Alex in Buenos Aires: Improvise

    Tango in the streets of Buenos Aires. Photo by Alex Freeman / North by Northwestern

    This might be a cop out and a shortcut to explain what I think of the Porteño culture but so be it. Sometimes, I feel that the way to be a Porteño is to improvise and learn to riff off everyone else here.

    I first noticed these small acts of unplanned chaos that all seem to work together on my first day in Buenos Aires when I took my first taxi from the airport to my apartment. The taxista pulled onto the highway and started to speed up, swerving between slower cars and trucks. But he didn’t just pass the cars. He dodged them. Instead of following the painted lines of the highway, all of the cars were simply driving on the road in a mass. So my taxista didn’t change lanes to get ahead, he just swung around any car in his way.

    And in the city too, all taxistas squeeze by stopped buses, fit 4 cars on a two lane road and drive in a perpetual state of confusion (from my point of view). The cars are fish in a river, swimming downstream without a guiding line but all headed in the same direction. And I have to ford the 8+ lane road to catch my bus every morning.

    Completely new ground for me was my first tango lesson in Buenos Aires. I have two left feet that no dance class can ever fix but have more than enjoyed all of my classes so far. I’ve always thought dance classes taught rigid moves that simply look beautiful rather than inspiring movement of a certain style. After the first couple hours of class, we had the basic steps memorized and the professor let us dance — with any steps we wanted.

    That was when I realized that tango is all improvisation as well. You and your parter only need to understand each other and follow one another. Seeing the professionals dance tango (on TV, in the streets, in a show — it’s everywhere) showed me that they planned nothing beforehand. If the guy wanted to twist the girl around, he did. And she responded with a heel kick. And he responds by moving her foot. And so on and so forth.

    So I tried improvising at a milonga, a tango club, one night and failed. But that didn’t matter, because she responded and we stepped back into the beat and kept dancing.

    I’ve started to play soccer on a semi-regular basis and playing soccer is, to my untrained eye, all about improvisation. There are only 17 rules to official soccer and even less at the indoor club I play in. I haven’t played soccer in about a decade, but I still manage to keep up. There is definitely a strategy, like there is a rhythm to Tango and a general direction to the streets, but so much of the game depends on your creativity with the ball.

    I can barely send the ball in the right direction, but I’ve seen (and been blown away by) feints, crossovers, fake kicks and moves that I doubt have a name. These weren’t moves practiced over and over like a jumpshot in basketball or a fielding a grounder in baseball. It’s a skill honed over hours of kicking a ball over any patch of land that has enough space to run around.

    But maybe I have no idea what’s going on. Maybe since I don’t really understand Argentine daily life, I think everyone is improvising.

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