I would say that from the day we became ‘more than friends’, our hottest topic, of conversation, and I mean in the sense of the most contentious, has been tango. When I was single in Buenos Aires, tango was relatively straightforward. I went out to dance alone, danced with many different men, came home alone. There were some downsides. Some men clearly wanted something more than dancing and I had to develop my ‘fria’ side in order to deal with them. But I mastered the ‘cabeceo’ and so was able to avoid most of the guys that I didn’t enjoy for whatever reason. I also faced the nights when I was not a popular choice of dance partner, and the worst of those were when I was seated with women far younger and far more attractive than me: ego killing nights. But on the whole there were few complications. I knew where I was. I went out whenever I wanted. I danced with whomever I wanted. I experienced the full range of tango connections, and I fell in love with one of them…
And there the negotiation began. I learned fast that the meeting of two separate tango journeys and ‘el amor’ can complicate matters considerably. Now I suspect that this is true whatever corner of the world you live in, but possibly the complications are greater when you live in Argentina and two different tango cultures meet. I only have experience of England. There I did date someone in tango for a while, but we just carried on as we had when we were single: we went to the Milonga together but once there we both danced with whoever we wanted to. Indeed the tradition where I lived in the south of England was that if someone asked you to dance, you tried to avoid saying no. There was no ‘cabeceo’, and it was generally accepted that if you were there, whoever you with there with, you were an available dance partner. The fact that there are no tables in my local English Milongas assists this situation. When you are all just sitting round the walls on chairs it’s not always obvious who is with who. I rarely saw a tango couple who danced exclusively with each other.
So what traditions does Milonga culture offer the ‘love-tango’ partnership in Buenos Aires? Here’s my experience:
- At most Milongas there are tables. A couple may be seated together at the same table or may choose to be seated separately. At more traditional Milongas there are separate areas for men, women and groups or couples.
- If you go to a Milonga as a couple, sit together, and the man does not get up to dance with other women, other men will stay away. The etiquette is that you have gone to the Milonga together and you are therefore not seen as an available dance partner.
- If you do exactly as above, it is possible that a known male friend or dance acquaintance may approach the table to greet you both, and may request the permission of the man to dance with the woman.
- If you do exactly as above but the man gets up and dances with other women, and the woman then actively practices the ‘cabeceo’, then some other men may dance with her.
- If you go to the Milonga together but ask to be seated separately then both the woman and man are free to practice the ‘cabeceo’ as if solo, and will be able to dance with many partners as well as with each other during the evening. In this case the ‘tango-lovers’ will be able to dance together but not easily share a seated conversation, a drink or food.
A clue to why perhaps tango becomes difficult for those from England in ‘el amor’ with an Argentino, lies in the third point above: ‘and may request the permission of the man to dance with the woman’. I think that when you are with someone in Buenos Aires, you are with them, and you are seen as being theirs. In life, this is pretty much the same as in England in terms of monogamous relationships, but in terms of tango there is perhaps more of a difference. I guess that if the couple are both at a stage in their tango journey where they want to dance with many other partners, then a plan to do so may be fairly easily agreed. But if one partner is at a stage where they are happy to dance exclusively with their partner, and the other is not… well then the situation becomes more complex. The fact that, in my limited experience, Argentine culture seems to support the belief that if you, as a woman, go out to dance alone then you might also be available, or that men may think that you are available complicates things further.
So far my solution to this challenge has been to dance with my partner at night, and to go out alone, or with girlfriends in the afternoon. But surprises crop up from time to time even when I follow this rule:
- Out with him and a stranger approaches the table and asks me to dance. (To be honest only a foreigner would do this, who doesn’t know any better. But it has happened to me.)
- Out with him and someone I know or who knows us both, approaches as a tanda is starting and asks me to dance. If they ask him first, I am grateful for their courtesy. If they don’t ask him first, then I wish they had and I feel uncomfortable. I feel more uncomfortable if the tanda is favourite music of ours.
- Out with him, he leaves the table for example, to go to the bar. Someone approaches the table and asks me to dance.
Situations like this, handled badly, can put a big fly in the ointment of a calm night out with an Argentine ‘tango-love’.
So far we haven’t tried the ‘go to the Milonga together but dance with others’ scenarios as described in 4. and 5. above. In our latest conversation we talked about trying number 4. I can’t honestly imagine going as far as sitting separately. Number 4. probably will work best if we go with a group of friends and so it will be less obvious who is with who. I think we both feel a bit nervous about the whole thing. However at the moment, my sentiment is that I went through quite a lot to get here in the first place and the reason I came was to dance tango. My English culture tells me that it fine to dance with many partners, that it is normal to go out dancing with girlfriends. I don’t want to lose this perhaps ‘innocent’ view of tango. At the same time I have to try to understand my partner’s culturally different viewpoint and somehow together we have to try and find a meeting point, which is acceptable to us both.
Our discussion did at least make us laugh. We tackled it with such seriousness and respect one for the other, but at one point we both commented that anyone would think we were talking about joining a ‘swingers club’ or ‘wife swapping.’ We were only actually talking about tango. But what I realise is that here in Buenos Aires there is so much more to tango, than just tango as I used to think of it. For an Argentine there is history, tradition, culture, Milonga etiquettes, past personal experiences, the numerous past experiences of friends. For me, originally there was experience of a few months of the English Milonga scene, but now for me too, all the other things have come into play. Finally we agreed that we are entering a phase of experimentation, that we are in it together, and that we have to accept that it may in the end be for the better or for the worse.
This is a complicated matter to write about. I don’t want to reveal all aspects of our wide ranging debate, but I want to convey some of the reality of ‘el amor y el tango’ in Buenos Aires. I have realised that I may have come here with various ideas of how my tango journey would pan out, but I never contemplated the consequences for my tango or indeed for any prospective relationship, of falling in love with a tango dancer who also happens to be Argentine. One thing is clear. When tango cultures cross, negotiation has to follow.
And so begins 2008!