Sunday, 9 February 2014

Buenos Aires: Stray Experiences in and out of Milongas

Today I had my Second Nasty Buenos Aires experience. We can call SNBA for short. Walking home from La Viruta in Palermo, which I have always felt safe doing before - never alone of course, we were two when it happened - somebody grabbed onto me from behind. My first thought was that I was going to get stabbed or something. With no knife incoming, my second thought was that someone I knew was playing a very, very bad joke and that I might have to murder him for having the worst sense of humour in the universe. Then he started groping me. I struggled and kicked and he let go and ran away - all of this so rapidly my friend didn't have the time to react.

I am thinking of ensuring travel in larger packs from now on. I did ask a few guys I know to come with us , but they were going in other directions. Normally I wouldn't really care, considering nothing happened, but I do feel the need to warn people to be careful - even in 'safe' neighbourhoods like Palermo. It does, whoever, unfortunately reinforce the little part of me that can't help but ask what the hell - and I'm being very polite compared to what I'm thinking - is wrong with men.

Perhaps I should speak of something more entertaining, like... Food!

It is possible to eat 'healthy' in Buenos Aires. There are numerous fruit and vegetable vendors on the street, though the quality and variety of their goods often leaves much to be desired - not unlike in the supermarket. However, for whole-grain or quinoa, etc. products it is necessary to go to a 'Dietética.' These shops are luckily very numerous - personally, I already picked a favourite, not due to the variety of the goods, but due to the vendor. The shops are maybe a block and a half apart. In the first one, the shopkeeper is pleasant, smiles, is genuinely helpful, explains to you the terms in the ingredient list you don't understand, and seems altogether like a pleasant person to be around. In the second one, the shopkeeper glared at us as we checked the ingredient list on a bag of biscuits.

"You can't touch the products," she snapped.

We tried to explain in our admittedly poor Spanish that we just wanted to see what types of flour they contained, but she just jabbed impatiently at the sign next to her till. Needless to say, we didn't insist and left. And that's how I learned what 'No tocar la mercadería' means. 

Sometimes I wish I could pound 'no tocar' in the head of those men that walk up to you in a milonga from your blind angle, prod your arm and ask 'bailas' as if the element of surprise would make you accept - don't. Just don't. But that, is another story.

The first time buying empanadas is one every newcomer will probably experience. Here are a few need-to-know things. The first one is that they sell empanadas literally everywhere. However, it is better to buy them in a shop specialising in empanadas and tortas, where they cost 5 or 5.50 pesos, or in a bakery, where they cost between 8 or 10 pesos. Heard from a friend: don't buy them in the supermarket. Also, if you want verdura, or vegetable, you should know here it just means spinach. other vegetables, well, apparently aren't vegetables. Then they have empanadas de carne. Here, carne means beef. You don't have any other acceptable type of meat, except pollo - which, apparently isn't meat.

Onward to a different register: reserved seating. In Europe, it so possible to settle down wherever there is free place, move around during a milonga, and people share chairs. This is due to fact there are generally more chairs than people, and the good cabeceo spots are very coveted.

As much as I enjoy reserved seating at times, I have had the interesting surprise here in Buenos Aires of calling a certain milonga and asking if it would be possible to book a table, in my best Spanish. 

I was incredibly surprised when the man who answered announced quite decisively that no, it would not be possible, as it was not part of their policy. So we decided to simply arrive early and get a good seat. Upon our arrival we settled down and promptly got told that that table was reserved... For the artists. 'Perfectly understandable' I thought, observing the long, twenty person table.

"And which part of it is booked?"

"All of it. You can't sit here."

Beginning to feel sceptical - only two artists were performing, and even counting their friends, family, and neighbours, that seemed like a lot of place. 

"What about this one?" I continued, indicating the other, identical table, situated to it right. "Or this one?" 

Their triplet to the left seemed just as large and just as empty.

"Booked," the man told me, looking at me as if I was being very obtuse. "All of them booked."

To this day, I still have not understood that particular no booking policy - which by the way, can be compared to this gem. 

Having successfully booked a table in another milonga, another day, we proceeded to arrive at eleven thirty-five. Entirely our fault, I plead guilty, we knew bookings closed at eleven thirty. We underestimated the amount of time we needed to prepare. Anyway, the lady at the entrance announces reservations are cancelled. Disappointed but understanding it was entirely our fault we spotted a free table and settled down. At which point the lady hurried over. 

"No no this is reserved," she explained. 

Needless to say, we raised an eyebrow at this announcement.

"For the performers," she finished.

Ah... We got up and moved to another table.

"No no, this is reserved," she proceeded to recriminate.

"How can it be reserved?" I questioned, beginning to be a little bit annoyed, I'll admit.

"It's always reserved," she explained as if this should have been obvious. "For the regulars."

It seems it really pays off not to be a tourist in Buenos Aires. Sometimes I feel as if I am expected to apologise profusely for being from abroad.

I'll admit, I'm a recent dancer - and this is my first time coming over. I don't know everything; the tango world is both extremely simple and extremely codified. There are a lot of unspoken rules - even about who should dance with who, I've been told, but I have yet to observe such behaviour. Of course the better dancers are picky - but let's be honest, you would be too, if you had spent years working on your dance, making it into an art form, working on mastering your own body for hours on end. There is a gap between professionals, - and I'm talking about the real ones, not the 'tango teachers' some of us have been unfortunate enough to cross paths with - there is a gap between professionals and social dancers. Some people walk the borders of both worlds, but they are rare and far between. Those people can be the friendliest, in my experience, or the most arrogant. Most of them seem to warm up to you when they understand you are serious about learning to dance tango.

Now, about this last point. I occasionally dance with some of the better dancers out there. I don't know if this is due to how I dance, my looks, my personality (people who know me are probably laughing hysterically by now) or any other number of points - either way there is probably never a single cause.

I have often had the experience of having other followers ask me with a surprised, slightly envious tone how I did it. Or, alternatively, sigh enviously:

"It must be so nice to be young/beautiful/have a nice body/be a new face."

This sort of comment always gives a small internal shudder. Of course, intellectually, I'm afraid it's true. There are much better followers than me running around, especially here in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, it hurts. I work very hard on my dancing. I listen to tango music in my free time; on the street, I try to walk to the beat, despite the somewhat strange glances this attracts. I'm too afraid to do this in Buenos Aires, of course. I also do solo exercises almost every day. I take group classes occasionally, and two privates a week - sometimes three. I do yoga, stretching, and generally invest a lot of time and effort in improving. Telling me the equivalent of 'anyway, they dance with you just because you're young and pretty, so there' can be felt rather like a punch to the gut.

- Mia


  1. Hi Mia :),

    nice blog, it's good written, informative and entertaining, that's rare!

    About one of the things you have written I was just discussing with another dancer/follower who is for the first time in BsAs and has the same experience (first I thought it was her Blog until I read that it's you :) ).

    It's about the dancing with people and being at the Milongas.
    And not getting that lucky despite of working hard on your Tango.

    From my experience very much depends on oneself.
    If I act insecure, being afraid to embarrass myself in any way, or just doing something "the safe way" instead of just in a relaxed my own way, all of this reflects out to other people.
    Then one seems distant, closed up and not really in a "social mood".
    From this reflection people react to one mostly in the same way. Or one becomes "invisible", because of the hiding in insecurity.
    So, even if all of this is not happening consciously, people react to all of this signals we send out, and leave us alone and in peace. For us then the others seem distant and closed up.
    Mostly it is because we are.
    So, the solution is just to be honest, to know what you can and what not and accept it first. If you are open to the people, not too selective (with you kindness/friendliness, not necessarily with you dances ;) ), they will open up too and we begin to meet people and have a nice time :)

    I know that it is not always that easy to open up and be honest to yourself and the other and let people see all of you insecurities.
    But in Tango we are partly artists and and WANT to share the connection with other people, so we have to open up to everyone and enjoy doing it! :)

    Just check yourself if this is the case. If no, then work on it. It will change a lot :)

    Of course there are some closed up communities who really do not accept new faces (or it takes a very long time to do so), but I have not experienced this in BsAs (rather in Europe...).

    But being kind and open to everyone does not mean to need to dance with people with whom it does not feel good, this is something else.
    Do you agree?

    And of course it helps when you are attractive, why not? Why do people dress up (mostly women, ok, but men sometimes too)? To be even more attractive!
    It's nothing bad to be a little superficial, the looks is the first thing we react to and more often than not, it inspires us to want to dance with someone in the first place. Good dancing skills come usually as the second "inspiration" :). If anybody says that it's the other way around then he/she is not being honest (to other or her/himself...).
    Of course if you are just good looking and are not able to make a enjoyable connection with you partner, then you you get one Tanda and that's it...the first impression goes just that far ;).

    Ah and take care about one thing: don't give you partner at a Milonga the impression you are practicing with him. Most of them surely don't want to be just practicing tools (if not especially agreed on it before) :).

    Keep on blogging and take care on the way home! Hugs Jaro

    1. Hi Jaro,

      I'm sorry but I just saw your comment now. You are right about how our behavior reflects on the people around us; the more we open up and act friendly, the friendlier people will be with us. I have two problems with this:

      1) I was teased a lot by my classmates in middle and high school. I don't open up easily, and I don't trust easily. I also have a dis insisted sense of self-worth eg: I am always afraid to bore people or bother them, and think they won't care what I have to say anyway.

      2) I am a little bit of an introvert. If I spend too much time around people, I get exhausted, and need some quiet alone time to recuperate. As some people are less exhausting then others, and some actually give me energy, I tend to gravitate towards the ones I am more compatible with. Also, to having an infinite amount of energy, I invest it in my friends, people I care about! and lastly people it seems I would enjoy dancing with - future cabeceo prospects ;-)

      I am trying to open up and make friends, but it takes a few meetings before I remotely trust someone. I agree completely with not needing to dance with people you don't enjoy dancing with. Personally, if I am dancing with someone twice that person should know that to a certain degree I either enjoy his dancing, either believes he has the potential to improve.

      As for the dressing up... Yes, guilty as charged. I enjoy feeling pretty in a milonga, and I am more likely to dance with a handsome stranger than, let's say... Quasimodo. Also, I find it much more attractive when men wear tango pants or at least large comfortable pants instead of skinny jeans or, god forbid, bermudas/shorts. Again, you are also right in saying that the main reason the best dancers dance with or don't dance with you may be skill, but can also be personality, attributes, looks, and so on.

      I remember a friend telling me about the DJ in the milonga we met: he's really picky, but he'll give you one tanda if you're cute. One. Well, it the fourth time I dance with him today! and I do believe that's the most genuine compliment you can give someone in a milonga. Invite them again.

      I do hope I don't make anybody feel like practicing tools... I can get over enthusiastic about applying things I see in class, but it's because I genuinely want to get better, so my partners (present one included) will enjoy the dancing more. But you're absolutely right, milongas aren't a place to work! Thanks for the reminder ;-) and thank you for the comment.
      I'm writing this at 6.35 after Yeite, so forgive any inconsistencies...

  2. I think they ask you to dance because you are a very good dancer. S