Individuals with levels of ignorance that range from innocent to malicious, have attempted to create the idea that the people of Argentina couldn’t care less for the tango, except in times of bonanza when they can make a few bucks by becoming tangueros. The fact is that there is so much about the social and cultural aspects of the tango that begs explaining. Thus, we pay homage and give due respect and consideration to the humble milongas of Buenos Aires, where the preservation of the authentic, traditional and purest form of Argentine tango dancing has been taking place without interruption during both times of bonanza and misery.
The decade of the seventies was a horrendous experience for the Argentine Republic, as members of a repressive elite supported a military war that has become to be known by the infamous name of “dirty” because it was waged against citizens of the nation. Citizens who happened to have dissenting viewpoints, or were singled out by enemies or competitors as “dangerous” to their own selfish interests or the “welfare of the country.”
As a result of that, there are still thousands of Argentine citizens unaccounted for. They have disappeared (some having been dumped from military cargo planes in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean; others buried in unmarked graves, some after their unborn children were ripped from their guts, and rats were used to fill the void) under the excuse of cleansing the country of dissidents who rubbed somebody the wrong way.
In this climate of terror and persecution, the business side of dancing suffered because the secret police regularly raided dance halls under the excuse of looking for terrorists, communists, and other enemies of the state. People began to stay away from the most prominent clubs where dancing (all sorts of dancing, not just tango) took place.
The conclusion drawn by many, and supported by outright lies told by prominent touring professional teachers, was that tango died in the seventies as a consequence of being proscribed and banned by the government. The reasoning followed that if the tango had “died,” it was because the Argentines “killed” it, and Americans and Europeans with hard currency on hand performed some sort of exorcism, and voila, here is the tango again but now it belongs to the world.
Not so, writes Adela Zulema Cardozo, a surgical nurse and a founding member of the Institute of Tango Research. The ignorance of such claims is partially a consequence of the minimum cost of admission charged by the organizers of the numerous milongas porteñas during the seventies, that allowed access to their salons to a very large number of people of limited or non existent resources. These were indeed modest places, owned by regular people who could not afford the prohibitive costs of radio, TV and printed advertising, which is what gives massive promotion to an activity proposed to all sectors of society.
But maybe, these promoters were not interested in advertising since their facilities never lacked attendance because of the high interest shown by the public in dancing tango.
These milongas porteñas were the authentic seeding grounds for some of the greatest dancers who a decade later began to showcase the Argentine tango on stages around the world. Among them were Juan Carlos Copes, Virulazo, Antonio Todaro, Eduardo Arquimbau and many others. That’s the reason for their designation as milongas porteñas in contrast with other well publicized places “where they also danced Tango.” These other places were exclusively frequented by tourists, or by a public that had nothing to do with the authentic milongueros, who would only attend these “visible” venues, when as professionals, they were invited to do an exhibition.
Of all the milongas porteñas of the seventies, salon Italia Unita is perhaps the eldest of them all, with over a half a century of illustrious existence promoting the dance of tango. Others had a more ephemeral existence lasting part or all of the decade of the seventies. Some have been recently reopened for the benefit of the new tourist crowd that participates in locally organized international Tango encounters.
The common characteristic of all these milongas porteñas was the alternating use of both Tipica and Tropical/Moderna music in contrast to the decade of the forties were Jazz alternated with the tango. Within the Tropical/Moderna repertoire, cumbias were the preferred choice of the dancers.
The most classic, traditional and oldest salon tanguero is Salon La Argentina, originally located on 361 Rodriguez Peña Street, one block from Corrientes, and today on Bartolome Mitre, near Callao.
Another traditional and very old salon was Augusteo. There were dances with two orchestras: Tipica and Tropical on Saturdays and Sundays, and with recordings on Fridays.
Salon Rodriguez, known this way because of the street where it was located, was actually Circulo Italiano Lider Piedmont. They organized dances always with recorded music Wednesdays and Sundays from 6 PM to 11:30 PM. Notables habitués were Magdalena Copes, mother of Juan Carlos, , Carlos Alberto Estevez better known as Petroleo, a dancer of prestige, and many other well known personalities of the world of tango.
At Salon 25 de Mayo, known in the tango jargon as La veinticinco they danced on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with orchestras, Tipica and Tropical-Moderna; on Sundays the dancing started at 4 PM and lasted till 1 am. The attendance tended to be an older very tanguero crowd.
Salon Belgrano, located on Belgrano Avenue, was actually the Hogar Asturiano. In the seventies they had dancing every night, with different organizers each night. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the milonga was known as the Copes Tango Club.
El Nilo belonged to the Croatian community and at one point it was a movie house. Located on Boedo Avenue, they had dancing with orchestras on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 6 PM.
Salon Reduci, as well as Augusteo and Italia Unita, Unione e Benevolenza and Nacionale Italiano, belonged to the Italian Association of Mutual Assistance. It was built in 1929 and it is located on Rodriguez Peña 1442. In the seventies, they danced there with orchestras on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 PM to 4 AM, and on Sundays with recorded music from 5 PM to 2 AM.
Salon Canning on Scalabrini Ortiz 1331 offered (and still continues) dancing every night to recorded music.
Casa de Galicia had dancing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; on Sundays they danced with four orchestras, two Tipicas and two Tropicals. They worked in two shifts, two until 9 PM and two until closing time. Each orchestra played half hour sets.
Salon Italiano, actually Nazionale Italiano also had two orchestras, Tipica and Tropical on Saturdays from 9 PM to 4 AM, and on Sundays until 1 AM.
Palacio Rivadavia offered dancing with a high percentage of recorded tangos on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Salon Constitution offered tangos in the Seventies. Later it became the palace of the bailanta, a dance party considered by many even “lower class” than the tango, perhaps because it was the preferred form of entertainment for the dark skinned people of the interior of Argentina, and the dark skinned immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.
The Casa Suiza, also known as Salon Suizo held dances only during Carnaval time. They were organized by the Shimmy Club, a black association, and it had two dance floors. The main floor at street level attracted the tango crowd in a similar way as the salon listed above. In the basement, members of the Shimmy Club danced candombes to the sound of small drums, although they also went upstairs to dance tangos and cumbias.
Other salons where people danced tangos in the seventies where, Verdi, Region Leonesa, Glorias Argentinas, America del Sur, Unione e Benevolenza. Some are still in existence today. There were also social clubs like Estudiantes de Buenos Aires, Almagro, Bristol, Huracan, Boca Juniors. And confiterias such as Marcone, Mi Club, Crillon, Okey, Tourbillon, Retratos, Marabu, Bamboche, Savoy, Siglo XX, and Regine. It was not unusual that around midnight or 1 AM, they stopped selling admission tickets because they were filled to capacity.
There were other venues like Antezana, Circulo Social Mariano Acosta, La Taberna de Ricardo, Sociedad de Fomento Mariano Acosta, Noches de Atenas, Los Bohemios, Peña de Tango Angel Villoldo, Cantina La Galera and Cantina La Herradura.
Of all places, Salon Italia Unita was perhaps the one that typified best, the popularity of the tango in the seventies, a period when tourists stayed away because of the political and economic unrest in Argentina. Built between 1878 and 1883, it is an ample salon with balconies at both sides and at the entrance.
The dance floor has a parquet floor that has been completely replaced twice in 1981 and 1989. At the far end is the stage where the orchestras sat. Large mirrors covered the side walls, and all around the dance floors there were chairs for the ladies to sit. The gentlemen stood in the center of the dance floor (dancers moved around in la ronda) and from their vantage position they observed the ladies sitting or standing around the dance floor, ready to invite them to dance using the classic cabeceo, the nod of the head. They danced with the lights on. Gentlemen were refused admission unless they wore a jacket and a tie. Persons under the age of eighteen were not allowed in, and it was forbidden to smoke in the salon. Smokers had a side hall with chairs to enjoy their vice.
Many orchestras played at Italia Unita. Maestro Juan D’Arienzo‘s final performance at the helm of his orchestra took place there, and there is a long list of major personalities of the tango scene who, alongside thousands of unnamed milongueros, spent many glorious hours enjoying and dancing the tango in the decade of the seventies, while some kept saying, and pathetically some still repeat, that the tango was dead.
Marisa Donadio, an attorney and also a founder member of the Research Institute of Tango contributed with documentation used in this article.