Love and death on the dancefloor

Sunday Times
Published: 21st March 2004

Taking a tango lesson at the dancers’ flat wasn’t, perhaps, the behaviour of a cautious person, but Buenos Aires invites a spirit of adventure. It is a city on the edge. The wide, confident avenues explode with blossom, but if you look closer, the pavements are disintegrating. The central Obelisco on the Plaza de la Republica thrusts up into the sky, a symbol of Argentinian machismo, but on the grass beneath it, a group of police officers stand over a spread-eagled man. He is face down and handcuffed; and one policeman has his foot on the man’s back.

“Another of the thieves who besiege our city,” spat my taxi driver, with the melancholic intensity that helps to make Buenos Aires so vibrant, such a blazing mixture of South American emotion and European poise.

The uneasy power of the city is palpable in the streets, and nowhere more so than in the San Telmo quarter on a Sunday, where tango dancers perform on the Plaza Dorrego. The tango, like life itself in this city, seems to be danced above a chasm — tormented emotion just kept in check by the discipline of the moves.

Life is good sitting on a restaurant balcony here, overlooking the antique stalls in the square and the crumbling houses opposite, eating perfect steak and listening to the elating beat of the tango. The mix of raw energy and nostalgia makes Montmartre seem like Disney World.

The old truism about the tango being the vertical expression of a horizontal desire is brought to life by a handsome dancer — black hair tied back, his hat over his eyes — who never takes his eyes off his partner as she follows his every command. Across the sunlit square, another couple perform — later, they will teach me to tango on the parquet floor of their small apartment on the outskirts of town, the table pushed to one side.

The apartment is plastered with posters depicting the dance, many featuring my teacher’s eloquent and deeply etched face, his double-breasted suit, sharp tie, gangster hat, cigarette propped into the side of his mouth. He has danced with Madonna, when she was here filming Evita, and with Liza Minnelli. His wife lent me her red-and-black tango shoes; he taught me how to follow.

The tango is perfect for the unskilled female dancer because it requires from her, at least in the early stages, so little initiative. You simply do as you are told. (When he wanted his wife to come to him, he just whistled.) My lesson began with philosophy: “Tango is sensual and seductive. It is the only way you can have the woman you want in your arms without knowing her. You have three minutes to seduce her,” he said. “How? By making her bright. If you dance better than she, you will lose her. Once you get her in your arms, you pretend you love each other, you teach her to dance, you make her bright.”

By the end of the lesson, I could execute some dramatic moves — twirls, moody backward lunges and exotic jumps — but only, I fear, with my macho instructor. And as soon as I stopped staring into his eyes, I couldn’t dance, even with him. Whenever I dropped my glance, my dancing went to pieces. He’d demand it back with a whistle or a wink and I could dance again.

A mood of nostalgia and hedonism pervades the city. In one smart restaurant, a woman who has seen better days parts the shirt of her male companion and licks his nipples. In the telos — love hotels, which lovers can take for a few hours to escape their wives, husbands or even children (apparently married couples take them for the afternoon, too) — business is brisk. In the parks of the Palermo area, and in the streets, couples kiss as if they really mean business; no gentle caresses here.

Green spaces, bullying statues, grand boulevards, an opera house with perfect acoustics, Spanish colonial buildings mixed with Parisian architecture... Buenos Aires is a rumbustious ragbag of a city. It has 47 barrios, or neighbourhoods, in all, each with its distinctive atmosphere, and everything is so keenly priced that even the budget traveller can live spectacularly well.

In this city of the night, 11pm is early to eat out, and clubs don’t start to throb until three or four o’clock. Palermo Hollywood is the neighbourhood to bar-hop; while the restaurant Asia de Cuba, in Puerto Madero, the redeveloped warehouse area, becomes a disco at about 2am, and is the place to go for jumping techno music.

Nearby, in the Cabana las Lilas steakhouse, you can lounge on a wicker chair as moonlight shines on the River Plate, eating cuts of beef so perfect that you never want them to end; with, in the background, the bittersweet sound of an accordion playing a tango.

The city is as good on death as it is on sex. Recoleta cemetery, where the upper classes are buried, would justify a trip to Buenos Aires on its own. This is a shrine to showmanship and worldliness: closely packed mausoleums of varying architectural styles (Greek temple to Egyptian pyramid) vie with each other along a maze of narrow “streets”.

I was shown around by the sinisterly jovial Claudio, who tends the graves. He led me down into the pitch black of one mausoleum to hold the faded photographs of people buried there. Crosses stick up like celestial TV aerials against the dilapidated buildings that surround this city of the dead.

“Eva Peron is buried here,” said Claudio, pointing to a mausoleum where a small crowd was gathered, even though it was almost closing time. “She’s mummified and buried five metres deep.”

In Buenos Aires, appearances and entrances matter. Tomb doors are designed to impress: ornate with lion door knockers, imploring angels, cherubs, etched glass. It makes London’s Highgate cemetery look restrained. Nearby, on the grand Avenida Alvear, the cemetery finds visual echo in the huge doors of the apartment buildings — five metres tall, each more august than the next, in black, bronze and granite, every bit of brass polished to perfection. Whatever happens in Buenos Aires, the doors will be the last to go.

It is said that the Argentinians like to hold on to pain — hence the power of the tango, and the feeling of vanity and regret on every corner. It is evident in the small scenes being played out — in the surgically enhanced women with their golden retrievers, in the emotionally fraught taxi drivers, flinging their arms about in fury over strikes.

In the wood-panelled Café Tortoni, where the great Argentinian writer Borges used to meet his friends, a refined old man with long fingers and a high white collar is making notes in a corner. He’s like a ghost of Borges beneath the stained-glass ceiling. Meanwhile, in a cafe in the La Boca quarter, where the Italian immigrants first came and where the houses are brightly painted in many colours, a small boy stands up and recites a poem of love and loss while a man plays the accordion tenderly. Borges once wrote that his soul was in the streets of Buenos Aires; I can see why.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Last Frontiers.

Getting there: the only direct flights to Buenos Aires from the UK or Ireland are with British Airways (0870 850 9850, from Heathrow; from £676. Airline Network (0870 241 0010, has flights from Aberdeen, Southampton, Heathrow and other UK airports with Air France via Paris; from £463.

Or try Travelocity (0870 111 7060,, Opodo (0870 241 7051,, Dial a Flight (0870 333 5555, or Travel Mood (0870 990 9995,

In Ireland, Ebookers (01 241 5689, has flights to Buenos Aires from Dublin with Lufthansa via Frankfurt; from €774.

Where to stay: the Alvear Palace Hotel (Avenida Alvear 1891; 00 800 2888 8882, is a stylish five-star option, with doubles from £223; while the art-deco Castelar Hotel (Avenida de Mayo 1152, 00 54 11-4383 5000, is a comfortable four-star, with doubles from £77.

More modest is the Gran Hotel Hispano (Avenida de Mayo 861, 4345 2020,, with a pretty courtyard; doubles from £22.

Tour operators: Last Frontiers (01296 653000, can tailor-make itineraries throughout Argentina. A seven-night break starts at £1,598pp, including BA flights to Buenos Aires, four nights’ B&B at the Alvear Palace and three nights’ full-board at the historic Estancia Dos Talas, two hours outside the city. Regional connections from Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow or New-castle start at £60pp extra.

Alternatively, try Audley Travel (01869 276210,, Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000,, Sunvil Latin America (020 8758 4774, or Trips Worldwide (0117 311 4403,

Further information: contact the Latin American Travel Association on 020 8715 2913 or visit The best guidebook is the Time Out guide to Buenos Aires (£12.99).