My friend is a tango-shoe virgin — so far she’s been dancing in footwear that resembles ankle boots and, I imagine, must deliver very sweaty results on 35-degree, early-summer days. I say this based solely on knowledge of my own feet which, alas, do not stay muy dry after three hours of dancing, even in winter. We’re standing on the corner of Montevideo and Avenida Santa Fe in Buenos Aires, at 11 o’clock in the morning on the first Saturday in December. I’m remembering my own first tango ‘danced’ in leather-soled cowboy boots from Mongolia, and the pair of shoes that followed those boots: ugly black closed-toe affairs bought in a dance shop in Basingstoke in 2006.
I’m looking for a pair today, too, I tell my friend, I might treat myself… if I find the perfect shoe.
It’s almost eighteen months since I bought my 2x4alpie favourites, and I’ve neither bought nor worn anything else since. I’ve been waiting for the new models of 2x4s for women to be ready, but they’re not due till next year. So, I need a fresh-smelling pair of tango shoes that will feel comfortable from the moment I step into them and that can cope with a pretty intense workout on dance floors of stone (common here in BsAs) as well as of wood. I don’t really expect to find anything that fit the bill, to be honest, but introducing a girlfriend to some of the tango shoe stores in Buenos Aires is a great opportunity to see what’s on the market as we approach 2011.
In Recoleta we visit Taconeando (on Arenales), GretaFlora (the new store on Uruguay) and Comme il Faut (just off Arenales in its slightly-tricky-to find-if-you-don’t-know-it’s-down-an-alley-and-up-some-stairs location).
Taconeando has prices as low (and therefore as relatively affordable) as around $300pesos, a red and black pair that my friend loves, but not in her size, and nothing to tempt me, because I already know their styles (though I like the youthful, trendy look of some) don’t work on my feet. The shop assistant leaves us to it, but tells us the shoes available are only those on display — no other sizes — which seems a bit odd, and I can’t help wondering about the economic climate, the rampant inflation in Buenos Aires and how tango-shoe businesses are being affected by the combination of the two. The brand retains its original designs, but the shop itself does not have the up energy that it had the first time I went in there in 2008. We move on.
We are the only customers in the new GretaFlora store. The store has a classy, designed-for-Recoleta feel, but I’m a bit disappointed to realise we’re in a store selling mainly street shoes for around $700-plus pesos a pair; the tango shoes — which do have a beautifully-crafted look — are from $580pesos (I think the assistant says that) and I’m afraid I decide on the spot that I’d probably save that sort of cash for a shoe with an interchangeable sole, in other words the new models of 2x4s due in 2011. While admiring the stunning leather and stone-cluster clip-on flowers behind the counter (a relative bargain at $90pesos a pair), we learn from the friendly and kind assistant that it’s the Palermo GretaFlora store that has the full range of tango shoes… this new store is really for weddings, parties, luxury footwear for off the dance floor. No-one else comes in while we are there. We thank her and move on.
I already know I won’t be buying anything in Comme il Faut as I just don’t find their shoes flexible enough or cushioned enough for my slightly damaged left big-toe joint (I’ve got 4 pairs of CiFs in my kitchen cupboard that I never wear). However, once my bum is on that velvet couch of theirs, I can’t resist trying a pair in black patent leather … but no, I was right, the toe bar is way too hard for that left foot, so I hand them back fast. My friend, on the other hand, predictably falls in love, with a delicate design in red and black that conjures words like France and sex and goddess and daring romance. She spontaneously starts doing adornos on the carpet in front of the mirror and clapping her hands, and I see the SOLD sign reflected in the shop assistant’s eyes. But, it seems, my friend is not the impulse buyer that I myself can be. She leaves her heart’s desires in a box with her name on it and promises to call before 3 o’clock if she wants them. We’re told they’re $440pesos for cash (surprisingly similar to the 2009 price) including $10pesos to get cromo (a coarse suede suitable for the average dance floor) sole put over the standard leather (slippery on wooden floors). As we leave, two female customers come into the store to take our place. I think I count four assistants ready to serve them. A quiet Saturday or the norm these days? I seem to remember the sofas overflowing with eager punters in the past. We leave Recoleta behind and make for the scruffier Microcentro.
We walk a roundabout route up Esmeralda to take in TangoBrujo (I was once tempted by the comfort and trendy denim of a pair of shoes in there), but instead of the buzzing shop and high-energy tango school I was expecting to find, I’m confronted with the sad face of a dusty, locked building that offers only a feeble memory of tango, trapped in a few remnants of window signage. Perhaps only the ‘go’ in tango is left there, stuck in time on the glass, and we do indeed move on, with me muttering, I knew there was something up when they closed for renovations last year… hell, I’ll have to cover it again on the Happy Tango updates blog. My energy drops a notch at the loss of a place that so many of my younger friends enjoyed over the years, but I remind myself that sometimes things have to fade so that new things can grow in their space. I march my friend on.
How many more shops can we fit in before they close (3pm or even 2pm on a Saturday)? The six clustered on Suipacha? I’m thinking this, when into my mind pops the image of a metallic lime green toe-bar with an embroidered swirl — an Alanis shoe I saw in the window of Diagonal Norte 936 in 2009. I remember the shop and realise that I am almost standing outside it. The door of the tiny store is open. And inside, a smiley woman is dancing, kind of bopping actually, to tango music, as she organises the window display. Her vibrant energy reaches me before I get to the threshold. Let’s just do this one first, I say to my friend. And we go in.
Hey! How lovely to see you dancing so happily, I say aloud to the woman, in my heavily British-accented Spanish. I can’t help myself… the words tumble out to greet her.
I’m Silvia Alanis! She almost sings it, And these are my shoes. I design them!
She enthuses to us about the old models, the new models, the details that she is most proud of. She darts around the shop, touching this shoe and that. I notice the stitched signatures, the pink heart in the Alanis logo, the Alanis strapline You can fly! and the fresh leather smell of the new models for the summer season being unpacked on the floor. Silvia Alanis proceeds to help me find exactly the style that will feel secure and strong on my feet, and as she does so, we talk about the addictive nature of tango, about the milongas, about the men in the milongas. We laugh a lot. I sense that her business is alive and kicking and, I hope, growing. I know I want to wear her energy when I dance. It shouts CREATIVITY AND PASSION! I buy two pairs of her shoes at $430 pesos each. I show her Happy Tango, and the Alanis entry in it under 10 Tango Shoe Stores, tell her how the lime-green toe bar and embroidered swirl stayed in my mind and led me back to the shop one year on.
I reckon we are with her about an hour, though we do pop round the corner to the stores on Suipacha (still there but with one or two small changes not really worth mentioning), where my friend buys a Titania-worthy pair of deep-green shoes in a packed-with-customers Flabella for less than $300pesos, while Silvia Alanis makes final adjustments to my own new shoes down the road. On our return she puts the shoes on my feet and measures exactly where the holes in the straps should go. I leave the store beaming and confident that I won’t sit in the milonga later wishing that I had a hole punch in my kit bag.
By the time we’ve trekked back to Comme il Faut for the red-and-blacks, it’s 2.55pm. Comme is about to close, but now it’s heaving with customers (so perhaps GretaFlora and Taconeando are too) and I realise that the many tango visitors who frequent the night-time milongas (and the tango shoe stores) are probably not out shopping at 11am in the morning. Unlike me who wakes at 6am to have breakfast with C. before he heads off to work, even on a Saturday, and who dances in the early-evening milongas as a result. I can choose to dance three hours at a Traditional-style** milonga and still be in bed by midnight, thank God.
My friend and I laugh our goodbyes with excited voices wishing each other well for the night’s dancing and for the new shoe try outs. I can’t wait to step into a pair of mine at Los Consagrados where I’m headed later.
But, I’m a little nervous. How will it be to be led on to the pista with an unknown quantity on my feet — brand new shoes carrying only the energy of Alanis and whoever else has touched the leather? My 2x4s may be well worn and in need of fresh air and retirement, but how many miles have they danced with my soul? They are packed with a sense of security and familiarity, memories of my tango footwork, imprints of every piece of music that has resonated through them. They’re the first dance shoes that have felt as a perfectly moulded extension of me. Can I ever get that feeling again? Should I really have trusted my heart in deciding to take Silvia Alanis into the embraces of ‘the milongueros I love the most’? Or should I have kept scrubbing the 2x4s with CIF cleaning creme for a little longer?
The night ahead holds the answers, and as I turn from waving my friend chau, I can’t help noticing the slight slink and swagger in my walk, as I stride down Corrientes towards the moment when I will take my new shoes onto the dance floor to lose their virginity…
Dammit. Who says tango isn’t about sex?
For pics of my old and new tango shoes, in all their December 2010 glory, click here.
There is a good interview with the founder of Taconeando, Marlene Heyman, in the November edition of the Cambalache magazine, which appears to be a new and topical ‘tango magazine’ first published in April 2010; the website is very informative with details of concerts and other events posted. Enjoy.
**For my definition of a Traditional-style Buenos Aires milonga, you’ll have to read a copy of Happy Tango — my book.
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Author: Sally Blake
Published by: Pirotta Press Ltd
Publication date: 30 June 2010