Gloria was glorious. And glamorous. A tall 48-year-old Argentine-born beauty with a bum foot (ligaments went awry while stepping off a curb), she seemed the epitome of why so many people think of Buenos Aires as the epitome of South American sophistication. Her 24-year-old daughter translates French for a living, she said: how much more European - i.e. cosmopolitan - can you get I told myself while reveling in a first-time acquaintance with a native of a city as reviled politically these days as it is valued romantically.
I had requested help - a guide - to see something of night life in a town that famously comes alive only after dark. Hence, my trip with Gloria to the Portenito Bailarin at rue Batiba 345 where I understood I could have a tango lesson as well as witness Portenos dancing the night away. (The name for Buenos Aires natives comes from the fact they live next to a river port, the Rio de la Plata separating their city from Uruguay.)
Gloria had striking dark hair and eyes set off by a black top and sparkling earrings and the proper languor and know-how appropriate for a professional guide who has chaperoned outsiders (non-Spanish speaking souls such as myself) around for years: enough to know that, in her opinion, Brazilians can be too rough, too bold, too boorish to bother with. Older Americans like myself are perhaps more cowed, hence better behaved. She knew the town; she knew Luis, a former porter at the Plaza Hotel turned tango professional who, she said, had introduced actor Robert Duvall to his Argentine-born bombshell wife Luciana many years ago.
It could have happened at just such a milonga as this one where we sat on a recent February evening.The Duvalls are avid dancers, as is Gloria when she finds men tall enough to be partner.
An hour or so into the evening, when the place was getting crowded, she introduced me, a tourist from Duvall's home country, to Luis. I received a warm hug when I told him of my Washington background. (When they are home, the Duvalls live on an estate in the Virginia countryside, an hour or so away. ) Luis had come late to this twice-wceekly dance spot in BA's Centro district at about the same hour the Duvalls were being seen worldwide on TV in Los Angeles at the Oscars.
Luis, tall and burly with a wide smile, will be a judge at a tango competition in August but on this night he was shepherding a group of Japanese tourists who said they had met him in Tokyo. (Cosmopolitan people roam the world.) It was nearly midnight by then; the room was astir with dancers changing into proper shoes, exchanging greetings, claiming tables. Champagne bottles appeared on the neighboring table where milonga regulars sat together taking a break from the dance floor. The place had a neighborhood feel to it; a large number of people seemed to know one another as they surged through the entrance doors. It was a simple unadorned room with a bar in the back.
Ostensibly I had signed up - with guide and driver - to take a tango lesson, but what I really wanted was to immerse myself in a local crowd, to feel myself temporarily a part of the scene. Just off a hiking trip in the wilds of Patagonia, this was my chance, superficially anyway, to compare Chilean and Argentinian personalities. To feel I belonged somewhere and not just another tourist on the trail or waiting in line for MALBA (museum of Latin American art in BA).
Milonga, technically, is a modern form of the tango: a faster version, Gloria explained. The name also applies to gatherings occurring several times a week at various venues around the city. A tango show is another affair, more or less commercially driven with tourists the main audience - slick and effervescent, bracing and nearly surreal in its captivating expression of sexual play. Tango parlors are decorative and expensive where milonga in contrast is a lively exchange among friends and strangers welcome to take part by paying a mere 70 pesos, or roughly 7 dollars a time. Wine, water, champagne all extra.
In spite of myself, I flunked my lesson. It wasn't the fault of my teachers who took me in hand with commendable compassion: first the young woman in eye-catching high heels and strapless full skirted dress and then her formally suited male colleague who smiled the whole time while patiently instructing me in proper comportment -my left arm resting on the middle of his back, not his shoulder ballroom style- and outlining the basic steps. There were six of them: under, over, under again and a step backward with the left foot while he did what appeared to be a shadowing routine. The dance, done right, is juxtaposition of opposites. The upper body stays firmly under control while legs whip sideways and back and forward again like flashing swords. High heels with straps over the instep are necessary equipment for the woman; soft leather shoes for the man. I was told to look up, not down at my feet, to concentrate on balance - achieved only on the ball of the foot.
I wasn't in tune, neither mentally nor athletically. And certainly not sartorially. All I had to wear were either my hiking boots or grungy ballet slippers to go with loose black wash-and-wear slacks and a polyester print blouse. The dancers costumes swirling around me, by contrast, were short and sexy. I was shamefaced, smiling and sweating until it seemed best to claim my seat again and take a long drink of water.
Gloria had sat by observing, giving me encouragement with a upbeat tilt of her head. What else could she do? My muscle memory wasn't up to the challenge. My feet felt too far from my head.
Recorded music surged continually through the hall under bright lights. A tango requires a pair to have three dances together, after which partners can change hands if they don't agree to continue. An interim bit of modern pop and then the familiar insistent rhythmic beat returns. Teachers merge with the pupils who come faithfully each week, on a Tuesday and Sunday. Other nights the hall is used for salsa. All ages are welcome; no judgment rendered about either status or attire.
I joked with the manager that maybe the reason Portenios came out at night was to escape creeping global warning temperatures of the day. He laughed appreciably, giving me a sign of approval for my lame wit, hugged me in farewell and asked me to return in two days' time, for the next milonga.
Glorious Gloria: a guide for hire. You could do the same (anyone reading this). Website for reliable informed guides in BA is www.vandvexperience.com. You never know what fate has in store. I've since been reliably informed that actor Matt Dimon also fell under the spell of an Argentine beauty in similar circumstances and is now the happily married father of three. Portenos come in all sizes and flavors...