Dec 28, 2012 | Adventures in Travel

My bottle of cheap vino tinto cast a wispy, ragged shadow over graffiti scratched into my tiny wooden table at the Cafe Dorengo deep within the old San Telmo section of Buenos Aires. Shelves of empty, dust-covered wine bottles lined the neglected walls. Unwashed windows wore the grit of time, some, like the etched-glass panes of the swinging entrance doors, pieced together with tape. Ceiling fans creaked overhead. Yellowed light fixtures sent a sepia tint into the haze of cigarette smoke and down upon the scarred tables and the scuffed black-and-white floor tiles. Here and there, clusters of patrons were drinking and talking. Lovers huddled in corners sharing whispers and hiding kisses. A smattering of loners like me were whiling away hours by themselves. And through the cloudy air pulsed the thin, grainy sounds of old recordings playing the aching, angry, sensual songs of the tango.

A young couple got up from their table and sidled through the chairs to an open space at the center of the room. They struck a sultry pose and stepped into the dance. Hands linked. Feet crossed. Legs entwined. Thighs rubbed. They twirled apart and spun back together. Again and again. Again and again. Then they slowed and, weaving sensuually around each other back to front, front to back, they oozed off the dance floor, wended to their table, and looped balletically into their chairs. Scattered applause crackled. And a ragged voice beside me said, “Tango ess muueee peleegroooso.”

I turned to see the craggy features of an old man facing me from the next table.

“Pardone?” I stammered.

“Ah,” he nodded, sensing an American, and leaned closer. “Tango eees varrryy danngerrrusss.”

I squinted to see him clearly. He could have been sixty years old or a hundred-and-sixty. His face carried more than lines of age. It bore shadows of a buried life and ancient sorrows. My curiosity teased, I asked what he meant.

“Tango ees no onlee danz,” he rasped, his voice deep with years and smoking. “Eet ees ‘sad song made into danz.’ But eet ees more. Tango ees ‘La danza de amor e muerte,’ says poet, ‘The danz of love and death.’ Ees true. Tango can deestroyy you.” He puffed on a stumpy cigarette, and gulped from the glass of wine he hunched over in front of him. He held me with his arresting, rheumy, plaintive eyes. This was a man with a story. A story he wanted to tell. And I decided to let him tell it.

“Eet beegeen heer,” he confided, gathering his wine and cigarettes and dragging his chair over to my table. “Een thees café.” He went on insistently in his thick accent, but with a flair and fluency that quickly captured me and lost to my ear almost all traces of foreignness.

“Those were hard times in Buenos Aires,” he explained. “Little work. Much trouble. San Telmo and La Boca had many riots. We became socialists to change everything. And we went to cafes to drink and to forget, and to dream and to dance.

“They met here one of those nights. Musicians played, over there in that corner,” and he gestured with his glass. “A bandoneon–you call it accordion–a violin, a guitar, a singer. Always tango. Not like the fancy dance halls later or shows today. In those days it was our music. Our dance. Our life. Sadness and anger, love and hate, dreams and death.

“She came in with a man, and sat facing this way. Her black hair gleamed in the candle light as it fell to the shoulders of her shiny black dress. Her face in that light had the beauty of the angels. Skin of gold. High round cheeks. Lips full and red, opening to a wide smile. Large, dark, enticing, and dangerous eyes. Madrilena was her name. But Eduardo didn’t know that then

“Eduardo sat here alone, smoking, drinking, listening to tango. He saw her come in and watched her hair glisten, her face glow, her lips part to speak and smile and sip from her glass and purse around cigarettes. Suddenly shock and anger came over her. He heard her voice rise, and he saw her jump up, grab her glass, and throw wine on the man shouting, “Vermin! Shit! Get out!! Get Out!!” The man tried to quiet her, but she ran to the bar and bent over it, covering her face with her hands. The man followed. He spoke and touched her on the shoulder from behind. She spun around screaming “Never!! Bastard!!” and with an open hand slapped the side of his face and clawed bloody streaks down his cheek with her nails. He staggered back and raised a fist to crush her. But he held it. She stood strong, defiant. The man growled a curse and stalked out of the café.

“It all happened so fast that Eduardo could only stare. Then, while she remained standing at the bar, something told him to go to her. And that was how they met.

“Madrilena was still hot with rage, but she agreed to sit and have a drink with Eduardo. She said the man had betrayed her love, and with her own best friend. She wanted him to die. They drank and smoked and talked of hate and love, heartache and pain. And listened to the music of their mood. They had many feelings to share. Many hurts and many yearnings. When it was very late, Eduardo asked Madrilena to dance with him. She didn’t answer. Then she slid her hand slowly across the table. He lifted her fingers with his. They both rose, drew together, and cautiously stepped into the music.

“They moved around the little floor carefully at first. A little awkward. But gradually the tango freed them. Their feet found a pattern, their bodies felt the rhythm, their eyes met, then flew apart in a whirl and returned to meet again. Eventually the tables and chairs and voices and people around them faded away into the smoky haze, leaving Madrilena and Eduardo dancing alone to the music of the bandoneon, the violin, and the guitar, and to the tango singer sobbing of cruel despairs, broken hearts, and tattered dreams.

Today there’s no difference / between straight or treacherous / ignorant, wise, thieving generous…. / So, sell the soul / raffle the heart.


O, my sorrowful night…. / I’m drowning in my sorrows / To try to forget your love.


Feel the blood rise to your face / with every beat, / while an arm winds like a snake / around a waist / about to break. / This is how to dance the tango!…. /Sad severe tango… / Dance of love and death.

“Lost in the music, stung by the songs, they danced until the last note ended. Then without word or glance, Madrilena said she had to go and swiftly walked away. Eduardo called out to her. She pushed through the swinging glass doors to the street. But he thought he heard her say over her shoulder, “Mañana en la noche.” Tomorrow night. He wanted to go after her, but he didn’t. He knew it would be no use.

“Eduardo waited the next night at the same table, uncertain that she would come. But she did. The same black, gleaming hair. The same shiny black dress. The same glowing face. The same dark, enticing, dangerous eyes. She paused briefly inside the door. He went to her. The first night repeated itself. Talking, drinking, smoking. And tango. But this time the talk was shorter, the wine sweeter, the smoke thicker. And the tango more sure and more intense. Eduardo led with a firmer hand. Madrilena did her turns and bends, ochos and boleros with touches of flair. They were beginning to anticipate each others moves, feeling muscles tense, sensing moments for feet to cross, tap, kick, and spin as they danced figures of their own to the edgy, pulsing music, while their eyes locked together more and more often, their steps quickened, and their holds tightened as if pouring fuel on a fire in their hearts. The café vanished for them as before, leaving them alone with the urgent music, and the sad songs that cut through the smoky air like poems of grief from tormented souls.

“Then it was over. She left. And again ‘mañana en la noche’ echoed in Eduardo’s ears. She came back the next night. And it all happened again. The next night, too. But now their talk was brief. The wine went down fast. Half-smoked cigarettes burned in the tray. Eduardo and Madrilena were here to tango.

“Their earlier hesitations had disappeared. They gripped each other with strong hands, their eyes intent, their feet knowing what to do. Others in the café sat back to watch. And what they saw was not just dance. It was passion. Not love. A passion made of sadness and pain and anger and lust. A passion the tango knows well.

“And that night, after swirling and kicking and dipping and clenching with a careless precision and a rising heat, the last steps of a spinning, entangling embrace brought Madrilena’s and Eduardo’s faces together in a breathless kiss. They held it and each other for seconds, like a tableau. Then they eased apart, and, the music still playing, they passed through the swinging doors to the street together, arm in arm.

“What happened next, and whenever Eduardo and Madrilena were alone, only they could know. People told many stories about them. But nothing is as true as what I tell you now.

“In Madrilena’s cramped room on a narrow street of San Telmo, the passions of their tango became a tango of passionate lust. And like their tango, there was nothing tender in their lust. They kissed with fire and threw themselves on each other, wrestling, squeezing, heaving. It was fierce, ferocious. And ecstatic They said nothing, but for the sounds of excitement that sprang from their throats. Their language had become passion itself, beyond words. The passion of the tango, and of their flaming desires. When the night ended, they were no longer themselves.

“From then on, Eduardo and Madrilena came not just to the Café Dorengo. They went to tango bars all over Buenos Aires. The cafes of San Telmo, the dives of La Boca, the dance halls of Central where the tango was winning the fashionable set. They danced to small groups of players like here, and to whole tango orchestras, to every song and every singer, old men with ravaged memories, young men with anguished hearts. She always wore a shiny black dress, sleek, slit up the side; he wore black, too, pinstriped pants and an open shirt for the cafes, a suit, sometimes a hat, for the dance halls. They had little money. But what money they had went to the tango.

“Soon they were known everywhere. Not only because they danced often. But because their tango was becoming the most brilliant, and the most daring. Their steps raced, their thighs twined, their heels flashed. Madrilena’s twists and kicks flared and her high leaps soared into Eduardo’s steely catches. His arms lifted her like a feather and tossed her like a leaf, dipped her like a flower and gripped her like a vice. Other dancers started drawing aside when Madrilena and Eduardo took the floor. There they watched and murmured that this tango was the pure ‘dance of love and death.’

“When Madrilena and Eduardo were by themselves, their lust, like their tango, possessed them with a mounting fury. Hungrily, their bodies sought out every sensation. The stronger the better. And the stronger the sensations became, the stronger they had yet to become. Old pleasures went numb. Old feelings dulled. New sensations demanded brighter flames, hotter fire. Then the violence beneath the surface of their tango and of their desires began breaking through.

“You could see this happening in the bars and dance halls. Every week Madrilena and Eduardo’s movements became more exaggerated, the kicks higher, the spins faster, the leaps farther, the bumps harder, the dips deeper. Cries of shock and sighs of admiration burst from the crowds gathered around them as they danced with an animal ferocity and terrifying grace that came closer and closer to catastrophe. It was as though they were tempting each other to riskier thrills, sharper pains, greater dangers, a contest of appetites and endurance, a mating dance in the wild that grows more exciting as it grows more violent.

“One night, after the tango had left them more drunk than ever with passion, they made a shambles of Madrilena’s room, rolling and crashing about, each clutching at the other’s body, pulling hair, scratching flesh, prodding themselves to feel more and more and more, upending chairs, crushing tables, shattering dishes, tearing the bed sheets, and ripping the pillows spewing feathers into the air to flutter down over everything, sticking to their soaking naked bodies that lay still at last, panting in a quivering heap on the floor. They had found new heights, or depths, to their savage delights. New freedom. New feelings. New exhilaration. The violence thrilled them. Their passion was sheer erotic obsession now. Its taste a bitter-sweet elixir they had to drink. They had never felt so alive. Or so close to death.

“The ravenous hunger was consuming them again when they next met late one night at La Corrientas, in Central. The summer’s heat hung in the air. The hall was filled with dancers and lovers and Porteños out to see tango in a safe place. The punching beat of four bandoneons surged through the large room, while four violins traded skittering melodies with the bandoneons and with a throbbing piano, all pumping tango into the blood. One after another, singers young and old, cried their aching songs of anger and sorrow.

“Madrilena and Eduardo began circling slowly around each other, like jungle cats, their fiery, menacing eyes piercing into each other. Those who had seen them before, and many had, could tell they were entering a world of their own, where no one else could go, or would dare. Gradually they moved into their tango as if in a slow-motion film, restraint adding tension and energy to their movements. Their entire first dance went like that, a pantomime of tango in slow motion. But you could feel the fire in it. Like the foreplay of sex, but not loving, not tender. Never that for them. White hot. Close to explosion.

“With every dance their fire burned hotter and hotter, rising toward the surface like an awakening volcano, breaking out in viciously flashing kicks, frightening leaps, bruising embraces. Other dancers backed farther and farther away, as if to keep from getting singed. Step by step, spark by spark, Eduardo and Madrilena conquered the floor until it was theirs alone. The musicians played only for them, faster and faster the pace, louder and harsher the sound. The bandoneons’ rhythms stabbed, the violins’ chorus cried, the piano’s bass shook, and melodies raced and galloped and tumbled in a frenzied crescendo of heart-pounding, soul-wrenching tango. Urging the music on, Eduardo and Madrilena swirled and twisted and kicked and skipped and leaped and slid and dipped and clinched. They seemed unable to stop. Every pause only fueled their fire, launching ever more extreme and perilous movements. No one had seen anything quite like it. Even from Eduardo and Madrilena.

“Then the volcano erupted. With the tango at a pitch no bandoneonist could sustain, no violinist could continue, no pianist could endure, and no dancer could long survive, Madrilena unwound herself from a long spin, coiled again, and threw herself through the air at Eduardo as if hurled by the wind. Her split skirt pulled high, she curled one leg beneath her and pointed the other out straight, her fish-net stockings glistening from her hip to her spikey heel. Bracing for the catch, Eduardo spread and anchored his feet, bent his knees, and reached out his arms. Flames arced from her eyes to his as she flew. The instant he grasped her he knew. He saw her teeth cut through her lip and felt a blinding pain where her heel tore through his trousers and slashed into his flesh. At almost the same instant, Madrilena’s hand clamped around the back of his neck and pulled their mouths together in a hard, biting kiss, while Eduardo wrapped an arm tightly around her waist, and crushed Madrilena to him with a powerful sudden force that drove a cry from her throat and made her legs go limp. Her fingernails etched deep red lines down his cheek as the two bodies crumpled to the floor. Eduardo groaned. Blood oozed from his face and spread from the tear between his legs. Madrilena moaned but did not move. The crowd gasped. The music stuttered, and stopped.”

The old man’s voice trailed off. He downed the last of his wine. I waited. He dragged on a cigarette and let the smoke drift from his nose and mouth. He tapped the ashes onto a pile spilling over in the ashtray.

Finally, I asked haltingly, “What…What happened to them?”

Releasing another chest-full of smoke, he sighed, “Madrilena. She could not walk again.”

“And Eduardo?”

The old man took another deep pull on his cigarette. Exhaling heavily, he wheezed, “Eduardo could never….” He coughed gruffly, phlegm thick in his throat. Then, peering past me as though seeing someone in the distance, he smothered his cigarette butt in the ashes, flicked the discarded pack toward me, and shoved his chair from the table, scraping the tiles. Standing up stiffly, he muttered, “Eet ees feeneesh. Adios.” And as if achingly, he shuffled away.

I sat bewildered. Who was that? A storyteller? An old dreamer bewitched by the tango? This is a good place for stories, I had to admit. Spend enough time here, and anyone might start to tell ‘em. I drained my wine and turned around to watch the old man leave. I could see him near the entrance laying a shawl around the shoulders of an old woman in a chair. She must’ve just come in, or maybe she’d signaled to him to go out with her. He patted her back. She lifted a frail hand. He placed his fingers under hers. And, slowly circling her, he gracefully swung her chair around on its wheels. And gently he pushed her out through the glass doors.

My mouth fell open. What the…? Was it possible? He…? She…? I was still gaping at the flapping door panes held in place by their fraying strips of tape when a skirt brushed my arm. The young dancers from earlier swept past into the center. My gaze involuntarily followed them. He gripped her tight, they cocked their heads, and they flowed into a tango that seemed to more intense and sensual than before. The sobbing baritone on a tinny recording sang,

Feel the blood rise to your face

With every beat;

While an arm winds like a snake

Around a waist

about to break.

This is how to dance the tango!…

Dance of love and death.

Yielding to an obscure yearning, I ordered another vino tinto. Idly fingering the rumpled cigarette pack, I felt one left inside. I slipped it out, put it to my lips, lit it, and inhaled deeply. Then, propping my elbows on the table and resting my chin on my open palms, I let the smoke float mistily from my lungs. And I began searching the room through the haze for a pair of dark, enticing, dangerous eyes.

All tango lyrics and the lines from the poem “Tango” by Ricardo Guiraldes come from Simon Collier, et al., Tango: The Dance, The Song, The Story (London: 1995).