Sunday, 20 November 2011

Buenos Aires - Salsa edition

Many come to Buenos Aires for tango and you can see why – the town is steeped in the tradition and although not all are familiar with the steps most can identify with the culture and seem proud of the way this distinctive dance has imbued the city with its music and powerful images and style. You can see the dance hall 'milongas' everywhere and there is a strong following among the 30+ age group followers. Many people visit the city just to learn and practise tango and I met one in her 60s English lady in who comes for 6 months every year to take private lessons and dance 2 or 3 times a week in milongas.

But I didn't come to Buenos Aires for the tango, rather I was keen to sample the local salsa scene. I now count salsa as one among other forms of enjoyment, exercise and as a way of meeting people in a friendly and generally uplifting environment. At its best it can be exhilarating and fun and the challenge of learning has multiple layers rhythm, steps and expression, I love it. In Buenos Aires there is a vibrant salsa scene and some great exponents - but many just dabble for the odd night out or as a change from tango and milonga forms. Cross Body or LA style seems most popular but expect to find it fused with the more exuberant cuban style salsa.

Azucar Abasto is a large dedicated salsa venue in the Abasto area on Avenida Corrientes. In the UK salsa is largely to be found in halls and bars and it is doubtful that we could easily sustain a dedicated club/school (may be worth a try though). I have been to Buenos Aires salsa 5 times now and generally enjoyed the contrast with the South London scene; although the teaching is a bit sketchy the price is very reasonable. On entry the cover is generally 25-30 pesos or between £3 and £4 and for this you can take advantage of a set of lessons typically of 3 Rueda, Merengue, Bachata and then invariably Salsa, each lesson being about 70 - 80 minutes with a 10 minute break and some free dancing. There are generally 2 or 3 levels of classes.

At Azucar I hung with the intermediates and although it was a fairly young set it wasn't exclusively so. They are open at least 5 nights a week and publish a somewhat inaccurate diary. The teaching was less explicit than in the UK and I struggled a bit with unfamiliar combinations but it was survivable. There was some free dancing between sessions but a lot of people were standing around watching and only participated in the classes. Everyone was friendly and the girls patiently adjusted my moves and the frequent repetitions finally imparted the desired combination.

La Salsera is a similar but smaller club/school in the same area and had a more mixed age group and floors of dancing but it basically offers the same diet as Azucar.

Another night I went to La Viruta which is really a tango/milonga place with, as it were, some salsa on the side. This was poorly taught and most of my partners found difficulty in following and my lead. I guessed that they were more comfortable with tango and I'm not sure the two forms coexist comfortably in one's body. It did however enable me to watch a milonga lesson (milonga confusingly being both a place where tango is taught and danced and itself a form of tango). At beginner level it looked fun – but I couldn't envisage confusing myself more with the different steps and timing so I just watched and enjoyed. The entry here was 30 pesos which paid for salsa, milonga and tango lessons. I recall dancing with one partner who I assessed as having almost no natural salsa rhythm but then saw her in the top of 5 levels of tango class she looked totally in her body and following her partner across the dance floor in complicated and stylishly flowing steps.

On one of my long walks I came across Club de Espana a large club/function room on the 12 lane road 9 de julio. Upstairs I found a small class of around 8 people taught by Estaban a happy and versatile instructor. I did a couple of classes which included a medley of salsa, regaton and merengue and I would have gone back to the class for more the following week had I not been going to la Bomba a lively drumming show in an open air venue! Anyway here is a video of the move!

When Mark, my non salsa dancing pilot friend flew in from London he took me to a football game between Argentina and Bolivia and in return I took him to a salsa club, Belgrano. On arriving at 10.30 pm we were way to early for the action but on returning shortly before 12 we sat down to a 3 course meal of dubious quality - there was no entry charge – just pay for what you consume we were told. We were firstly entertained by a 2 piece salsa band with singing, some percussion and keyboards/drum machine. They were actually pretty good and a few people danced – some of them very well. After the meal they cleared away the tables and lessons were commenced by a cuban team of 3 muscular guys with huge energy and gusto – this was fun and Mark joined in enthusiatically. After a fun warm up the lesson was a bit rudimentary but it got everybody going and there was free dancing afterwards. Mark was tired as he had flown in that da, losing 3 hours in the time change so as we left at about 3am while others were just arriving and I believe at that time paying a modest entry fee.

My final dance experience of the week was in fact tango. My friends Johanna and Chad were offered an introduction to tango as part of their hostal package. Ana the manager of the hostal gave us a brief but insightful history of tango in Buenos Aires illustrated with several examples of the music. We were then whisked off to Milonga Maldita which was over in the clubby district of San Telmo. On arriving we were led through an inconspicuos door to a large first floor venue with maybe 100 or so people and an already ongoing beginners lesson. Some, like me were total novices whilst others were clearly experienced exponents of the form. I seemed to get paired with a succession of students from Warwick University all of whom were tense and very conscious of their body and personal space. Tango is pretty up close and personal and you lead via body contact and English reserve just doesn't do it. After the class which was given in both English and Spanish there was an interesting and creative 6 piece band and singer followed by disco. Like me none of the other beginners felt sufficiently accomplished to return to the dance floor and most who did seemed very capable and we enjoyed watching them.

Finally, arriving back at my apartment in the Congreso I decided to briefly check out my local salsa club only 2 blocks away. Entry was 25 pesos but that included a soft drink. It turned out to be mainly cuban salsa but people were well into it and there were some lively dancers and someone's birthday party was in full swing – I watched for a while, had one dance then hung up my Buenos Aires dancing shoes and went back to my apartment to sleep and then pack.  

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


I decide to take a day out of the city and travel to the town Tigre which is on the delta to the north of the city. I lost my way to the train station Retiro which given its hugeness was probably remiss so decided to curtail my aspirations to a boat ride and lunch visit. On the way a detachment of soldiers marched round the corner which seemed a bit strange.

I opted for the train journey in two parts, the second via a coastal route. It wasn't possible to buy a through ticket but the first part to Mitre was only 15p although I was possibly short changed at the boleteria. The second journey, costing around £2.50 took the nicer two carriage coastal train to Delta station where it was possible to catch a public launch/water bus.

On on the Northern edge of the town Tigre lies the delta comprising a network of waterways edged with houses, some dilapidated but others palatial. Each has its own dock and they have evocative names like Amor, Amenecer and Media luz. I joined with locals and out of season renters and passed more than an hour weaving through liquid avenues, stopping to drop people off at their stilted houses eventually to alight at Bonanzas a restaurant and horse riding business and my lunch stop.

As the afternoon's only customer I had the royal table on the deck overhanging the river . I was served gaucho sized barbecue on a small charcoal laden individual parilla. It was loaded with portions of pork ribs, chorizo and chicken and I washed it down with an excellent half bottle of Malbec followed by ice cream and coffee. I had plenty of time to sit on the deck taking in the waterside tranquility and wildlife but resisted the lure of the hammocks. 

Yes I did

The return boat was laden with children who were being dropped off at their homes and each stop took several minutes of manoeuvring the large boat alongside the dock. Eventually we landed back in Tigre and I rode a busy and airless commuter train back to the city.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Buenos Aires, first impressions

More Photos here
Well, 3 days into my visit to Buenos Aires and I have taken refuge from the hot sun and my self-imposed city hiking to try and record some impressions. This is the first South American city where I have felt less obviously visible – my clothes don't stand out – I'm not much taller than nearly everyone else and I don't get called Gringo. The city is a bit dirty and noisy but at the same time vibrant and hot in both senses. The Porteño are friendly if somewhat introspective and studiously political, well probably more so the middle classes – the seem to read a lot of newspapers and debate and hold forth a lot.

The architecture is somewhat haphazard and the traffic constant and heavy but perhaps not as polluted as other cities I have visited – newer cars and greater emission controls I guess and buses are relatively modern. Police presence is minimal which is a surprise given some of the history. Restaurants are in abundance and it feels like prices are around 20% less than UK equivalents. Most of all the feel of the city is good – It is a big place with much to explore, lots of cultural possibilities and some excellent open spaces.

My first walk was somewhat unplanned and I found my way down to the water side via impressive congressional buildings expansive piazzas, across a 14 lane highway which bringing an enormous quantity of traffic right through the heart of the city. Puerto Madero is a modern development of high rise apartments, shops, restaurants and parks which takes in some reclaimed docks. It is pleasantly peaceful and leads down to an ecological park which is bordered by a road that has several parrillas where you can buy charcoal grilled hamburgers or chorizo – the cooking smells are enticing but the product of it are poor in quality. I headed back via an area of older buildings with a market that was partly antiques and bricabrac and partly food. The fruit and veg and other products all looked fine and there were some interesting speciality stalls selling things like old metal toys and matchbox packets. I also took in a large and rather brash shopping mall/children's amusement venue and cinema in Abasto. The children’s bit was called Neverland and this didn't redeem it one bit. Around Abasto it is somewhat run down but looking as if it could become quite fashionable some time in the future. I came across an odd assortment of shops selling naked manikins for modelling closes in shops. I wanted to take some photos but felt that it could appear a tad dodgy so didn't.
In the evening I retuned to Abasto to check out Club Azucar the salsa venue. Entry costs 25 pesos, about £4 and for that you could bag and hour and a half each of rueda, bachata and salsa. I watched some bachata and joined in the salsa intermediate class. The moves were a bit unusual and the teaching somewhat sketchy but there was a lot of repetition and I just about mastered it but was pretty tired by the end. People were very friendly and forgiving of my mistakes but it was mostly a young crowd and somewhat rah rah for my tastes – but I was proud of myself for giving it a go. I'll probably go back.