Derek Cheng visits the home of the tango... and discovers he has a lot to unlearn.

The tango, more than any other dance, is true to that famous saying: "Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire."

But there are many hurdles to overcome before you can reach a stage in tango where a series of moves can seduce all who watch you.

We had been in the spiritual home of the tango - Buenos Aires, Argentina - for more than a week, indulging in the free concerts and dance shows of the annual Tango Festival.

Argentina will appear more frequently on New Zealanders' travel radar now that Los Pumas have joined the Rugby Championship and the All Blacks will be playing there every year.


More than 300 All Blacks fans will be in Buenos Aires for the test on September 30; Air New Zealand is taking most of them on a chartered flight with the team.

The Tango Festival had us instantly hooked and we organised some private lessons, wanting to look and feel as sexy and vivacious as the dancers we had seen.

As Luciana, our teacher, placed her hand on my upper chest, pressing lightly, she said: "Hear me, feel me."

This lesson, in her lounge, was all about learning the connection. She slightly upped the pressure as she weightlessly stepped forward.

"Good," she said as we moved fluidly forwards, then backwards, hand still on chest.

"Like the Japanese geishas," she said explaining the upright, well-balanced, slightly forward-leaning posture of the tango dancer.

It's the connection that holds the secret of the tango. The woman moves only where the man leads her. He cradles her like a fragile lover, shifting her with his own subtle movements.

The maestros move effortlessly together. One moment they are face to face in a tight but fluid embrace, the next a shift in his weight sweeps her in great circles. They move as a single, sensual entity. An immaculately dressed entity. The woman is always in sizzling attire, usually a tight-clinging dress slit to her knickers, lacy pantyhose and heels sharp enough to skin a gorilla.


The tango took shape in the 1880s during a period of immigration to Argentina from Europe. The migrants brought with them the Viennese waltz and the polka, the only dances then in which men and women faced each other.

"Exactly how and when the tango began to evolve from these dances we can never know," writes Christine Denniston, author of several books on the tango.

"The tango was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars - the poor, the underprivileged."

While the rich looked on disapprovingly at what they thought was a sinful and scandalous dance, the poor took to the streets in search of entertainment. Recorded music was yet to be invented, so they danced on street corners where buskers set up shop.

But it was in the courtyards of apartment blocks, in gambling houses and bars and brothels where the dance carved out its identity.

Nowadays the tango is the lifeblood of the city. It is everywhere, in markets, on street corners and in the milongas (dancehalls) throughout the city.

Our evening in downtown club Buenos Ayres had begun with a mix of gringos and locals eager to learn the basic steps. I landed in an intermediate group, but as I'd had some tango lessons in Wellington, I leaped in head first, twisting and pushing my partner into all kinds of elaborate moves.

This wasn't the tango, the teacher soon pointed out. It was pushing your partner in random directions in time with the music. As the evening progressed, it became obvious that everything I had learned about the tango would have to be unlearned.

A live band soon emerged - strings, piano, double bass and no less than four bandoneons, the German instrument akin to a giant harmonica and essential to tango music. The music is fiercely passionate with a strong sense of pulsing rhythms, evoking images of desire, lust, rejection.

After a few songs, the dancefloor cleared to a pair of professional dancers; they often head to milongas after they have sucked tourists dry at one of the "dinner and tango" shows across the city every night.

The couple danced for 20 minutes to the band. She arched her back, slid between his legs, kicked and turned sharply and dramatically, while he posed with his 1000-yard stare.

The next day, Luciana revealed the second secret of the tango.

"Tango music and tango dance are full of emotion, and you have to feel it deeply and respond and move to that. To feel the music. To channel it."

She started the music, again with that strong pulse every bar. I took three steps and held my partner in mid-step, moving again only when that strong pulse came around again.

"Like that! I love you!" she screamed in approval. I glowed with pride. To dance the tango is to suffer, to conquer, to feel every emotion and finish with elation.

Getting there: LAN Chile flies return from Auckland to Buenos Aires for about $2700.

* Dinner and tango shows in Buenos Aires are on every night, generally for around $150. Milongas often start early with cheap tango lessons.

* The Buenos Aires Tango Festival is held every August and includes a number of free events.