How did you find tango?
For many, the allure of Argentine tango begins with the swell of violins and the sweet cries of the bandoneón. The soulful music and songs so entrancing it beacons you to return for more.
For others, it is the magic of the movement. It is the embrace that intrigues and delights. It is two bodies, one dance. Each tanda a chance to meet, melt, connect.
For me? It was the shoes.
In a way, Argentine tango found me. There were two calls. 1.) in 2006, I suddenly started to get many requests for Argentine tango shoes. Lovely women visited the shop and left disappointed. No tango shoes? What a pity, they said as they walked out empty handed. 2.) I had a single friend (I love you Tracey) who talked incessantly about tango when she visited the shop. This beautiful and accomplished contemporary dancer’s eyes lit up at the mention of tango. Her passion about the dance and enthusiasm about learning it planted the seeds of curiosity for me. Get your passport, she says. (She’s also an airline attendant.) We’ll go to Buenos Aires together!
And so began my very scientific and elaborate investigation into the world of Argentine tango shoes. The question I wanted to answer: what shoes should you wear to dance Argentine tango?
Getting to know you: tango shoe options
My plan involved me as the guinea pig. It started with taking a few Argentine tango classes at a local dance studio. Really, what’s the big fuss, I asked myself. For a few classes, I wore my 2” black leather t-strap character shoes with leather soles. Very functional and economical. As a beginner, I felt it was a good choice. I surveyed myself in the full length dance studio mirror. The problem was that they looked very functional and economical.
For my next set of classes, I wore street shoes. I chose my 3” Marco Sarto black leather peep toes. The added height definitely changed my posture (chest forward, hips back. Desirable, right?). My teacher and classmates noticed my new shoes immediately and the unexpected attention was a welcome boost to my confidence. But the problem was that I couldn’t practice for long. The shoe bent in an odd place when I took my steps. It didn’t articulate to my foot properly. After a few painful classes it was evident that the shoes were not made for dancing.
Moving on, I chose a pair of closed toe suede soled 3”flare heeled dance shoes in black satin with red satin accents. This was well received and worked very nicely on my feet. Not long after, I chose a pair of pointed closed toe suede soled 3.25” flare heeled dance shoes with double straps across the instep. Several variations of these shoes followed and were always met with appreciation and approval from the class. I decided ballroom shoes were definitely a step up from character shoes on many levels. I continued with my classes. No one warned me how difficult walking could be.
From class to milonga: it’s different out there
Though my teacher tried to convince me of my ready-ness, curiosity got the best of me and I went to a milonga. I studied the lovely stilettos on the dance floor and compared them to my class-approved closed toe ballroom shoes. The one thing I noticed immediately was that the dance looked extremely effortless. Whereas in the classroom, we repeated exercises again and again, on the social dance floor, it seemed that steps were invented on the spot. The women looked calm, elegant, light and feminine. I also noticed that 9cm silver metallic stilettos were quite obviously an absolute fashion necessity for one tanguera’s evening wear. I made a mental note to attend the next tango dance festival in town so that I could shop the shoe vendors.
Tango festivals: the whole package please
My first tango festival brought together everything I believed to be outstanding in tango: classes, performances, dancers, the company of good friends, tango shoes and fashion. Shopping for shoes was an event in itself and it was never a problem getting a second or third opinion from a shopping chum nearby. My tango shoes were open toe purple print sandals, leather soled, 8.5cm gold stilettos with pretty etches on the heel. I was able to glide and pivot on the dance floor like an ice skater. I love them to this very day. The problem with these particular shoes at a 3 day festival? Well, they’re 8.5cm stilettos. My feet were not happy after 3 hours of classes, a practica and then an all-night milonga. Guess what came out of my dance bag? Yes, that’s right. 2” black leather character shoes. I even slipped on my dance sneakers for one of the classes. And you know what? My feet were happy and ready to dance in my pretty stilettos at the milonga that night.
Buenos Aires: the heart of tango
November 2011: 6 years after initiating my very scientific and elaborate investigation into the world of Argentine tango shoes, my very supportive family, employees and accountant set me free to explore Buenos Aires for an entire month. I interviewed vendors and toured a factory. I learned a few Spanish words. I ate media lunas in the park with Tracey (I love you Tracey). I danced.
I was reminded to abide by the códigos* when I went to the milongas. Some things are simply not done, they say.
So, there I was, in this great city, Buenos Aires, the mecca , the heart of tango. It was early morning and supposedly most tourists left. The Argentinians now took over the floor. As I arranged myself to look available to dance, my eyes locked onto a beautiful dancer on the floor. Her movement was as smooth as silk. She looked content in his embrace. I caught myself staring. My jaw went slack. No doubt, she was gorgeous. And, yes, what a pretty skirt she wore. But. It was her shoes that intrigued me. Because… she was wearing…flip-flops.
My very detailed scientific and elaborate investigative notes were neatly filed away.
In conclusion, I propose that like many things in Argentine tango, shoes are a matter of personal opinion. This may include factors such as comfort, taste and function. I verified this notion at several other milongas and practicas where I noticed tango could be danced in flip-flops, boots and even during a performance at a milonga, bare feet.
In the end, if you’re faced with a multitude of seemingly random choices, be calm. Breathe. As my yoga-for-dancers teacher would say at the end of class: “connect with yourself. “ And consider, for a minute, following your heart. It is after all, tango.
*The following article about tango codigos is posted with permission. Please visit Tango Chose Me by Richard Miller for more.
Tango Codigos – Part 2
During my recent trip to Buenos Aires, I ran across a posting of tango codigos at the Saturday night milonga, Cachirulo at Maipu 444 — one of my favorite milongas in Buenos Aires. The Cachirulo codigos were posted in six languages at the entrance to the milonga. Here is the English version of the Cachirulo tango ‘codes of etiquette’ or codigos which I felt were masterfully written — written conversationally, polite but direct (like the Argentines are so good at) with an emphasis on only those things that really matter — and with more teeth in them than I had in my earlier draft. While not stated directly in so many words, the message is clear: mess up, and we will ask you to leave. We respect our guests too much to let you stay, and the ‘follows‘, in particular, enjoy dancing here because of the safe and comfortable environment which is provided.
The codes in the milonga, Cachirulo
Welcome to the best milonga in Buenos Aires. Tanguero friends, please pay attention.
- Here we dance milonguero style tango, and we learn to respect the codes of the milonga.
- We dance with a warm, respectful and close embrace.
- We follow the line of dance, in a counter-clockwise direction.
- We try not to step backwards into the line of dance, always walking forward, as it should be.
- We do not lift our feet too much from the floor; this way we avoid hitting other dancers.
- We invite women to dance through the classic “Cabeceo del caballero”.
- Furthemore, and “very important”, respect is the first card we play in the game of the milonga.
Much to our regret, not respecting these codes will make it impossible to dance in Cachirulo.
Don’t get hung up on Cachirulo’s use of the words “milonguero” or “close embrace”, although that is consistent with my personal bias. It is not about only dancing a particular style of dance. Substitute the word “traditional” for ”milonguero” or leave out the words “milonguero” and “close (embrace)” and these tango codigos still apply.