Down a brick-walled, spiral staircase into a small, intimately lit chamber is where I discovered one of the true wonders of Buenos Aires. In the underbelly of one of the cities’ most revered cafes, under a barrel-ceiling, twenty tightly packed tables tense in anticipation as the lights dim for the “Sensaciones de Tango”. The heady aromas of Argentinian red wines hang heavy in the air, the cigarette smoke gives the scene an atmospheric haze. In the Sala Quinquela Martin, the basement room of the Cafe Tortoni – frequented by some of the most famous minds of the last century – the tango show is about to begin.
A deep, maroon light faintly highlights a small quartet of musicians in the corner, who slowly strike up a score that ebs and flows faintly but purposefully across the room. From another corner of the room, a large man smarlty dressed in black braces steps out of the shadows and begins addressing the audience in flowing Latin American Spanish that I don’t quite catch. The theme, however is clear. A dark haired woman in a flowing dress threads a lithe leg between those of her handsome male counterpart. This is a story of passion, both romantic and forbidden.
As the music built the pace followed, and for two hours dancers paced entwined together about the stage, the women with flurries of leg flicks and twirls, the men with gestures of robust extravagance. The story quickly became irrelevant, for as the musical quartet brought the dancers together and flung them dramatically apart the excitement and the danger, the love and the anger of the scenes were conveyed with a silent beauty. The entranced eyes of the audience were captivated by the performance, by the flaming reds and endless blacks moving effortlessly around the stage, bringing the highs and lows of lust and passion to life. The compere would occasionally break the rhythm of the dance to tell the more of the details of the clinches being played out, his tone sometimes energetic, often sombre. He would then pass back into the shadows, the maroon light would deepen, and another whirl of thighs and blood-red colours would commence.
In the pentultimate stanza, during a traditional zapateada routine, two male dancers span metal balls on long strings around in each hand while they danced, bouncing them off the floor, pillars and walls in perfect harmony tapping out a pulsating rhythm, competing for attention. The dance ended abruptly soon after with the first duo in an exhausted embraced, breathing heavily nose to nose, after an explosively enthralling routine. The audience rose to its feet in an uproar of appreciation, admiration and emotion. We had all been introduced to a world we didn’t know, deep under the paved streets of Argentina’s capital city, and had experienced love, lust, heartbreak and wonder, all through the art of tango.