Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Saturday, 29 August 2009 11:39 UK

How Argentines live through tango

As Argentina deals with its latest economic crisis, Candace Piette admires the tango industry's ability to survive through good times and bad.

Young couple dancing the tango
Tango is about national identity and every note of its music, every gesture of the dance, contains within it their history

All correspondents who come to Buenos Aires have to do a story about tango and this was going to be mine.

The reason for doing this one was the huge drop in income the tango business was experiencing, because of the global economic downturn.

Fewer tourists were coming to the city, and many of the tango shows were running at half their capacity. Some were closing.

We started off by going to meet one of tango's top entrepreneurs, owner of several show houses.

Business was slow he said, but they were already developing a new line in tango shows for weddings and barmitzvahs to tide them over until the tourists came back. But then he said, this was not the first crisis Argentines had lived through.

"We know how to survive crisis, and it's just by carrying on, not by giving up".

Tango therapy

And it was at that point my tango story transformed into something else.

Dance hall
Punctuated by sadness and disappointment, tragedy and joy, the dance survives because of nostalgia for the past, disappointment in the present and hope for the future

With the words "Argentine resilience" echoing in my head, we decided to find three sets of dancers, different generations at different milongas or tango dances.

The first was in a quiet tree-lined street of a suburban area of BA (as locals often call their city). There I met Silvia Sotto, a 55-year-old mother of grown-up girls. Going to her local milonga is a weekly ritual.

On every day of the week, at any time of the day or night, there is one open in Buenos Aires.

"Tango is a complex dance," she said. "There are many steps but there is also silence. When you wait, you sense your partner. It's unpredictable.

Her teacher, Ernesto Bermudas was also a psychotherapist running tango therapy sessions for his patients.

"Tango," he told us, "has always been a kind of refuge from the hard times you go through personally, and from the bad times this country goes through. You get dressed up, dust yourself off, and go and dance tango."

And now times are particularly hard.

The economic crisis is hitting. The government has been accused by Church leaders of doing nothing to tackle growing poverty, and unemployment is rising. Argentines are once more feeling powerless and disillusioned.

Celebration and repression

At the Confiteria Ideal in the grimy old downtown area, office workers and professionals had been going to this cafe to dance for over 100 years.

It needs a lick of paint. The gilt mirrors and pastry display cases are mottled and grimy, the paint peeling off the stucco ceiling. Here in the 40s and 50s, a tango dance would have been a celebration of all the country had achieved in an economic boom built on agriculture.

Now it was three in the afternoon, the dance hall was filled mostly with pensioners, the women grandly dressed, the men dapper with clipped moustaches and freshly laundered shirts and jackets.

This generation had seen it all. From the 60s, the dark years of military interventions, economic recession, left-wing and state terrorism left their toll on the Argentines.

As the military and the left-wing guerrillas went about kidnapping and murdering, people like these would have danced tango underground, as government bans on public gatherings were introduced.

Rapt faces

Jose Maria (said he was 75, more like 85, I thought) told us at the time he had had to dance tango at home. He met his partner, Rosa, at the cafe five years ago. Both widowed, they had been dance partners and lovers ever since.

Anti-government protest in 2001 in Buenos Aires
Argentina's economic crisis of 2001 led to widespread protests and looting

As we filmed in the Confiteria Ideal, the rapt faces - the dancers cheek to cheek, the women's eyes closed the better to sense their partners' movements - a man came up and asked us where our TV story would be shown.

"If it goes out in Argentina and I'm seen, my wife will kill me," he said. It seems tango was not only making marriages but divorces too.

Our last couple, Manuel and Yanina, were in their 30s. They danced for us in an old circular bandstand in a park where open-air classes and dances are held every Sunday evening.

I can still see the image now, the two young dancers in the winter sunlight - every gesture a poetic, sensitive alignment to each other's movements.

Economic riots

Like many young people, Manuel watched his country's economy come crashing down in 2001 in the biggest bank default in the country's history.

After the riots and protests subsided, foreigners started coming to the city for the cheap prices and the tango.

Young people like Manuel found a new way to earn money but also to reclaim their heritage.

Manuel is now a successful dancer, writes for a tango magazine online and Yanina is launching herself as a tango singer.

As we edited my tango story, I concluded that tango is about national identity, and every note of its music, every gesture of the dance contains within it their history.

Punctuated by sadness and disappointment, tragedy and joy, the dance survives because of nostalgia for the past, disappointment in the present and hope for the future.

But as the famous Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, said: "Tango can be discussed, but like everything genuine, it conceals a secret".

And that secret is what make Argentines and Argentina so resilient. At the heart of tango lies an enduring artistic spirit which helps make everyday survival possible.

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