We’ve just spent five, sultry, tango-soaked days in Berlin; the experience reminded me of a Buenos Aires tango trip one January: heat and humidity, dozens of milonga choices every night of the week, swoon-worthy skill on every dance floor. Bonus, the flight costs a fraction of the price, last for less than two hours and the Germans have a humbling mastery of the English language.
We found the Berlin Tango Guide, a city map with all the milonga venues (as well as DJ and music genre details) indispensible. It’s free, available in English and can be picked up at dance schools/venues. On our first night, a Wednesday, the guide led us to an open-air milonga at the Strandbar next to the river, (15:00 – 20:00, 90% traditional music, 10% modern.) Within walking distance is the Roter Salon (21:00 – 03:00, same music mix, but holiday closure the week we were there.)
The open-air Strandbar (a summer-only venue) has a great setting alongside the Spree river, facing the impressive edifice which is the Bode museum. While the music turned out to be strictly traditional, the dancing was not – a floor peppered with non-tango party-goers, drunk on the good beer and the exceptional weather. It made navigation difficult and I found the film of beach sand that had been kicked onto the dance floor a real grind when it came to pivots. So we sat on the stairs and watched Berlin at play. Entertaining!
We’d come the city to participate in Korey and Adeline Ireland’s tango workshop, four days of tuition, dance and musicality. This was based at the curiously named Tango Tanzen Macht Schön (TTMS - Tango dancing makes [you] Beautiful) It didn’t work; I’m still an Ugly sister and my prince is still a frog, but oh, the dancing was beautiful!)
How come the average intermediate in Berlin seems to be so much more skilled than our lot, we wondered?
Points to ponder:
· the Germans are generally athletic (see sports results) and have been doing it longer
· some renowned teachers are based there
· the city attracts more than it’s fair share of Argentinians,
· do Germans have more money to invest in tango? (Witness the plethora of tango clothing and shoe boutiques, tango courses, tango exercise classes, therapists offering various forms of relief to tango dancers, etc.)
One of the itinerant porteños, that master of the Villa Urquiza style, Alejandro Hermida whom I bumped into at a TTMS milonga, tells me that Berlin is the European city he spends most time in. I’d take a class with Alejandro any day in any city and hope like hell the sound system fails. He has a fabulous voice and a vast Golden Age repertoire so can simultaneously serenade and teach.
In my opinion, Korey Ireland’s tuition is worth travelling for too. The quiet American, now married to German dancer and teacher, Adeline, is best known as a bandoneon player and tango composer. His instruction is personally-tailored, even in group classes, and his throwaway remarks about the nature of the dance are profund. They make me want to run for gold leaf and quill so I can inscribe them in an illustrated tango bible. A favourite this time was “Consider that connection occurs because of the couples’ separate axes being in close proximity”. Sounds so simple, bland even, but when you really think about it most social dancers do exactly the opposite – use the connection to achieve axis. Makes for tango wobbles.
We had four hours of group tuition a day, guided practicas and optional extra musicality sessions with Korey. He and Adeline met us at designated milongas every night. Great value at 150 euros I thought, especially as the Irelands translated for us. The moves were perhaps challenging for mid-level dancers, comprising alterations, off–axis turns, pivots for him and her, dancing to alternate rhythms, but we wanted something more than we could get at home and the moves were scaffolded with instruction in sound technique and superb musicality. Labelled an Intensive Summer Seminar, it sounded fiercer than it was, thanks to Adeline’s light but efficient touch. She was also a mine of useful information about where to eat, to shop, to sightsee and at milongas, which tango Herrs to cabaceo.
Ahh, the milongas! Often situated in characterful old buildings attached to restaurants or serving exceptional cake; always with a fully stocked bar; no air-con and windows doors kept shut (the sweat-slicked look was de rigueur) and a delectable array of dance partners to exchange body fluids with. The approach is strictly cabaceo and the one tanda-rule doesn’t seem to apply. I found myself happily dancing with the same man (or woman, so many good female leaders) for 15 to 20 minutes until our mutual melting forced one or other of us to cry ‘Achtung, air needed!’ My husband tells me he was equally surprised by the staying power of his German partners; when his Fräuleins made no move to leave the floor during the cortinas, he did the gentlemanly thing and asked if they’d were willing to dance another tanda. He reports that to a woman, they looked puzzled and said versions of: “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
He was thrilled to get as many compliments as he did on his dancing and on his TLC (Tango Loving Care.) Apparently German men don’t routinely escort their partners back to their chairs or compliment them on their attire. Not my personal experience in Berlin, but then I was wearing Hazel McNab’s head-turning dancewear.
All the milongas seem to be within walking distance of the city’s bleak but functional public transport system. When the S – or U-bahn stops running at around 1.30 am, the night buses follow the same routes. Most local tangueros seem to cycle to milongas; I felt perfectly safe walking the streets, even solo after 3am, when along Oranienstrase Turkish shisa bars are still attracting patrons.
Our favourite milonga venue was the Sunday afternoon/night one called Tangoloft. Not easy to find, but once there, step into an industrial–looking courtyard, climb the crumbling concrete and metal stairs one can imagine WW11snipers lurking on, and head towards the sound of tinkling tea cups and piano keys. You’ll come to a huge loft space, light and springy-floored, with a grand piano, candelabra, fin de siècle furniture, real roses languishing in vases like exhausted debutantes in overblown ball gowns and an array of cakes to leave one’s dress size for.
Curtained nooks off the dance floor allow for ample space to relax when one is taking a break, while the upright Louis Quinze-syle chairs frame to perfection, a tanguera looking for some dance action. There is a gloriously-lit tango boutique I regret not having time to visit and the louche atmosphere belies the fact that children are welcome. I saw couples dancing with babies strapped to their chests or backs. It’s a jewel that Mona Isabelle and her business partner have created with loving attention to detail. And her quirky tandas were inspriring.
My other Must-do is the Spiegelsaal at Clärchen Balhaus, a mirrored ballroom that predates WW1 and survived WW11 bombing. It opens only for special events, but the main ballroom downstairs features tango every Tuesday night.
My Don’t-do, is Max and Moritz on Oranienstrasse. It’s the latest hot spot for Berlin’s professional dancers, so while what’s happening on the cramped, dusty brown dance floor is good to watch, it’s an exclusive crowd so strangers are unlikely to receive favourable cabaceo.
Finally, there is guerrilla tango in Berlin, as the dancers get summer-giddy after eight months of winter incarceration. For architectural ohh-ahhh it would be hard to beat the venues chosen by the Hit ‘n Run organiser. (Click here for Circus Tango images; same kind of impromptu urban tango event, I think, same kind of breathtaking backdrops.) Dancers gather in pre-arranged public spots moving on to the next before the police arrive to see them off. The night we joined the tango terrorists they occupied a stone platform overhanging the Spree river, then a colonnaded walk between the museum buildings. The Star Wars theme blared out as the group moved, en masse, between venues. I was packing my sharpest stilettos in case I had to beat off batonned police, but not even a whisper of police siren interrupted the strains of Di Sarli under the soaring columns.
If you want a wunderbar week of tango, I recommend Berlin. Pick a hotel anywhere amid the underground routes (we stayed in Motel One, Prinzenstrasse near Moritzplatz - stylish but affordable.) And check for milonga updates and Berlin tango news here: tangoberlin.de or facebook.com/BerlinTango. Milonga entrance fees are between 4,50 – 6 euros.
Auf wiedersehen, pet.