Less Polish, More Shine: Tango at La Catedral in Buenos Aires

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catedral_400.jpgTango is a buzz word in Buenos Aires tourism. The promise of authenticity often is combined with a price too high for someone living in the city to pay more than a few times a year. Ironically, the price of authenticity eventually degrades that authenticity, as more and more tourists watch this cultural activity turn into a spectator sport. I am not suggesting that this is true of all expensive tango halls; a show is a good way to see the very best dancers dance tango. I will, however, suggest that the best does not mean the most authentic. And the most authentic tango I have found in the city of Buenos Aires is at La Catedral.

La Catedral is an architectural mystery. It is on the second floor of an unassuming building on the corner of Sarmiento and Medrano, near the geographical center of the city, not its tourist centers of San Telmo and Palermo. When you enter, you ascend a staircase to the dance hall, which appears upon first glance to be in a barn. The roof is high, with wooden beams. Years of kitsch hang from them, the most noticeable being giant, glowing heart that looms over the bar. Taller than a person, it is made from red cloth which covers various sized plastic cans, giving the heart’s arteries their shape and transparency.

On the walls there are posters, paintings, and some odd bronze apparatuses that seem to hearken back to the barn that this strange milonga never was. Probably once an old warehouse with a floor now built into its middle, the milonga’s ambiance could be overwhelming and over the top. But somehow, in the dim, faintly red light, it seems like just the right amount of history and absurdity to give the tango dancers both the context and the freedom to play out their art on the dance floor.

catedral2_300.jpgThe popular night to go is Tuesday, although of course Friday and Saturday nights are also very cheap. On Tuesday, beginner classes start at 10:30 and can often be very large, ideal if you want to hide in the crowds while getting some practice, less perfect for those seeking one on one attention. The teaching is all done in Spanish, since the clientele are mostly Argentine, and I think it is most fun if you bring your own partner. That being said, I have never been to La Catedral with a partner of my own and I have always had fun.

During the lesson you get a chance to dance with different people and maybe make a few friends who will ask you to dance once the music starts. When dancing does begin, usually around 11:30, the regular couples file out onto the floor to work on their technique together. This is probably my favorite part about La Catedral on Tuesday (besides dancing myself, of course). The tango couples who dance here are not professionals—the lack that snap and polish, that surreal quality of the truly gifted. Instead, they are simply people whose passion and devotion to the dance have made them pretty good. Their love, not their sharp ankle flairs, is what fascinates me about them. And for those who have been reading this, and thinking, but I really do just want to watch tango, these are the couples who I think make it worth your while to come to La Catedral. The bar and an assortment of tables take up the room’s back half, where people do often simply sit, eat, and drink as they enjoy the scene.

catedral_05.jpgLast week I went to La Catedral not on a Tuesday but on a Thursday and found it to be the most satisfying experience I’ve had with tango in this city, despite the fact that I didn’t dance a single step the whole night. I went with some friends, arriving later than we had intended (which left me feeling very Argentine) and we claimed a table. As time passed, we began to wonder, was any one coming? There were only two couples on the floor, devoted to one another and with no hope of other partners in site.

Then, at about 12:30, the floor cleared completely and two men with guitars went to the stage. They sat on two chairs behind a small table with wine and candles and proceeded to play and sing for an hour or so. The music was beautiful and simply and they even had a song written about La Catedral! After their performance, the bar cleared out even more until we felt like maybe we should be going. That was when, from a back room, a group of musicians, maybe fifteen in all, emerged and began to have a “jam,” if jam is the right word for an impromptu tango session. Men and women played and sang together, guitars and accordions were experimented with, and my friends (and our two new Argentine friends) and I simply watched with wonder. I think the place may have actually been closed by that point, but Danny the barman walked by and gave us a smile—he knew we didn’t want to go home.

caterdalfloor_wide150.jpgI hesitated to write about La Catedral because I love the fact that it is such quiet and out of the way place. But like every one who finds a gem, I wanted to play with it in the light. So if you go to La Catedral, enjoy it for what it is: a place for people who love tango as a habit, not as a once a year spectator sport.

Tango at La Catedral
Sarmiento 4006, Almagro
Buenos Aires
Tango Classes and Milongas nightly
Thanks to Rob Nuijten for the beautiful pictures.


Cherie on December 17, 07

I so TOTALLY agree with you about the shine and the polish!
It’s not for really dancing, but La Catedral is an experience all it’s own.I’m so glad it reopened after the Crisis of Cro-Magnon.

I wrote about it some years ago here:

Daniella Iglesias on July 11, 08

Yes !
Last year I was there. In my opinion the best milonga in Bs As. I love it.
I´m brasilian and here there are many places like that, but the places are not so charming like La Catedral.
I remember many details and the music. The first time that i listen Gotan Project.
Very Good !!!!

[…] saw tango in the “Catedral” of Tango – unique experience, highly recommended – and heard Tango in El Boliche de Roberto, […]

nostalguera on December 6, 08

thank you gwen for such a beautiful and accurate account of one of the most incredible rooms on this planet. there’s magic running through the shambolic veins of this place. btw, i heard it was once used to store flour.

Veronika on April 28, 10

Hola soy Veronica, y tengo a mi amigo que viene a Argentina y quiere ir a bailar y divertirse aprendiendo un poco, el no sabe bailar y yo me defiendo, me gustaria saber cual es el costo de la entrada y cual es el mejor dia para disfrutar de una buena noche.
Muchas gracias
Veronica Blake.

kristina on May 21, 10

Hola..I went there in February when I was visiting beunoa Aires and I thought it wa one of the best experiences I ever had. The great atmosphere, teachers, people themselves, I was having such a great time..when I go back to Buenos Aires, I definitely go there again..and again..and again………..


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