La Catedral is described by Lonely Planet as positively an “institution” in Buenos Aires, but it isn’t easy to recognize. From the outside, you suspect milongueros are near: it advertises “Tango – Folklore,” meaning they teach both the more urban tango and the traditional folk dancing of Argentina’s provinces. But the studio’s name is not on the exterior of the building. I had to wander in, unsure, and ask a solitary man at a desk, “La Catedral está aquí?” in halting Spanish to find my way. The man nodded, took my 60-peso lesson fee, and waved me up the huge, warehouse-like stone staircase to the second floor.
Was I going up to a dive bar? Was it a squash court during off hours?
I’ve danced on three continents and both coasts of the States, and been to some ridiculously romantic places in my life.
And still, my jaded little New York hipster heart melted at the huge, dimly lit, old wooden dance floor that awaited me. The ceilings were breathtakingly high, the music melancholy, and, as I later learned, the Malbec exceedingly cheap and plentiful. I tried not to think about how much a dance floor this size would cost in Brooklyn. (Upon consideration, I think the answer is: a dance floor that size in Brooklyn would be purchased and converted into an adult kindergarten that charges bourgeois couples $100/hour to make ironic finger paintings.)
I speak tango, I dance Spanish, I murmured to myself—a spur-of-the-moment mantra I found oddly comforting throughout the lesson. I found I recognized directions in Spanish from context—my tango is actually quite weak, but I have been in enough dance classes in my life that when the diminutive instructor, Alejandra, rattled off a bunch of Spanish with accompanying gestures about posture, I understood her to be saying, “Imagine a string pulling you up from the top of your head to the ceiling,” as clearly as if she had spoken English.
I still have no idea how to say “string” in Spanish, but I stood up straight.
Alejandra was cute as a button, yet still managed to convey that melancholy allure so necessary to tango. “Voy, voy, voy,” she said with each step, as she made us walk around in a circle with purpose. I am coming to the conclusion that half of tango is purpose.
I practiced the basic several times with an Argentine lead.
Yo hablo tango, yo bailo español.
“My difficulty is waiting,” I explained. “It’s tempting to just go through the steps at my own pace, but I know I need to wait for the lead to get there.”
“It’s a muy machisto dance,” he responded with endearing disapproval. I explained to him that I could count on one hand the number of ballrooms that approached this size in my hometown, and that three of them were actually basketball courts. He laughed.
The lesson concluded and the dance floor cleared, with about twenty students retreating to the shadowy tables surrounding it. With 90 minutes more purpose in me than before the lesson, I asked a nearby dancer eagerly about milongas.
“There aren’t real milongas here,” he explained. “We go to San Telmo for that.”
I looked around the vast, worn wooden floor, starkly lit in the middle. Art and history filled the walls around. The air shimmered with mist pumped in to combat the heat as two instructors took to the floor. The lead drew his partner close and spun her, languid, with a tenderness to break the heart.
This was just where they practiced.