Variation in Traditional Tango Venues in Buenos Aires

In the previous TangoVoice post Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics the standard characteristics of Buenos Aires milongas were described – the seating of men, women, and couples in separate sections, the use of the cabeceo to invite someone to dance, the playing of tango music from the 30s, 40s, and 50s for dancing, the tanda structure of music, and the respect for others’ space on the floor in the circulating ronda. Milongas where these codigos are observed have sometimes been called ‘traditional milongas’, mostly by those outside the porteño culture, because in Buenos Aires this is the image porteños who dance tango have of ‘milongas’, i.e., no modifier ‘tradicional’ is needed. Nevertheless, even within the tango culture that has maintained these traditions for more than 60 years, there are some variations in tango venues with respect to their standard characteristics. Understanding this variation is important when making comparisons with ‘non-traditional’ tango venues in Buenos Aires, and with the variation in tango social dance venues that exist outside Argentina.

According to the listing in the Buenos Aires Tango Guia Trimestral (Oct-Dec 2009) there are 133 tango social dance events at salones bailables (‘dance halls’) in the city of Buenos Aires, and 24 more in the suburbs (Gran Buenos Aires). Shahrukh Merchant’s web page Guide to Buenos Aires Milongas lists 178 tango venues in Buenos Aires city and suburbs, but includes 9 events listed as practicas. Combining both of these listings and omitting duplications, there are 219 widely advertised tango social dance venues in greater Buenos Aires each week. These numbers are estimates because there are always milongas that are suspended and new ones that appear. Within this range of tango dance venues, there is variation along several dimensions, including the clientele, the music, and the social and dance customs.

Variation in Time of Event

There is variation in the time of day at which tango social dance events begin and end. There are ‘matinee milongas’ that may begin as early as 3 PM (Confiteria Ideal, Nuevo Salon La Argentina), although the typical matinee milonga starts around 6 PM and ends around midnight. There are late night milongas that usually start between 8 PM – 11 PM and end between 2 PM – 4 PM in the morning (often 5 PM on Saturday and Sunday morning).

Variation in Demographic Characteristics

As one would expect, porteños comprise the overwhelming majority of dancers at tango dance venues in Buenos Aires. The porteños who dance tango are primarily ‘working class’, broadly defined (blue collar, office clerical workers and service industry workers, including retired individuals from these occupational classes). However, there is a noticeable representation of professional classes as well. Tango social dancing in Buenos Aires is primarily the activity of middle age and elderly people (mainly people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s). Some milongas (e.g., El Arranque) have a higher average age of dancers. Within the last decade there has been a noticeable increase in the number of young adults participating in tango social dance activities.

As tango has become popular around the world in the last two decades, the influx of tourists who dance tango has increased significantly, particularly since the devaluation of the Argentine peso in January 2002, which has made travel to Argentina relatively inexpensive. Tango tourists are largely college-educated individuals who have the financial means to afford travel to Buenos Aires. At traditional tango dance venues, the proportion of tourists who are young adults (30s and 40s) is typically higher than the proportion of porteños in that age group. On weekdays, tourists and younger dancers in general tend to comprise a larger proportion of the dancers at late night milongas than at the matinee milongas.

Variation in Music

A Buenos Aires law passed in December 2006 defines a ‘milonga’ largely on the basic of the type of music played for dancing. The law specifies that the music be structured into tandas of tango, milonga, or vals, or other rhythms with 4 of 5 danceable pieces of the same rhythm from the same orchestra or various orchestras with the same style, separated by cortinas, which indicate a change of rhythm or of orchestra. (In actuality, tandas typically have 4 pieces, with tandas of the milonga rhythm typically having 3 pieces.) The musical program needs to have at least 70% tango, milonga, and vals to be called a ‘milonga’. The law also allows for the performance of live music for dancing tango. When a dance venue in Buenos Aires offers less than 70% tango music, it is typically called a ‘baile’. Although almost all milongas will have some ‘other rhythms’ (jazz, rock n’ roll, tropical, Argentine folk), a baile will have around 50% or more of ‘other rhythms’ in addition to tango. Examples of bailes that are regularly advertised in Buenos Aires Tango as having ‘todos los ritmos’ are Rivadavia Club (Friday and Saturday) and Boedo Tango (Friday and Saturday). Tourists typically attend ‘milongas’ and not ‘bailes’.

Live music is relatively rare at Buenos Aires tango dance events. Live music suitable for dancing tango is more or less a regular feature at Salon Canning on Tuesdays, and at La Baldosa (Salon El Pial) and Salon La Argentina on Fridays, and occasionally at other tango dance venues.

Variation in the Seating Arrangements

The separation of seating into men’s, women’s and couple’s section is typically suspended on Saturday nights, which is the night for couples to go dancing. (For example, on Saturday nights Club Pedro Echague admits only couples.) If separate men’s and women’s sections are maintained, they tend to be smaller than during the rest of the week.

Variation by Geographic Location

Tango dance venues in Buenos Aires also differ somewhat depending on location. In downtown Buenos Aires and nearby neighborhoods (San Nicolas, Monserrat, Constitucion, San Telmo, Balvanera, San Cristobal) tango dance venues tend to be visited by people commuting from various parts of Buenos Aires, as well as by tourists. The tango venues in these neighborhoods are typically milongas as defined by the music played, and traditional in the seating arrangements and use of the cabeceo. These milongas are mostly visited by porteños with a varying amount of tourists depending on the time of the year. Examples of traditional porteño milongas are Centro Region Leonesa, Lo de Celia, Club Gricel, El Beso, Plaza Bohemia (except Wednesday night ‘La Marshall’), Nuevo Salon La Argentina (‘El Arranque’ afternoon milongas), and Chique. Examples of downtown milongas that are still traditional in format but with a higher proportion of tourists are Confiteria Ideal, Porteño y Bailarin and Niño Bien (Thursday night at Leonesa). At tourist-oriented milongas it is common for tango instructors to be circulating among the tables advertising their classes and availability for private lessons. Often tables are inundated with flyers advertising tango instruction and milongas. At tourist-oriented milongas violations of milonga codigos are more common than at porteño milongas. Most common codigo violations are approaching a table to extend a dance invitation, moving in and out of the ronda, and use of exhibition moves such as high boleos and ganchos. These violations are not limited to tourists; it is as though some porteños relax their adherence to milonga codes when tourists are present in high numbers. On rare occasions one can observe same sex couples (almost always two women) dancing. This violation of milonga codes appears to be committed only by tourists.

In the remainder of Buenos Aires, more distant from downtown, tango social dances are frequently held in community centers and social clubs, or “clubes del barrio”. The people attending the club del barrio are more likely to know one another and interact on a regular basis. It is typical for a club del barrio to have a restaurant serving dinner, and friends often gather to have dinner before dancing begins. In contrast, some downtown tango milongas serve little more than empanadas, pizza, and ham and cheese sandwiches, and most people do not eat anyway, consuming only beverages; in downtown milongas there is no period before a milonga begins when people just gather to eat and socialize; instead there may be tango classes before milongas. There tend to be other differences between the downtown tango dance salons and the clubes del barrio along several dimensions. It would be reasonable to characterize clubes del barrio as more likely to host a ‘baile’ than a ‘milonga’, in that more non-tango music (rock n’ roll, ‘tropical’ and folk dances) is played. Also, in the scheduling of tango social dances, the club del barrio has a higher representation on weekends than on weeknights. The proportion of tourists is typically low or even non-existent at clubes del barrio. A typical characterization of a club del barrio tango event is a Saturday night baile in a restaurant or community center distant from downtown where most or all attendees are porteño couples who know each other and socialize with friends at dinner before dancing.

Variation in non-traditional tango social dance venues in Buenos Aires will be discussed in a future post.

Sources of Information

The primary sources of information for all TangoVoice posts are personal experience and conversations with porteños active in tango.

For this post, additional general sources of information include the following:
– Buenos Aires Tango Guia Trimestral (Oct-Dec 2009).
– Shahrukh Merchant. Guide to Buenos Aires Milongas.
– Cherie Magnus. Tango Salons in Buenos Aires.

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5 Responses to Variation in Traditional Tango Venues in Buenos Aires

  1. jantango says:

    Excellent overview of the milongas.

    Maria Peralta runs Milonga de los 40 in Confiteria Ideal on Saturday night which always has an orchestra for two 30-minute sets. Centro Region Leonesa is another venue hosting orchestras on stage.

    Live music is costly to organizers which requires a technician for microphones and stage setup. To offset the cost of an orchestra, the entrada will be higher for the milonga.

  2. cherie says:

    Thank you for citing my article on BuenosTours.com

    Just a couple of small corrections: there are several “clubes de barrio” within the main city of BsAs, such as Saraza & Club Oeste in Caballito, Salon Kamel, the club on Venezuela, etc. It is correct that few foreigners go there and that everyone tends to know each other.

    The other thing is that a few of the downtown milongas have kitchens and do serve dinners, such as Gricel, El Beso, and Sueño Porteño in Boedo has a restaurant.

    • tangovoice says:

      Yes, there are certainly many ‘clubes del barrio’ within the city limits of Buenos Aires, just not many (if any) near downtown. The distinction in tango social dance venues that many have drawn has been between ‘downtown’ and ‘in the barrios’. Boedo (Sueño Porteño) was not included in ‘downtown’ although neighboring and only slightly closer to downtown San Cristobal (Gricel) was. Perhaps this is an artificial distinction. Thanks for mentioning that Gricel and El Beso have restuarants. Confiteria Ideal also does. The difference between these locations and ‘los clubes del barrio’ is that few people eat dinner at the former, and there is no pre-milonga time for eating and socializing before dancing as there is in ‘los clubes del barrio’. In any case, there are few absolute distinctions between tango social dance venues based on location, only trends.

  3. tangobob says:

    Would you class Villa Crespo as downtown? Maybe not. Club Fulgor is a Club de Barrio which we now frequent, we are perhaps the only exrtanjeros there. In fact when we first went there they refused to let us in, now we are treated as locals. When we leave the all wish us a good time in Inglatera.
    Thanks for the usefull article, I can point people to this now and say “see this really is how it is, you do not have to take just my word for it”

    • tangovoice says:

      Villa Crespo is not downtown. It is more distant from the Buenos Aires downtown area than is Palermo, and Palermo is not considered a ‘downtown’ area with respect to tango venues, for reasons that will become apparent in a later post.

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