Argentine tango. It’s rhythmic and pulse-quickening. It’s melancholic, nostalgic, and soulful. It’s exciting and exhilarating. It’s beautiful. And it’s addictive.
So addictive that my daughter became obsessed with it just after a few beginner classes. I was envious. And became obsessed too—with watching tango on YouTube. 🙂
Then I looked for a book on this dance, and I found a treasure.
Brian Winter’s Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a memoir describing his obsession with tango during the four years that he spent in Buenos Aires after his graduation from college.
How does he end up in Buenos Aires? Well, unlike his classmates landing sixty-hour jobs at big corporations, Brian wants “to measure himself as a man by putting himself in an extraordinary situation, just for the hell of it.” He wants to move to a place where “things still happened,” things like rallies and riots and revolutions. See, his ambition is to become a journalist—someday. So maybe he’ll find the material worth reporting—someplace. He chooses Argentina for his adventure, and that’s what he gets—an adventure.
Since the economy in Argentina is at its lowest in the year 2000, Brian can’t find employment at an American corporation or at school as an English instructor, so he spends his days wandering around Buenos Aires, exploring. That is, until he meets a man passionate about tango. When Brian gets acquainted with other people, he discovers that all Argentines are passionate about tango. It is their dance! It is the soul of their country! Shouldn’t Brian give it a try, too? After all, when you go to another country, don’t “you look for the soul of that country, for the roots?” Hell, yes!
So Brian, presumably with no talent for dance, picks up tango and falls in love with it. He dances his feet off in a bar called Nino Bien, night after night after night.
Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is filled with accounts of milongas, as well as descriptions of Brian’s private lessons he took from a beautiful instructor, Mariela.
Brian becomes so obsessed with tango that he buys books galore, researching its origin and evolution.
Which makes this memoir so remarkable. In it, Winter draws parallels between the destiny of tango and political life in Argentina throughout history, pointing out that tango’s popularity or decline depended heavily on the country’s prosperity or turbulence. Still, Argentines have always loved their dance so much that their milongas were impervious to the crisis. Each time tango went nearly extinct, it was resurrected like a phoenix from ashes.
Winter also dwells on the reaction to the dance in other countries—whether it was loved or spurned. The Catholic Church of New York, for instance, called tango “wild and shameless.” In the French port of Marseille, in 1906, where the crew of an Argentine frigate performed their dance, “the tango was immediately denounced as criminal, lascivious, and immoral; in other words, it was an instant sensation.” 🙂
Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a fun read, filled with fascinating facts about Argentina, its history, people, and tango. Winter tells his story with self-deprecating humor. His love for tango and the country made me want to go to Argentina. But I can’t dance! Why don’t I learn how? I’ve learned these beautiful terms—cabaceo and barrida and gancho—for starters.
So I signed up for tango classes. 🙂
My favorite lines: “The tango is not an athletic competition. It depends above all on your ability as a man to show the woman what to do, to guide her, to make her feel comfortable, to make her feel like a woman.” 53
“Against all odds, people kept coming back to the tango, a century-old dance that had gone out of style in the 1950s. There was no logical way to explain it. It must have been that damn embrace.” 233