Tango's Other Capital

Montevideo Doesn't Defer to Buenos Aires

By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008; Page P01

It's hard to dispute Buenos Aires's claim as world tango capital. The sultry dance spilled out of the city's immigrant ghettos more than a century ago. And these days it's hard to walk two blocks without stumbling on a pair of street corner dancers, whirling in passionate embrace for appreciative tour groups.

A three-hour trip across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay, however, proves Argentina is hardly tango's only mecca.

Reached by ferry from Buenos Aires, Uruguay's capital of Montevideo has little in common with its brash and glitzy neighbor. Laid-back, with a rambling seaside boardwalk and tree-lined avenues, the city of 1.5 million has been largely passed over by the tides of globalization. And while Buenos Aires's tango scene has partly gone the way of dinner shows and canned street acts, in Montevideo tango remains intimate and gloriously authentic.

"Buenos Aires is smart. They've marketed their tango to the world," says José Solari, a 49-year-old teacher of tango at Montevideo's Joventango Institute, a downtown studio housed in an aging art deco market. "But it's become so commercialized there that the only thing they see is pesos. . . . What we do, we do for love."

Among dance fans hungry for a fix and travelers seeking refuge from fanny-pack-toting mobs across the river, the port city is quietly garnering attention. Visitors from Europe and the United States have nearly doubled over the past five years. Last year alone, 700,000 travelers from all over sojourned here, lured by the city's homegrown tango scene as well as its other charms, including great steaks and red wine, and an exchange rate that's favorable even with the falling dollar.

But just what is Montevideo's claim to tango fame?

"Without a doubt, the tango comes from both sides of the Rio de la Plata," explains Monica De Souza, a 47-year-old professional dancer from Montevideo who has been doing the tango since she learned to walk. "It's not just Argentine. Its roots are as much in Uruguay as in Buenos Aires." Strong words in a part of the world where tango rights are as fiercely disputed as futbol. But De Souza has history on her side.

Down by Montevideo's port, in the Havana-esque Old City, is one of the first places tango was danced, in Uruguay and maybe anywhere. About 150 years ago, these streets were teeming with a melting pot of immigrant workers from Europe, freed slaves and fortune seekers. From the neighborhood's brothels and overflowing bars, tango emerged: an unlikely potluck of African rhythms and Italian light opera, with a touch of polka, Cuban habanera and German church music thrown in.

Today, the Old City, with its cobblestone streets and gracefully moldering colonial architecture, remains at the heart of Montevideo's tango scene. True to its roots, tango in Montevideo is a strictly nocturnal business, with real tangueros rarely showing up before midnight. But dozens of milongas -- informal dance halls, often squirreled away on the second floor of stores or restaurants -- host discreet gatherings throughout the week from about 5 p.m. on. For the novice, an early evening in the Old City offers a great chance to brush up on a few steps before hitting the dance floor.

"Tango is not in any way an aerobic exercise," says Elena Vilariño, 45, who has spent the past 13 years teaching tango. Vilariño leads classes for beginners in the Old City's grand opera house, the Teatro Solis. Built in 1856, the neoclassical theater hosts world-class ballets, classical music and -- in a luxuriously appointed ballroom off the main hall -- walk-in tango classes for $6 a pop.

With the afternoon sun filtering in through the ballroom's windows and a 1,000-pound crystal chandelier dangling overhead, Vilariño explains tango's basics to a mixed crowd of Uruguayans and international tourists.

"The most important thing is to keep walking," she says. "You never stop moving." In the '70s, Vilariño was forced to flee Uruguay's brutal dictatorship for Europe. After 20 years in exile, she returned to Montevideo in 1995, finding a new democracy and a tango renaissance.

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