“Buenos Dias” I chirp as I climb into the back of the black and yellow taxi cab, escaping the merciless Buenos Aires sun.
I tell the driver my destination and wait for the inevitable “De donde sos?” (“Where are you from?”). I have been speaking Spanish every day for the last 12 years but Iʼve never been able to hide my accent. Disappointingly, Iʼm usually caught out at “Hola”!
But this time, the taxi driver seems more interested in talking about the weather: “Que se nuble! Que se nuble!” (“Let it cloud over! Let it cloud over!”) he groans. I smile as I think of my envious friends and family back home in cold, wintry London and say: “Now thatʼs something you donʼt hear too often in my country!”
From then on, I pretty much know which way our conversation is headed. Iʼve had the same such conversation in almost ever taxi journey Iʼve ever had in Buenos Aires. And believe me, thatʼs a lot of journeys!
The script usually runs along the following lines:
Taxi Driver: So where are you from?Me: England. LondonTaxi Driver: What are you doing here?
Me: Just on holiday. My husbandʼs Argentinian.Taxi Driver: How did you meet?Me: I used to live here and we met then.Taxi Driver: What were you doing here?Me: Iʼm a tango dancer and I came to study tango.
Taxi Driver: [Incredulous] An English girl dancing tango! Why would an English girl want to learn tango?!
It might seem strange to you that this should be the typical reaction in Buenos Aires. Yet, most Argentinians find it difficult to believe that around the world people in their thousands are taking up their dance. Especially when the reality is that the vast majority of Argentinians have never danced a single tango step!
Contrary to popular belief outside of Argentina, it is simply not the case that most Argentinians dance tango. Yes, there is a wonderful, thriving tango scene in Buenos Aires - bigger than anywhere else in the world - but those that dance are a tiny minority of the population. To many Argentinians, tango is something that was danced by their parents or grandparents and rejected by the young. Tango fell out of fashion around the same time as couple dancing also went out in Europe and the USA at the end of the 1950ʼs.
And so it comes as a surprise to them to hear that tango is back! Itʼs alive and kicking not just in their own country but around the world.
Yet still they are resistant to the idea. Tango belongs to Buenos Aires! It is as much part of its culture as Big Ben and double-decker buses are to London. How could someone who is not from Buenos Aires understand it? Tango is something that they seem at once fiercely proud of, yet somehow also dismissive of. Hence amazement that a foreigner should take such trouble to learn it.
Thereʼs no doubt that tango as a dance is intricately and inescapably entwined with its rich, cultural heritage. So how do I answer my driverʼs question? Why would an English girl want to learn tango? (Or even - ahem - dedicate her life to learning tango?)
And the answer seems clear to me. Because if you strip away the history, the lyrics, the culture of tango, you will find aspects of tango that are of universal appeal. Aspects that transcend tangoʼs place of birth and make it a dance that the world will fall in love with over and over again:
TANGO IS A BEAUTIFUL DANCE TO BEHOLD: the harmony between the couple, the strong yet elegant masculinity, the wholehearted femininity, the aesthetic lines, the fluid movements, the intricate footwork playing with the musical nuances.
TANGO IS A BEAUTIFUL DANCE TO EXPERIENCE: when we dance tango, we tap into fundamental human needs: to escape from the daily grind, to let go, to express ourselves spontaneously through music, to play, to create, to be held, to connect with another person.
And it dawns on me that there are some things that we all think of as uniquely part of our culture but which in fact happen everywhere. Taxi drivers the world over will talk about the weather. And the world over, a man and woman will feel moved by music to hold each other closely and dance.
Thatʼs tango. It belongs to Buenos Aires and it is embraced by the World.