Monday, 21 February 2011

Sunday afternoon in Plaza Dorrego

Of course you know Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo. Everyone does. It is at the foot of Defensa. If you visit Buenos Aires it is one of the essential visits, whether as a tourist, a traveller or a tango dancer. You will recall from my earlier blogs the street atmosphere of Defensa, the street through San Telmo that is pedestrianised on Sundays to make way for the traders, performers, touts and tourists. The whole length of Defensa is transformed into a microcosm of city life, an ants nest of activity which to the observer seems like disorder. But each person has their place - the street performers who perspire in the hot Sunday sunshine, the police officer who leans lazily in the shadows to smoke a cigarette, the baker parking his cycle laidan with churrios, the tourists who pull notes from a thousand wallets to buy their gifts for loved ones at home.

When I arrive, the sun has already started to sink behind the roofs of San Telmo, and the narrow streets are gathering a night-fall gloom. Lights now twinkle, and the hustle of the day settles into the wind-down of the evening. Traders are packing up, and pushing away folded stalls on handcarts. The wheels rumble on the cobbles. I sit in a street side café with Anemone sipping strong beer and talking about her 1400k journey alone through Argentina. The waiter returns and bows with the bill. Anemone seems to have this effect on men; one of deferential appreciation.

We are not here simply to drink beer, but to dance. Music is drifting from the plaza, competing with the other San Telmo sounds, like a busy orchestra tuning. We walk to the square, our arms linked so that Anemone can protect her valued heels. The open air milonga is under-way. A large crowd of spectators is gathered around handfuls of dancers who take small, delicate steps on the recently laid and non-to-easy flooring. Pedro "El Indio" Benavente organises this milonga, providing the sound system and the floor, together with his commentaries and glorious music. He is tall for an Argentine, handsome with dark hair pulled into a pony tail.

We join the floor and nod to Don Bernabe who is the senior milonguero. His acknowledgement is the seal of approval that says "Yes, you are welcome if you dance in a straight line and observe the codigios". For Anemone and I this is our first dance together. She is beautiful and draws the eyes of the crowd. I take her into my embrace in which unusually for her, she is able to dance tall. We settle and wait. I initiate a change of weight and then our first step. Two bodies are to be one on Plaza Dorrego and I am to be a happy man. The dance has a feeling of ease, our stride evenly matched, our weight equally balanced and our intention seamlessly directed in unity. I sense that the crowded floor opens ever-so-slightly for us as we progress and I note the envious looks on the faces of the tangueras watching her feet as they wait to dance. We create a romantic dream, parting reality and fantasy to embody the possibilities of tango.

We dance until Chacarera interrupts the tango. Now local dancers claim the floor for two songs of folk music and dance. Here is energy, a dance of flirtation and conquest. Compared with tango it is explosive and totally intentional. Involving turns, display and courting, it culminates in the possibility of a kiss. The boys who secure a partner for Chacarera rush to become men, the girls who start the dance complete it as women. It is impossible to be ambivalent about chacarera; it is the exciting life-blood of the Argentine mating game.

It is now getting late to eat, so we slope with friends down Bolivar to Horacios' cafe. Horacio is simply the 'Moso'- waiter, but he embodies all of the character of San Telmo, slim, artesan with curly hair and the voice of performance. A visit is not necessarily for the food, but for the essential and unique atmosphere of this family owned café. Mother waits in the day, and her son cooks by night. Horacio, adopted by the restaurant as a boy, is still here as a man. He greets each customer as brother, sister, father or mother and describes the simple food in such terms that choice is almost impossible. Then, without warning he will smile and come to the rescue, "I would try the bife, Mister, it is, how do we say....delicious!", and the decision is made.

We leave as the streets are almost empty. Anemone and her friends seek an illusive taxi back to Palermo, and I part with an embrace to stroll, clutching my dance shoes, back to Chacabuco and Fabrizio's. As I turn the corner into Humberto Primo it is like leaving a glitzy show, a performance of life, where colour and music blend with movement and aspiration. Now is the moment to reflect on the true hues of Buenos Aires and the possibilities of tango in San Telmo.