Seduced by the Tango!
As an inspiration for our Buenos Aires Collection, we readily admit, our memories from that sexy city are so strong — the colorful façades, the languid pace, the amazing food and, yes, the sense of style. Who wouldn't enjoy strolling El Caminito, the city's famous cobblestone stretch, teeming with artists selling their wares and alive with music. Then maybe grab some street food like chori (Choripán is a sausage sandwich with chimichurri sauce) or an empanada; and, of course, experiencing the Tango in its birthplace.
Coincidently, the Tango is having a major moment these days, which we think it fully deserves. It's almost enough to make us sign up for those lessons, despite the fact that we haven't always had a super intimate relationship with dance. "We" (We use the "royal we" at Virgil James, but don't always mean the whole gang; so one of us!) remember having a party in Los Angeles while our parents were visiting from Europe for the holidays, and they were horrified. Not because there were too many cocktails and colorful characters, or fill in the blanks. No, the horror for them was this: “People are just standing around drinking and talking. When we were your age, we danced all night!” Erm… What do you say to that? It could be worse! We could…let’s see… twerk! Or dab! Or floss! Feel free Google the latter two. They are bona fide dance moves. For us, fans of the classics, we much prefer the Tango.
When in Buenos Aires...
Caminito tango sign in La Boca, a colorful barrio of Buenos Aires
Mamasita would like a dance!
El Caminito in La Boca is a prime spot to happen upon some impromptu tango
Porteños dancing in the street
Murals celebrating the tango abound
Street performers. These ain't no amateurs!
Surprisingly, many Americans still dance all the time. Middle America loves its Country Western style line dancing. Inner city kids are empowered by Step (there's a fantastic 2017 documentary on the movement!), and clubs and festivals are throbbing with EDM, techno or deep house. Not to mention America's long-running love affair with shows like "Dancing with the Stars." Glitz, glamour, drama, celebs and sex appeal: This addictive show has it all!
But there’s something that’s missing from many of these endeavors: human contact. Meaning skin contact. Some kind of touching, even if it's just an arm or a hand on a back. When people dance these days (not on "Dancing with the Stars" but in real life), it’s mostly not together. It's not even apart but solo! This brings us back to the most intimate and sexiest of dances, the Tango that got under our skin in Buenos Aires. So much so that we wanted to know all about it. And it turns out that it was the Tango that revolutionized the way couples dance together in the first place.
To us, as amateurs of the dance, spectators and nervous participants (at first, then after a glass of Malbec at a local milonga, not so much), the Tango is sensuous, dramatic, poetic, sexy (obvs!), and, at times, theatrical. It’s glamorous and intense. Sure, there might be some clichés in our assessment at which true connoisseurs might scoff. But we don’t have the Tango in our blood like the citizens of Buenos Aires, and we certainly don’t have the skills to dance it even casually, in the relaxed manner we have seen porteños do; not to mention dramatically with arrogant head turns, proud leg maneuvers and impressive turns. What’s even more fascinating is that this glamorous dance has rather unglamorous origins. In a way, it’s come full circle. Now, in Buenos Aires, men can dance with men, girls with girls, traditional gender roles are upended. And that’s exactly how it started!
It Takes Two to Tango
Women dancing with women
Fred Astaire (left) and an Ellen von Unwerth with Shalom Harlow from Vogue Paris,1993 photo (right)
Men dancing with men
The Tango was born in the 1880s at slave gatherings, then adopted in the slums and lower-class districts of Buenos Aires, full of European immigrants in search for a better life but finding only squalor. These new immigrants were mostly men, having left their women and children behind. Life was unbearably tough and they, too, found relief in this dance, the beginning of the Argentine Tango, where they danced in a choreographed style that expressed their sorrow and the violence of their lives. It was "the tango of the compadron.” Compadrones were the rulers of these quarters. There were knife fights, cheap alcohol to drown the pain and cocaine for kicks. When the women arrived a bit later, lots of brothels sprung up. In the bordellos, women danced with women to entertain the long line customers waiting for their turn. In this dance, they also acted out the fickle relationship of a prostitute and her pimp. Again, this dance was expressing so much!
Whatever it expressed, the Tango was officially here to stay. It was a melancholy medley that perfectly captured Buenos Aires, spiced by the drum beats of the former slaves, the Andalusian songs the Spanish explorers had brought across the ocean, the sorrow of the new émigrés, but also the tough life of the Argentineans from the provinces seeking opportunity in the city, as well as the porteños born here. Of course, it was completely frowned upon in polite company and among the rich citizens of Buenos Aires.
At the time it was chic and fashionable to travel to Europe, or at least send young men to the classy Old World. So the dance made its way across the pond. Argentine sailors exported it first to the port of Marseille. But also young upper class gentlemen with letters of introduction. From there, it was not far to Paris, where the Tango took over as the dance du jour. It was exciting, new and totally different from ballroom dancing. The year was 1912. A year later, the world was in a Tango frenzy from London to Berlin to NYC. Women ditched their corsets and slinked into sexy satins more suitable for this erotic and illicit new dance.
The tango as many of us think of it: sexy and quite dramatic
Back in Buenos Aires, meanwhile, fine society figured it was safe to reclaim its export now that it had become a popular and accepted worldwide phenom and the Tango was danced with abandon. In subsequent decades, its popularity declined and re-arose along with economic and political fluctuations ranging from the Great Depression to the halcyon days under Juan and Evita Peron and then again military dictatorships. The Tango came and went.
Today (as of 2009), the tango is an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage and infuses Buenos Aires like sunshine. It's simply everywhere. There are many ways to experience it, from coming upon an impromptu pair of performers in a calle in San Telmo, to taking in a show with a live Tango band at a café, to booking a Tango tour. Or, as per the old adage, when in Buenos Aires, do as the locals do and head to a milonga where the porteños dance. Some of these places are very traditional, others are super casual. No importa.
How do these gyrations pertain to us here at Virgil James? Well, we could all Netflix and chill, watching others sweat and twirl sexily from the comfort of our couch. But we hunger for exceptional experiences, for living life fully, for getting out of our comfort zones and into "inspired living." We want to know where things come from and where they are going. So as we look back on what prompted us to design a Buenos Aires line of bags in the first place, the Tango and the aliveness for which it stands factors hugely. It sharpened our senses in a sensuous way, so to speak. If you haven't, you should try it some time! Let us know how it went!