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Tango Shoes and Objects of Desire

First obligatory trip to Comme il faut, Recoleta, Buenos Aires, 2008

Everyone is talking about these shoes and my desire needs to be satiated. I too need them, even if my wide foot needs a bit more support. Whatever. What I really want is one of those silky shoe bags I’ve seen tangueras bring to milongas. Not even the shoes themselves, but a bag: a long narrow pink satin rectangle sewn down the center, two pockets (one for each shoe) held together by a black ribbon that tangueras let dangle from their hands, like a purse, as they enter the milonga. Now of course there are other stores right near Confitería Ideal, but they seem cheap, almost like tango tourist traps: several shoe stores catering exclusively to tango dancers, and an assortment of tango clothes, brightly colored polyester dresses with slits up to here and glitter as far as the eye can see, backless dresses, and so on. As it turns out, I will eventually buy my favorite pair of shoes from one of these shops. But this I don’t know yet: I’ve recently arrived to Buenos Aires and my friend and I are going on an outing, far from Confitería Ideal and the Obelisko. We are in Recoleta, a beautiful neighborhood in Buenos Aires, with an architecture very reminiscent of Neoclassical Parisian architecture. If it weren’t for the typical black and yellow cabs driving past us, I could be walking around in the 6ème arrondissement. Suddenly, down what seems to be a private passage way, we’ve arrived.

Something about this passageway reminds me of the Le Palais Royal, with its stripped black and white columns designed by Daniel Buren. Nothing from the street indicates that there is a tango shoe store hidden in this passageway. Clearly, only members of a certain tribe would know this. We are part of this tribe. Emma has been here before, so she leads the way. I proudly follow, taking pictures of the place, as if we’ve just arrived at a holy temple. At the end of the short and narrow passageway, I still see no sign of a shoe store.

My friend steps inside a doorway to the left and I follow her up as we climb one flight of stairs. At a nondescript door, she rings the doorbell. Someone peers through the eyehole. We’re being watched; and judged. Finally a door opens. This shoe-store is like no other I’ve ever seen: small, it consists, from what we can see, in one room with a desk on one end, and on the other two banquettes facing each other right next to one great big ornate gilded mirror. As if I’ve just stepped into someone’s antechamber, someone’s boudoir. I knew that it was impossible to do any online shopping while from the comfort of my own home, so I hoped that traveling to Buenos Aires would afford me the luxury of selecting shoes in its shop. I look around, but the only shoes on display are early models, showing the history, statues of shoes, etc. Shoes here are memorialized, historicized, shoes here are seen, not touched, not worn. The store completely erases that ethos of choice -- the illusion of choice -- so strong in today’s capitalist market. I am usually the subject of my choices for objects. I select my objects. Or at least, I think I have freedom of choice. But here, that expectation has been reversed: I am an object. I am their consumer, I am the putty that forms out of their market analysis. As soon as we sit down on the banquettes, a gracious young woman dressed in black approaches us: any specific colors? Low or high heel? I am not sure. I've tried a few at tango festivals but have always been frustrated -- imagine the frustration at not being able to spend 150$ or more on a pair of shoes! -- because my foot is too wide, arch too high, toes too spread apart, and I just don’t feel stable in their shoes. But then the hip young woman dressed in black assures my inner consumer. The salesgirl explains that she will get out the models of shoes that hug the feet, “un modelo de zapato que hecho el pié.” That sentence right there I go over several times and burn into my Spanish learner mind, because I will repeat it in every BsAs store store I visit. My eyes widen: I too could walk out of here with one of their candied-colored heels. And that pink satin bag. I give her my shoe-size, and immediately she disappears, only to return moments later with several white boxes balanced one of top of the other in her hands. And so it begins: white boxes, pilling up, until there are two or three piles, sometimes several boxes high. We are no longer subjects… but objects of a relation… seeing ourselves in the mirror. There is the “definite no, but my friend would like to try them” pile, the “I can’t decide quite yet” pile, and the “strong contenders,” pile, usually only two, maybe three boxes high.

There are innumerable back and forths between the changing boudoir and the stock room, punctuated by consumer-as-object introspective moments: with different shoes on each feet, standing up, looking in mirror, a bit of déhanchement or contraposto, shifting weight over one foot then the other pushing out the arch, looking at each shoe from every possible angle, from above, into the mirror, and of course just in their boxes, jewels that they are. As boxes pile and unpile before us at Comme il faut, a long time goes by during which we will:

1. see a French couple we keep crossing paths on the streets and milongas of Buenos Aires;

2. befriend two other British dancers;

3. run into Serge, one of my first dance partners when I began dancing in Lyon in 2000.

As my “strong contender” pile whittles down to two boxes, I settle on one pair of velvet purple peep-toe shoes, bright purple metal heel to match. Over the top candied-colored jewels they are not, but they are Comme il faut, and as I pay for them, I finally get what I really came for: the silky pink shoe bag and its seductive sheen, which I can now proudly carry around like a little Victorian clutch.

I am the tango consumer.

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