Intimate, intense, and sexy, the Argentine tango is a world away from the salsa I'd learned in Colombia.
If I had any hope to learn tango in Buenos Aires, it'd require throwing out everything I knew from salsa, and starting from scratch.
Well, that's not exactly true. Developing my salsa skills over the previous three years taught me what does and doesn't work when you want to learn a new style of dance. And it all begins with a good teacher.
1. Find a Good Teacher
Enter Maria José Grattarola, the former tango teacher of Benny Lewis.
She began learning tango in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo in 1995, and has well over 10 years of experience teaching the dance.
Ever since I'd referred Benny to my salsa teacher in Medellin, I'd been looking forward to taking lessons with Maria José in Buenos Aires.
2. Invest in Private Lessons
Confident in Benny's recommendation, I reached out to Maria and scheduled my first private, one-hour lesson. They may be more expensive ($50/hour), and more intensive, than group lessons but I guarantee you'll learn faster. Plus, you can usually get a discount by booking four or more classes at once.
This was especially important for both Benny and I, as we were counting our time in the city in weeks, not months or years.
I met Maria José at a shared studio space in downtown Buenos Aires one afternoon. I could immediately tell she was passionate about the dance, and her passion began to rub off on me.
She warned me, right from the start, that once I got a taste of tango, I may soon forget salsa. I brushed her comment off, but as she began showing me the proper posture, and basic steps, I realized she might be right.
Dancing tango felt overly formal, yet incredibly intimate. The intimacy is bred by the close proximity with which the partners dance. There's a subdued sexual tension I never experienced with salsa, or any of the other Latin dances.
The hardest part, by far, was trying to keep my upper body still. In tango, the man leads with his chest. It's a concept that takes some getting use to and the best way to do that is practice.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice
You can take all the private lessons in the world, but becoming an expert at dancing with a teacher who can anticipate your moves, and recover from your mistakes, won't help you when it comes time to dance with new partners.
This is especially true for men, whose job it is to lead the woman for the duration of the song.
In Buenos Aires, the venues where people come to watch and dance tango are called milongas. There are tons of them, enough for anyone to go out dancing to a different one every night of the week.
And at the hostels, you'll see at least one girl a night leaving for a milonga, tango shoes ($100/pair) in hand.
La Viruta Tango is one of the most popular milongas, especially for beginners. They offer group tango classes Tuesdays through Sundays. Simply check the schedule on their website, and show up at your preferred time.
I went with Michael Tieso one night. Arriving early, we actually went through a Rock ‘n Roll (Swing) class, before getting to the introductory tango class.
The class was given in Spanish, which made it all the more helpful that I'd already taken one or two private classes on my own.
Another way tango differs from salsa is the movement of everyone on the dance floor. Couples dance tango in a counter-clockwise rotation, whereas with salsa, you generally stay in the same area for the whole song.
This extra dynamic makes tango that much harder to learn. If you're not moving forward, it's only a matter of time before another couple bumps into you.
The milongas in Buenos Aires can vary greatly, from great beginner spots like La Viruta, to more austere, old school places where you dare not step on the dance floor as a beginner (lest you mess up the rotation for the more experienced dancers).
To emphasize again, you can spend thousands of dollars on private lessons, but unless you get out and practice with a variety of partners, of all skill levels, shapes, sizes, and ages, you'll be limiting yourself.
I limited myself. For a variety of reasons, some personal, I didn't give tango my all while living in Buenos Aires for 6 weeks.
I knew from salsa that if I wanted to reach a certain skill level, it'd take years of dedication, and dancing with hundreds of different partners. It was only while trying to learn tango that I truly realized how much time and energy I'd dedicated to salsa.
And there was no way I wanted to go through that process again to gain proficiency at tango, at least not unless I was learning with a girlfriend, versus a wide array of strangers.
Below is a video from my final private lesson, capturing the results of my 6-week attempt to learn tango in Buenos Aires.
The song is “Al Compas de un Tango” by Ricardo Tanturi.
Maria José Grattarola offers individual and group tango lessons. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by cell phone in Buenos Aires at 15-5734-7795.