Sensual. Moving. A way to mourn, or to escape. Such are the allures of tango, the salacious dance and somber song of Buenos Aires bordellos in the late 1800s. Today, in Argentina, tango's age-old themes remain unblemished: Remembering love, lamenting loss.
A rainy day leaves empty tables, but the show goes on as Natalia Pastorino and Alejandro Nievas tango at El Balcón, a club in Buenos Aires's San Telmo district. "There's a lot of sadness in our country," says Pastorino, "but when you dance, you forget. You focus on your partner, on the music. You dance with your heart."
José Libertella (left) and Luis Stazo of Sexteto Mayor roll out passion from the bandoneon, the squeeze-box brought to Argentina by European immigrants that gives tango its distinctive sound.
As divine for the feet as for the ears, the timeless melodies propel bodies onto the floor at a Buenos Aires milonga (tango session), where lovers and friends pivot and glide away the afternoon.
Feelings flow like wine at Lo de Roberto, where locals step up to share life lessons through soulful songs. Early tango lyricists wrote in expressive Lunfardo, a Buenos Aires slang reflecting the gritty urban themes of betrayal, poverty, and misery. But tango sometimes hits a sweeter note, with tunes that uplift and lyrics of celebration rather than defeat.
"Tango is therapy," says Jorge Martorello, practicing a dance pose at the well-known Rodolfo Dinzel studio in Buenos Aires—a place offering both solace and job training when many must eke out life on the streets.
A standout in black, tango singer Laura Bogado touches up and winds down with folk singer Nora Mendoza between shows at El Balcón.
Men also perform, preening in the men's room of Niño Bien before trying to win a heart—or at least a dance. Carlos Ferrara, at left, sells cigarettes, mouthwash, cologne, and tango trinkets to patrons; the love advice is free.
Street dancers sizzle in San Telmo, putting private moments on public display—theatrics that keep donations flowing from passersby. The number of visitors to Argentina from abroad rose by 58 percent in the past decade, peaking at three million in 2002 as the nation's currency slumped. The sweet temptress tango helps keep them coming back.
All-night dancers yield to fatigue, but a new, youthful following keeps tango vibrant. "There's something in you that lives and endures," goes a 1932 lyric about the beloved tradition. "Song of Buenos Aires … now grips the world."
Engulfed in predawn mist, tango's second home—Uruguay's capital, Montevideo—lies just east of Buenos Aires, across the Rio de la Plata ("river of silver" ). The sister ports are tied by more than proximity: They share financial ups and downs, European heritage, and a devotion to tango that shapes their urban souls.