Tango and also soccer are a little like basketball in some of the inner city neighborhoods in the U.S., because there was a time when they were almost the only forms of recreation available to many young men. And in the working class barrios of Buenos Aires, there is still a strong connection between soccer and tango. The streets and vacant lots of BsAs are full of kids kicking soccer balls around, and there are large fútbol stadiums everywhere in the city. A friend who is with the San Lorenzo Fútbol Club told me that Buenos Aires has an incredible 18 professional teams, which is about equal to all of the fútbol teams in most European countries. So it’s natural that the quick feet and natural balance of many great tango dancers were developed on the canchas de fútbol in the BsAs neighborhoods.
This painting of the champion Boca Juniors team hangs on the side of the stadium. A pre-cocaine Maradona is singing tango, and Canniggia is playing the piano. (Ten bandoneons?)
Pibes from the neighborhood play fútbol in the shadow of Boca Stadium. Some kids on yellow and blue painted bikes came up and ask Alejandra why I was taking these pictures. She said it was because I was a big Boca fan—but that I also liked San Lorenzo (our friend is Vice President of the club and we get free stuff from the team). The kids said, that's okay, but San Lorenzo is in a villa miseria (a dangerous slum), and they would never go there (of course Boca itself has a reputation as being one of the rougher barrios in the city). I have a great San Lorenzo jersey, but Alej doesn’t want me wearing it around BsAs. She says someone might throw a rock at me if I wander into the wrong part of town.
A boy entertains his little bothers with a different kind of cabeceo near the stadium (due to incompetent
photography, the ball he's bouncing on his head is only visible in the shadow below him).
Miguelito at a party in Almagro (right), and at La Papelera (left)… you can almost picture a soccer ball near his feet.
Good soccer players keep their feet close to the ground when running through traffic. This gives them better stability, and it also allows them to change direction quickly. Stability and maneuverability are essential tools for success on crowded canchas de fútbol and, on also the floors of crowded tango clubs as well. Many athletes practice agility drills where they mix small quick steps with large steps and direction changes to develop foot speed and balance. And this is something that milongueros are familiar with as well. Quick stepping cadences are, of course, a central part of the art of tango. Good dancers use them creatively with the cadences of the music— but when the floor is crowded, they also serve the same purpose as in tennis or basketball. They allow couples to change direction quickly to avoid other dancers.
But the need to maneuver and survive in crowded conditions has affected tango in even more fundamental ways. We’ll look at that on the next page.