Eight years after I start dancing, when as a tango dancer I finally make my first trip down to Buenos Aires, I already know some of the dance hall milongas by name. For several years now, in the post-class night cap across the street from our dance studio in Portland, Maine, the more experienced dancers often wax poetically and nostalgically on these famous places. Dance deities, reigning supreme in this abstract world of Buenos Aires’s milongas, each name evoking its own reserve of signs: a rich kid of Niño Bien, the kiss at El Beso, elegance at Salon Canning, and the clearest of all, Confitería Ideal: a sweet ideal, a symbol of a mythical place of tango and years past.
That ideal is my very first stop on my very first trip to Buenos Aires, after my very first morning cafe con leche y medialunas. So many firsts. Confitería Ideal is the sine qua non of Buenos Aires’s confiterias for traveling tangueras. Located near the Obelisko, on Suipacha, one of the narrow streets just off the massive Avenida 9 de Julio, Confitería Ideal embodies Buenos Aires’s old-world charm. Stepping into this Belle Epoque style confitería, with its downstairs bistro and its grand dance ballroom upstairs is like stepping into Buenos Aires’s past. My friend and I return a week later during this trip, on a smoke-filled night from burning fields set by farmers’ in protests. We are the last to dance and we will be the last to leave. It feels nice being here late night. In this ideal and now empty place, it is no longer an empty name. We have entered the ideal. We are in it, sitting at one of its tables, late night, like two old regulars. One of the real regulars makes his way across an empty ballroom to our table, swapping sets of tango dances, tandas, with each of us. By the end of the night, we join the organizer and make our way out. About to take the grand staircase back to the ground floor, the organizer stops us and points to his heart, then to the great big elevator with its steel cage. We quickly understand the mime: his age, the steps, his aging heart, the elevator. We graciously step in, and the cage slams shut: a first for us. Also a first: since we are the last ones to leave the building, we step out into the night, though not through the entrance door. Our exit is through a smaller escape door built into the metal ridged store-front gate. A door that looks like any other door, except that this one is fit for Alice in Wonderland and all her dreams, stepping into a different parallel universe. A puerta de escape, as if we are escaping out of a lateral economy with its specific rules and codes.