Argentina debates risks of tango in a pandemic

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Buenos Aires (dpa) – The dancers’ eyes light up as they swing together across the floor in an intimate embrace. Tango has returned to Buenos Aires after a break of almost a year during the pandemic.

But the virus isn’t gone yet – aren’t the dancers afraid? “Not at all,” says Flavio. “Tango gives me everything my health needs.”

Not everyone in the Argentine capital sees the situation so casually. 

A deep rift runs through the tango scene. On one side are those who cannot bear to forgo their hobby any longer; on the other, those who prefer to play it safe and leave their dancing shoes in the cupboard.

“It’s a matter of life and death after all,” says the vice president of the Association of Tango Dance Evening Organizers (AOM), Omar Viola. “Tango is about an encounter, an embrace, a play with the other and intimacy,” he adds. 

Until the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Viola had been organizer for the Milonga Parakultural, one of Buenos Aires’ long-standing tango salons. Since then, the salon has stayed closed. “We as organisers have to be socially responsible now,” he says. 

But not everyone agrees with Viola. 

“They can take the new normal and shove it,” says Pablo Etcheverry, organizer of the open-air salon Glorieta de Belgrano, who now sees himself as the leader of a “tango of resistance.”

“Let everyone decide for themselves what risk they will expose themselves to. Maybe an elderly woman would rather die because of a conversation than alone in her flat,” he says. 

Etcheverry fears that dancers will fall into depression as a result of the ban on tango. For many, a milonga, or tango dance event, is a social gathering, a means of communication, a way out of loneliness. 

“We are dissidents of the new normal. We are absolutely against the actions of the health service as the new inquisition,” he says. 

Police recently raided a park in the Belgrano district and broke up his open-air event. Now the group is collecting signatures for a petition on Change.org.

Viola meanwhile rejects the move as selfish. “What is this resistance milonga rebelling against? Against the virus?” asks Viola. 

“The call to dance the tango is selfish. Everyone is allowed to put their own health at risk, but they can, after all, transmit the virus without knowing it,” he adds. 

On a normal tango evening, four tangos are danced with one person, cheek to cheek. In between, there is a short chat and then the partner is changed for the next four tangos.

For tango teachers, organizers and DJs, 2020 was a disastrous year. 

During the long months of quarantine, they looked for alternative ways of living. Those who couldn’t live off their savings or a second job organized Zoom dance nights, tango jams, lessons via streaming and online festivals. 

But still, a number weren’t able to keep their heads above water. Ballroom Obelisco Tango was one such recent victim of the pandemic, along with the internationally renowned dance school DNI Tango.

Tango instructor Eugenia Martinez is giving dance lessons again, but under special rules. “There is a maximum of 15 participants, and they practise alone, not in pairs,” says Martinez, who herself fell ill with Covid-19 in October. But if case numbers begin to rise again, all lessons will be cancelled.

In Castelar, a suburb of Buenos Aires, more than 100 people gather every Sunday for a milonga in the pedestrian zone. Inspectors from the municipality check that restrictions are being followed and decide weekly whether dancing can continue there or not.

“On the evening of the reopening, people cried with joy while dancing,” says Ruben Malaver, who organizes these evenings. 

It’s high summer in Argentina right now. The music resounds through the streets, people watch the dancing from their balconies, the surrounding bars put out their tables. The tango makes you forget the misery of the past months for a few hours.

“We pay very close attention to the anti-coronavirus measures, list all participants and their contact details, and admonish those who forget their masks or don’t wear them quite right,” says Malaver. 

Aida used to attend a milonga with her husband two to three times a week before the pandemic. “We can’t take it any longer. We suffered a lot from it all year,” says the 65-year-old. 

Nevertheless, the couple now forgoes their beloved dance evenings. 

The pandemic simply poses too great a risk that a tango could be their last dance.

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