs. for ocho-steering. (Amir Giles's tango beginner lesson at the Metropolis weekender - see review) So excited was our StokeBloke that he laid his new-found leading skill at the disposal of every beginner on the huge dance floor.

The result of this over-ocho-ing? “I had trouble lifting my toothbrush, let alone a suitcase when we had to check out of the hotel the next morning.”

Back in BsAs, I saw three old musicians mosey into a restaurant where we were dining royally with the queen of tango teachers, Graciela Gonzales.

She was subdued, still in mourning for Tete and other recently deceased tango greats. But the trio played a milonga so merry, the doyenne kicked off her flip-flops, grabbed a fella, and trapsied between the tables. Soon she had us all galloping amidst the gaucho-sized steaks.


Stepping out of that treasure trove of tango music, Zivals, one afternoon, what should I spy speeding down Avenida Corrientes, but a penis on a bicycle. I was reminded of Irina Dunn's famous observation that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. (See prick; I mean pic.)

Turns out that the giant willy on wheels was advertising a play, not sexy home-deliveries for the keen but green.

Did you know that there is no truth to story about tango's origins being the bordellos of Buenos Aires?

Argentine academics attribute the rumour to police reports of raiding ‘clandestinos' where there was dancing. These joints were busted not because they were brothels but because they sold unlicensed booze. The historical police reports on clandestinos contain no charges related to prostitution, I'm told.

You can tell a man by his embrace. So says a porteña friend who claimed that within 20 seconds of being offered his palm she knew whether he had “learned his tango from his mother's milk” or from a tango school. I tested her by questioning a couple of our mutual partners. She was right every time.

~ La Dulce extraña Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires 3: Learning a cabaceo lesson

5th February 2010

Our tango tour guides have decided we are ready for a traditional milonga – the kind where men and women sit apart and the cabaceo is all.

After the sticky heat of Buenos Aires, even at midnight, the coolness of El Beso is bliss. We are shown to our reserved table; en route I feel the scorch of dozens of eyes. I am planted amidst the serried rows of women along one of the long ends of the room. In our finery, we are blooms in an overcrowded herbaceous border. The men, no more dressed up than your average gardener (sigh) sit soberly around small tables at the short ends of the room.

They don’t appear to be engaging in nice-piece-of-ass-talk. Nevertheless, I feel as self-conscious as a teenager at her first dance; also compromised as a feminist. A piece of meat in a display cabinet. I sulk and refuse to meet the eyes of men looking my way. I talk avidly to the women at my table, some of whom are strangers plonked there by the hostess. But these ladies have come to dance and will not be distracted. They sit quietly, seeming to stare into space, but some clandestine transaction takes place with seemingly indifferent men across the room, and soon they are rising to dance. I wonder idly about the challenges this creates for the short-sighted.

The dancers are good and the music is even better. Finally I glance towards the table where the boys in our team are sitting. I accept the nod from mi favorito, José Luis, and we are off, milongo-ing with the best of them. All the practicars and lessons are paying off; mi mini-maestro who never uses English, says “Ber gud” at the end of the tanda – (These can be anything from three to five songs, I notice. No problema -- I didn’t miss the lead once, says Favorito.)

And then the hidden DJ plays a tanda of JIVE tracks. Oh-oh, ohhh - my feet are tapping, my shoulders twitching. Dondé estan my jive-tango homies? Only a few people get up to dance. I am not one of them. Now I see the result of behaving like a milonguera who does not want to be asked. Cabaceo-culture respects that. A woman who only wants to watch will not be plagued by unwanted attention. Hmmm, could there be advantages to this antiquated ritual?

I’ve no sooner begun to soften my attitude when I get a very clear query from a handsome man across the room. There is irony in the quizzical rise of his eyebrow so I can’t resist smiling acceptance. He says he noticed me dancing the milonga -- his favourite. (So, another advantage to this ritual of display, I see- double hmmmmmm.) I try to explain that I only looked good because I was being led by a porteño teacher, but it’s bad form to talk during the dance, so off we go. Handsome is diplomatic too and he dances with such joy he makes my whole body smile.

I see the diplomat again the next night at Nino Bien, a traditional milonga in a rather stylish old hall. Here one can sit in mixed groups and the standard of dancing is remarkably high, even by Buenos Aires standards. It turns out the local teachers are in, trawling for pupils. I get the cabaceo from one, and stumble in his lead, but he doesn’t offer me his card. Dunno if this a good or a bad sign? Then a Steve McQueen look-alike accosts me in the aisle and uses actual words to ask me to dance. His movement proves as novel as his approach.

Tango is was not, but it was wonderfully expressive. He seems delighted at my ability to follow his inventions, so asks me twice more. (My group are raising their eyebrows and Favorito is muttering something about prometido, which I think refers to engagement.) When Expressive returns me to my table (I love the way porteños do that – they place their hands in the small of your back, deliver you to your chair and give you one final compliment, spoken or implied, before melting away.) The Expressive one asks if I would like to have his card. I decline. He insists. I tell him my husband would not like it.; that usually does the trick.

“So, you are married,” he twinkles, “but you are not dead.”

La Dulce que veo la queda mucho por aprender

Buenos Aires 2: Swaying - ¡no permiso!

30th January 2010

It’s been four days now, and I’ve danced so much I feel as though I’m tangoing even when I’m not. I hear milonga music everywhere – in the stores, in the taxis, in my head. I find my body swaying instinctively... Eeek! Did I say swaying? ¡No permiso! I may not do anything, even fantasize, without moving my entire core; and mi corazon – en completo. More about dancing with one’s heart, later….

My tango technique, such as it was, has been annihilated. I have learned that I know absolutely nothing about this dance. I don’t appear to have mastered even basic walking. Por que? You guessed it… I wasn’t using my core to move my legs. And if having “wilful legs “ain’t bad enough, apparently I have a “wilful embrace” which (look away now, Best Button, here comes your worst thing) can pull my partner off axis. BLUSH! And then there’s the absent heart thing…

There have been some dark moments under this blazing sky, and during many of them, as I battled my ballet curse (makes me place my feet prettily instead of stepping through them; makes me lock my knees instead of keeping them soft, makes my knees turn out, instead of in…). I won’t bore you with my woes, all I’ll say is that I’m confident I’ll grow out of it.

Moira Castellano, who gave me a revelatory follower’s technique class yesterday, says it took her two years. Her movement is inspiring -- like silk drawn slowly over a thigh.

In fact, all the teaching has been inspirational. Somewhere, on this website, with the permission of the blogmeister, I’ll list some of the gems dished out by teachers I’ve been lucky enough to take classes with. In due course. Better still, I’ll buy a bigger suitcase and in it I shall put Mi Favorito – José Luis Lavayén and bring him back to Blighty so you can share the joy.

José Luis has been dancing since he was 12 and though he speaks not a word of English I feel I’ve learned more from him in three days than I have in a year. He practices with us (only four of us in our group, and three teachers – bliss) every day, accompanies us to external classes if a partner is needed, and best of all, comes to the various milongas every night where he displays us to our best advantage on the dance floor so we get lots of dances from other men afterwards. He runs a taxi dancing service here so check him out if you’re heading this way.

You don’t need to speak Spanish – his lead and his embrace will say it all.

La Dulce que veo la queda mucho por aprender

Buenos Aires 1: A Tango Taxi

28th January 2010

Where else in the world might you be collected from the airport by a man who used to be a well-known tanguero? That’s what I understood the gently charming Señor Manuel to be saying, anyway. My host, Korey Ireland, confirmed this over maté (like drinking tobacco) when I met up with him at the labyrinthine Luna Llena where I’m staying.

Imagine a tall 18th century Parisian townhouse. You step in over the broken paving stones and you’re in an enclosed courtyard. Below lies a sunken dance floor framed by massive mirrors. Staircases spiral up to bedrooms several with wrought iron balconies that overlook the floor. Am on the set of Carmen? Any minute torreadores are going to appear on the balconies to woo factory girls rolling cigars on their thighs as they louche on the red plush sofas scattered about.

In fact this tango house, Luna Llena, is populated by a handful of tango tourists, so there is always someone to compare notes with about the best milongas, restaurants, and shoe shops.

Now come with me through the scruffy streets of this graffittied city, to that bastion of tango history, Salon Canning. It doesn’t look much from the outside: litter, tango tat for sale, a narrow passage ending in a tired- looking red curtain. Inside, a typical salon, not dissimilar in feel to upstairs at Negracha's on any Friday night -- aside from the huge photographic collage showing famous habitués like Gavito and the recently deceased Tete which adorns an entire wall.

The difference lies in the floor craft and musicality of most of the leaders . These fellows know how to hold a woman, to court her wordlessly so the three minutes of dance feel like a marriage proposal. Never once was I exposed to bumps, buffets and heel stabs. Aside from this gallantry, these caballeros also instigate delicious little leads in perfect harmony with the music. Let’s face it, Porteños are born to do it.

And guess who was there last Saturday night doing a display? Our own (well, Edinburgh’s, to be exact) Jenny Francis and Ricardo Oria. And their routine was dazzling. At one stage, amidst a fizzing, flashing sacada and pivot routine, the cognocenti crowd burst into applause. That was the best I’ve personally seen the pair dance.

But I’m ignoring the elephant in the room, aren’t I? The one sitting knitting in high heels because she couldn’t crack the cabaceo. After Amir’s advice I didn’t think I’d need to master the technique. But at Canning it was necesario. And Readers, I bossed it! I was out of my seat for every second tanda. Admittedly, I need to work on my cool. I was so thrilled to be there and to be asked to danced by locals, I grinned like a kid in a candy store (Candy in a Comme Il Faut store? More on that later.)

The downside of being so approachable was exhaustion. Not from dancing, but from trying to follow the flow of the Frenchified Argentinian Spanish directed at me between tracks – sometimes well into them. They are so chatty, these milongueros. And their dialect is mesmerising to listen to -- like wind susserating through the Pampas grasses. I tended to edit out the words and went with the macho melody once I explained how poco my command of Spanish was. The hombres were undeterred, avid for comprehension.

One partner’s question seemed so urgent I led him to my table and asked my maestro to translate. Turns out his life depended upon my having dinner with him. That’ll teach me to tune into the song instead of the subtext.

Hasta luego.

La Dulce en Buenos Aires

Boy-oh, voy a ... BsAs!

21st January 2010

Well my suitcase is packed , including the empty one I hope to bring back full... of shoes, of course. I've checked the weather forecast... between 28 and 31 degrees of pure sunshine every day I'm there. (Eat your heart out.) A Senor Miguel will meet me at the airport and drive me to my tango house (with dance floor) in leafy-looking Palermo, tango lessons, assistants, masseurs, shopping and milongas are laid on. (Finished the heart? Do you eat liver?)

So why am I feeling apprehensive?

What if no-one wants to dance with me? What if I get to a milonga at the legendary Salon Canning and I never get the cabaceo? What if I do, but come over all English and look away? Apparently that means I'm not interested so I may sit there all night like a pale planchadora, white and weedy among the flower of tanned tangueras. I haven't packed my knitting. Perhaps I should?

Nah. I'll take heart from what Amir Giles wrote about this:
 "Anything you hear about milongas is only true for some milongas. They are all different. For example, in almost a year there I only did a cabaceo two or three times. And one of those was to be ironic."

So do the Porteños actually walk over and say: '¿Salimos bailar?'
Is there some other expression my rudimentary Spanish won't apprehend?

And I hear the locals don't start the dance as the music begins – they stand and chat to their partners for a while first. Very nice... but my vocabulary doesn't stretch much beyond the weather, and if it's sunny all day every day, that's not going to be much of a conversation, is it? And then we must dance, and oh, I won't be good enough and they might think I have a cheek straying from my tourist confines into the tango inner sanctum where the homies dance.

Amir again:
"Don't worry about 'getting a dance with an Argentinean.'  Buenos Aires is great in the same way a football club is great. It attracts good dancers from all over."

Oooohh, that man. He soothes, he shops (brought me back the most perfect pair of shoes after his last trip to Comme Il Faut) and can he dance! (See trailer of his latest work, "Entangled" here.)

Well, time to stiffen my backbone and set off. Anyway, I have a mission – to report on "the BA scene from the point of view of an independent spirit and a creative maverick dancer." (I think he means jiver, he's just over-educated., that Tango Anarchist is. Did I tell you he once got kicked out of a milonga for doing 'The Scorpion'? ¡Olé that hombre!

Watch this space, amigos.


La Dulce con un poco de miedo