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Early in our stay in Buenos Aires, we took in a tango show at Café De Los Angelitos and I commented on how it included lots of choreography and gymnastics but little passion. Having now spent an evening at a traditional Milonga, I think I need to revise my opinion. When the locals dance, it is certainly different than the stage show we saw, but it’s also different from how I imagined it to be.

We had been recommended Salon Canning on Scalabrini Ortiz and went along on our last night in town to see what it was about. The googling I had done hadn’t resulted in clear information about what happened when, exactly – in fact, until we got there, we weren’t entirely sure it would even be open on a Wednesday night.

As it turns out it was and the Internet had been correct that the early evening consists of tango lessons, initially for beginners and intermediates and later for more advanced dancers, before becoming an open floor at 10pm. At some point, we were also expecting a show from what looked like two tango circuit professional couples.

We arrived a little before ten and, having established that we hadn’t reserved a table by phone, were led to a free table by a young, smart-casual porteño who walked with a cane. He seemed to be Maître d’Hôtel. The room was large and roughly square, with a dancefloor in the centre occupying about half the length and breadth. It was ringed by two rows of tables and chairs, only about a third of which were occupied as we sat down.

There was a bar in the corner. It took us a little while of observing other patrons to realise that there were two waitresses serving tables and you had to actively wave your waitress over, otherwise you would be ignored all night. There was a full selection on offer, we chose beer and a vodka tonic, but there was a lot of water and coffee in evidence. A bottle of wine seemed to be the most popular choice though. As we sipped our drinks, we observed the room around us.

It was a mixed crowd, with no clear dress code. The women, on the whole, were smarter than the men; all in dresses, from light flowery frocks to some really quite eye-catching cocktail dresses. The one thing they all had in common, however, was a fancy pair of strappy stiletto dancing shoes. The men were more of the slouches. Although a number of them were in suits and a lot wore smart trousers and shirts, there were shorts, jeans and t-shirts on display. The men’s footwear was more varied too, although even the jeans-and-t-shirt guys wore smart fashion trainers. There was not a gym shoe to be seen.

The lighting was low around the hall. The dancefloor was lit by portable stage lighting which seemed to be set to slowly cycle through a mix of colour washes. Pre-recorded tango singers played one after another through the sound system.

The dancing is clearly an art form. In one sense, couples dance like robots; they adopt a quite formal, defined embrace while they dance. There is no smiling or chat; tango is a serious affair. Although the embrace is intimate, distance is maintained. They navigate smoothly around the floor with no visible interaction between couples. Yet, there is clearly a strong vibe underlying the movements; a sense of pent-up emotion. It’s not the flamboyant display of Flamenco, it is subtle and smouldering and tense – but the emotion is unmistakably there.

The tango songs have an abrupt way of ending. Maybe it is easier to anticipate if you fully understand the language, but the songs don’t seem to have a particular finale or play-out. The singer just stops singing, there’s a beat, and then a chord and everyone on the floor would freeze. Given the sudden tableau this presents, I kept having to resist the urge to applaud. But, just like that, the dance was over. Suddenly the rigid postures all relax and there’s conversation as the intro to the next song plays. And then it’s straight arms and straight backs and step into the next dance.

After every third or fourth song, the tango singing would be replaced by a minute or so of rock or reggae music. The only purpose seemed to be clear the floor; everyone would sit down until the next tango song. We wondered why. Our best guess was that it helps to mix up the couples by giving people a chance to change partners or take a breather and have a drink.

For all the formality of the dance though, this feels very much like a social club. Off the dancefloor there is a continuous low murmur of conversations. Gentlemen who dance in suits, throw off their jackets and sit back from their tables in between times. The gentle hubbub picks up a bit during the empty dancefloor interludes, but it is continuous throughout the evening. People move slowly between tables, visiting with their neighbours, chatting to each other. It’s like another stately dance is taking place around the edge of the room to complement the circulation in the centre.

We ask our waitress about the demonstration dances from the celebrities mentioned on the advertising. She says they will be performing around 1am. It’s only 11:30pm, but we decide to wait to see the best of “real” tango.

Having spent an hour watching people dance, I am impressed that there don’t seem to be set steps. Each couple dances their own dance. Given that some of the idea of tango is to dance with people you don’t know, it seems unlikely that a given couple’s dance is pre-practiced. So, somehow, despite an extremely rigid posture, the couple communicate (sense?) where their partner is going and work with them. During the evening we saw plenty of fancy footwork, but not a single collision or toe-stepping incident. It was mesmerising.

At midnight, the salon is maybe two-thirds full, but our friend with the cane is still active seating people – although he seems more nimble now the place is a bit crowded. I wonder if perhaps the cane is an affectation.

We see a couple arrive who are one set of the featured dancers. They change into their dancing gear and sit with their friends, who had arrived earlier, at the table in front of ours. It’s all very social. They do get up to dance – but not with each other. It’s just the social networking of the milonga and not the demonstration they are doing together.

By 1:30am there is still no suggestion of a change in the rhythm of the night; three or four tango songs play, then a noise-break to clear the floor, then back to tango. The first tango couple continue to be part of the crowd. We haven’t spotted the second couple on the bill, so they may not even have arrived yet. Everything is running to Argentinian time, which is to say, “It happens when it happens. Don’t sweat it.”

Eventually, though, we run out of steam. After a long day, a little before 2am, we wend our way between the tables toward the exit. We will have to miss the performance of Oscar Héctor & Haydeé Esther Malagrino, as well as Lam Yuriko & Roberto Montenegro. I expect the milonga will go on through to 6am. When I got up early to photograph Recoleta Cemetery, I rode the bus through town and saw lots of people along the streets looking like they had just left a party. That’s just how it goes in Buenos Aires, but sadly these gringos can’t keep up with the pace. We have to pack and check out in the morning, so we head home to bed.

The young Maître is outside having a cigarette with some friends. He nods to us as we depart. He’s no longer holding the cane.