Buenos Aires moves to the music of tango.
And in touristy neighborhoods like La Boca, dancers perform for tips in the cobbled stone streets where the houses glow in hues of red, aqua, and yellow. It's here that tango was born -- in the 19th century brothels and immigrant tenements.
These days, most foreigners buy their tango in prepackaged stage shows with lights, smoke machines and choreographed high-flying kicks.
But if you dig beneath these obvious examples, you'll find different kinds of tango. Variations Ignacio Varchausky thinks better reflect the real soul of Argentina.
Ignacio: "Many times, we meet tourists who have been here for a couple of days, and we became friends, and we started showing them our places. You know, a different experience of the city... And they just can't believe the difference between a show and the reality."
What is the reality? A tango connoisseur, Ignacio draws a distinction between tango for dancing and tango for listening.
To see what he meant, I went back to the café, where on Tuesday nights Ignacio plays with his second band, a quintet. The audience sat still while it savored each note, as if tasting a fine wine.
Of course, other brands of tango are made for dancing. But -- here's a surprise -- most Argentines don't know how.
The dance peaked in the '50's. Now, with its popularity resurgent, locals sign up for lessons. I took several dance classes. Once at a bar, again in a drab concrete rec-center. Always the lone gringo among novice young couples and middle-aged divorcees. We playing bumper-cars with our bodies as they ineptly moved around the floor in a counter-clockwise direction.
And when the classes ended, and the more experienced couples took the floor, I saw a different dance than that performed in the tourist shows. Here, the crowded ballroom suffers no acrobatic kicks. Just a flick of the ankle. A poignant pause. Subtlety reigns.
Dance teacher: "Five step together. Six step front."
My favorite dance hall lives in the past. Marble columns, smokey mirrors and 19th century chandeliers. The ballroom at Confiteria Ideal maintains the faded mystique of "Tango - The Golden Years."
Osvaldo, the sleepy-eyed tango teacher, tried in vain to get me to move with grace. Then Gustavo Barco, another student, took me under his wing. We chatted during a break. Or rather, Gustavo started speaking at me. The Argentines are the most talkative people I've ever met. To get him to slow down, I shifted into English and asked what kind of people come to these
Gustavo Barco: "You can find a journalist, a lawyer. Every kind of workers. Because here, we are in the downtown. Everybody comes out from work and comes here."
Just coming from work would explain why most of the men wore suits. But what about Gustavo? Unemployed, like so many of his countrymen -- and still he put on a suit and tie.
Like the elegant dance, the people here dress with a refinement meant to be admired by on-lookers. But it runs deeper than fashion. Even during difficult economic times, retain a proud sense of poise. Like the slight pause between steps two and three.
When commenting on my pathetic footwork, Gustavo graciously fibbed:
Gustavo: "No, you were doing ok."
Tyler: "You're a liar. Ha-ha."
Gustavo: "It's your first class right?"
Tyler: "No, my third class."
Gustavo: "Well, good. For a third one, good."
I guess in tango, you're allowed to step on a few toes and still make a new friend.
In Buenos Aires, I'm Jeff Tyler for The Savvy Traveler.