BUENOS AIRES - A smoke-filled room, a crooner on a scratchy phonograph, a seductive look ...
Fraught with the melodrama of subverted desire, the tango has always been a mysterious web of veiled overtures. But in Buenos Aires's crowded tango bars, there's another silent (and equally complex) dance on the sidelines: the unspoken rules of finding a partner.
Unlike the heavily advertised dinner shows, tango bars aren't just tourist attractions. Every day of the week, older dancers - and a growing number of younger ones - flock to two dozen or so established dances, or ``milongas.'' There's nothing like trying the tango yourself to appreciate the effortless twists of the professionals. That is, so long as you know the rules, which can seem as baffling as the most toe-tangling turn, kick, or ``ocho'' (figure eight).
To begin with, some history. In the turn-of-the-20th-century dance halls, European men who came to strike it rich in the cattle business discovered that a good woman - or any woman, for that matter - was hard to find. So the macho dance they invented was originally intended for two men, both of whom were no doubt thinking of the senoritas they had left behind.
Perhaps that's why the dance, while physical, has little personal interaction between sets. At all but the most informal milongas, invitations are made not by speaking, but with a quickly flashed (and easily missed) head nod. To turn a man down, a woman only has to ignore it (or not notice it). In some of the more elegant joints, the art of nodding can be a dance of its own. At the Club EspaÄnol - all Art Deco French doors and crystal chandeliers - the more experienced single women line up on chairs, fanning themselves as they wait for the set to begin. Then they rise silently, one by one like helium balloons, as they are shot with a nod from a man across the room.
Dances are done in sets of three, and once committed, couples never sit down in the middle - so most dancers are careful to case a partner's ability before committing. The only strict rule is that when a woman walks into the room with a man, she is off-limits. So if you're planning on dancing with strangers, it's best to arrive alone. Likewise, if you accept a dance for more than one set, you've consented to that partner for the rest of the night - and may find yourself facing a dance of a different sort.
Not that there is much ``picking up'' at milongas. Despite appearances, most people are there just to dance. Dancers' legs may entwine, even in R-rated embraces, but their facial expressions are invariably ones of intense concentration or dreamy transport, never smiles or intimate glances.
If you are brave enough to hit the dance floor, many tango clubs teach lessons before a milonga. One of the most popular is at La Confiteria Ideal, which offers a relaxed matinee on most afternoons. The setting alone is enough to set the mood - marble columns and inlaid mahogany walls point to better times in the past, while the crumbling plaster and missing bulbs lend a bygone romantic air. (Many of the people in the crowd showcase a similar kind of aging beauty, with makeup and comb-overs hiding the flaws.)
When you are ready for Saturday night, a good place to ease into the experience is Salon Canning, a center of the tango revival among the younger set. Dancers here are as likely to be wearing leather pants and tattoos as tasseled skirts and brooches. Arrive early (in Buenos Aires, early means midnight), while local couples are waiting for a fashionable hour to make their entrance. Though an almost empty dance floor can be somewhat more intimidating, the lack of a crowd makes it easier to negotiate. And after a few hours of pretending to be dramatically distant from your partner, you can then stoke your passion at a nearby romantic restaurant at the same time many Argentines eat dinner: 2 in the morning.