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Tango in Buenos Aires is a normal part of life, a passionate national pastime that has never really fallen out of favor in its 150 years. Boys and girls begin learning around age 13 by going to neighborhood dances that are almost like pickup basketball games. Intense as the tango may look, the rules are generally rigid. At a traditional milonga (dance party), the man always asks the woman to dance with a nod of his head. The partners come together without speaking. A set of three tangos is danced, with a short break between each number, during which people generally do not make small talk, and never while dancing. People do not go to milongas to flirt; they go to dance.

Classes are a relaxed way to get an intro to the tango scene; many milongas have lessons beforehand, and beginners can get to know each other there and practice their steps. As far as tango shows go, stay away from the “Tango Show and Dinner” packages marketed to tourists. Most are overpriced, glitzy productions that are inauthentic and offer crappy food to boot. Check out Café Tortoni (see Restaurants) for a good, small show at a reasonable price. Below are some places to see locals dance. Unless otherwise noted, you’re better off watching until you know what you’re doing!

Feria de San Pedro Telmo

Plaza Dorrego (corner of Defensa and Humberto Primo)
No phone number available
Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.

At sunset on Sundays, the antiques vendors in the Plaza Dorrego (see Feria de San Pedro Telmo under Shopping) pack up and make way for a serious outdoor milonga. Watch from a sidewalk café table or a park bench as neighborhood folks and well-known tango dancers come to practice their steps under lanterns. Keep an eye out for Don Bernabé, a 70-year-old who spins the beautiful twentysomethings as light-footedly as Fred Astaire and is renowned all over BA.

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Milonga del Conventillo

San Lorenzo 356
Friday 9 to 10:30 p.m.
Milonga afterward until 5 a.m.

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A backpacker favorite, this is one milonga where the rules are thrown out the door. A style known as “tango queer” is danced, in which women can lead men, same-sex couples dance together, friends practice their steps with one another, and a relaxed atmosphere prevails. The space is decorated as a conventillo—an old building housing families of immigrants—with fake laundry hanging on lines from the ceiling.

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Milonga del Gordo

Independencia 572
No phone number available
Friday classes 9 to 10:30 p.m.
Milonga afterward until 5 a.m.

The newest milonga in San Telmo (January 2007) has live tango orchestras (most places have a DJ) and classes before the party begins. This is an extremely authentic (read: nontouristy) milonga: On one Friday, the only foreigners were advanced dancers who’d come to study in Buenos Aires. The place is unmarked; look for a red curtain over the doorway, then knock.

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