It’s yet another ordinary Sunday evening in Buenos Aires. I’m sitting nervously in the backseat of a taxi, slowly leaving Playa Mayor behind. I’m on my way to San Telmo.
The name drops excitedly from my lips. It sounds strange when I pronounce it, but yet so familiar.
Is it unknown to you? Well, allow me to introduce you to the most colourful area you will ever lay eyes on. During the day, San Telmo is a Bohemian barrio in Buenos Aires. Cobblestoned streets, reminiscent of Rome’s piazzas, are filled with cafes, hipster boutiques and effortlessly cool Argentinians. It’s a place full of life and promises – there’s always something to do here, always something to see. The streets are scented with warm days, lingering cigarette smoke, and dulche de leche. It’s a charming place, really. Melancholy, but charming. And amongst the faded European grandeur of San Telmo, you can still sense the melancholy homesickness that once used to live here. Right here in these streets, contaminating everything it touches.
At night, however, the soul and pace of San Telmo changes. Gone are the cafes and the laid back atmosphere. San Telmo after nightfall is something completely different: it’s bolder, less polished, sexy.
You see, San Telmo is the barrio of tango. At night, the streets of San Telmo turns into a big scene, practically begging its residents to dance carelessly across the cobblestoned streets. And the people are dancing. They dance in dark basements, they dance on street corners, in windowless colonial houses. San Telmo itself is bursting with an almost desperate joie de vivre.
And for one night only, I’m here to be part of it.
First Tango Lesson at Complejo Tango
I’m embarrassingly nervous as I walk in the door.
Offering some of the best tango shows in Buenos Aires, Complejo Tango is somewhat of a living legend here in San Telmo. Night after night, their talented cast perform in front of a full house. I’ve been invited over to watch their famous tango and dinner show, but the challenge? I have to complete a full tango lesson with one of their best dancers first.
I’m certainly not a professional dancer. In fact, this is my first tango lesson ever.
I’ve only ever seen tango on film. It looks sexy, it looks dramatic, it looks dangerous.
It looks like everything that I’m not.
Yet, here I am. As I walk nervously into a big hall, the Latin rhythms of a tired stereo are filling the loud silence I’m bringing with me. My body feels tense, my heart is beating hard against my ribs. I stare at the old wooden floor, following marks left by the hundreds of dancing feet that have been here before me.
And then he enters. My instructor. My partner for the night.
Daniel is sporting a golden tan. His black hair is oiled, and the three open buttons in his white shirt makes him look heartbreakingly attractive. He walks slowly over the wooden floor, each step is louder than the first. And then, suddenly, he’s right in front of me, impatiently waiting.
With my hand resting in his, he brutally pulls me onto the dancefloor. I feel completely exposed, not really sure if I will make it through and live to tell the tale.
Hips don’t lie at Complejo Tango
The next hour goes by breathtakingly quick.
It takes me a few days to notice how bruised my legs are. Everytime I fail to move my feet quickly enough, Daniel kicks me in the shin. “Attention”, he says over and over “You need to pay attention with your entire body”.
My body tries, but I’m far from as elegant as I had imagined. It’s been an hour of sexy rhythms, and Daniel effortlessly correcting my shoulders, my hands, my back, my hips, my feet. Everything is wrong, but it still feels so, so right. Everytime I successfully manage to keep up with him, he responds by increasing the pace, adding another step, completely changing the game. I’m both lost and thrilled at the same time. My hips are doing things I never expected them to, and occasionally I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, almost failing to recognize the confident movements of the girl that meets my gaze.
And then, at the end of the lesson, I realize that I have danced through an entire song with him.
The Most Breathtaking Tango Show in San Telmo
My time as a tango dancer is over, and I’ve certainly worked hard for those tickets. As I’m being lead downstairs to the main hall, with a glass of well-deserved Argentinian Malbec in hand, I can’t stop wondering if I will see Daniel on the stage.
And indeed I do. It turns out that he’s the leading man in tonight’s show.
As he moves effortlessly across stage, perfectly tuned to the dramatic latin rhythms, I can’t stop feeling a slight sting of jealousy. His dance partner is so much better than me, and the two of them seem to move by the speed of light compared to the pace I held through my lesson. Every move they make is perfect, even the dramatic gestures between them seems real. Sitting in the darkness of the audience, I feel like a voyeur, very much part of their story, watching every step they make together.
Tango is such an intense experience, you can feel it in your bones. But I don’t think you’ll fully understand until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. I don’t think you can fully understand until you’ve been chewed up by San Telmo – and then heartlessly being spat out a few hours later.
San Telmo is the kind of place where you want to live, dream, love. But it can never be your home.
San Telmo – The Hotspot of Tango in Argentina
San Telmo is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, dating back to the 17th century. It’s long been known as “intensely multicultural”, a term it earned by housing the wave of European immigrants that decided to make Argentina their home. Especially during the 20th century, San Telmo was known as the “Paris of Argentina” as it attracted a wide range of painters, writers and other bohemians. Shortly after, the barrio was officially the hotspot for tango.
Today, San Telmo is a charming tourist trap with bohemian vibes. It’s hard not to be charmed by it. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.