A Truer Tango for Tourists: Narrative Tango Tours Posted on 09 May 04:16 , 0 comments

Article by Sharon Salt.  Photo – El Cabeceo, by Tom Gettelfinger.

cabeceo narrative tango tours buenos airesTango has earned its place on the top of any Buenos Aires tourist to-do list, and with good reason. But while plenty of tourists are happy to cross it off with a dinner-and-a-show performance, few actually venture out to a milonga, where tango is not polished and choreographed and set before an audience, but instead left raw, improvised, and truly felt.

Giving tourists a glimpse of this “truer” tango, if you will, is the goal of Cyrena Drusine, head of Narrative Tango Tours. There is a chasm of difference between tango shows and milongas, and she wants to show that to everyone — but most of all, to the people just passing through, to those who might not otherwise see it. So Narrative Tango Tours offers its services in milongas, with professional tango dancers as guides, so that the curious might understand tango through the eyes of its dancers. In my case, I was sent to meet with guide Francisca Durão, a classically trained dancer from Portugal, at Villa Malcolm.

Francisca came to Buenos Aires to study architecture but stayed for tango. In fact, the topic of her architecture thesis slowly worked its way into as much tango territory as possible. In the end, she was left examining the way tango influenced city planning; for example, though tango originated as a dance between men, they were soon traveling outside of the city to find dancing partners in brothels as the dance wasn’t yet considered refined enough for an educated, well-mannered woman. It wasn’t until people began dancing tango in public plazas in Paris that it became acceptable in Buenos Aires, and from there, the structure and placement of plazas began to change.

If the milonga is a savannah where one must know every unspoken rule or risk committing a serious faux-paus, Francisca was my safari guide. She reserved us a table at Villa Malcolm, where we had a prime view of the dance floor despite the crowd. Between songs, she taught me the history of tango, its place in the dance family tree, and how to differentiate between genres of tango by the musical count. She also taught me some rules of the ever-mysterious, ever-nuanced tango etiquette — most importantly the cabeceo.

If you haven’t yet seen a cabeceo, that’s because you’re not supposed to. The cabeceo is a barely perceptible nod from a man to a woman as an invitation to dance, sometimes done from across the room. If the woman accepts, she will smile or nod back or look at the dance floor, and it is only at this point that the man will rise from his table and find her. It not only saves time, given a full dance floor and close tables, but it also saves everyone the humility of rejection, should she decline the invitation.

Francisca, in true safari-guide form, even tried to catch a few cabeceos and point them out to me, though I was often too mesmerized by the other dancers to see them myself.

At the end of the night, there was a performance.  The woman was beautifully witchy, matching the eerie melancholy of the song with long white hair, fishnet tights, and a wispy black skirt. And the performance was beautiful as well, but for me, having just seen Francisca’s eyes light up at the details and history of the milonga, of this “truer” tango, I found myself wishing that all tango was improvised. The performance, beautiful though it was, seemed there as though to remind us of the absolute beauty that had transpired just before it on the same dance floor — the tango that had passed, unplanned and unseen, between dozens of pairs.