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Couples dance tango in protest to demand to be allowed to dance in open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Couples dance tango in protest to demand to be allowed to dance in open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP

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No tango dancing in Argentina? For over a year now, that’s part of government’s strict COVID quarantine.

Authorities say t’s necessary to reduce the spread of coronavirus. But the move has spurred an uproar, including a dancing protest in Buenos Aires to be allowed to tango in open spaces.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In a huge ballroom in a Buenos Aires basement, the tables are stacked and unused, the piano lid is closed near unplugged speakers and billboard images of tango celebrities, and the dance floor is dark and empty.

Like other venues of its kind, the Viruta Tango Club has been closed since March 8, 2020. That’s about when Argentine authorities decreed a strict quarantine in hopes of reducing the spread of COVID-19.

The club previously would host hundreds of tango dancers between Wednesday and Sunday each week. Now, it’s a symbol of the pandemic-induced crisis facing dancers and musicians of an art form and essential element of Argentine culture that’s known for close physical contact and exchanging partners.

“For those of us who make a living from tango, our self-esteem is on the floor,” said Horacio Godoy, a dancer, historian and club organizer, as he walked across the Viruta dance hall, which, when in full swing, recreated the atmosphere of the 1940s era when tango became a wildly popular entertainment. “We are more emotionally than financially bankrupt.”

Equally damaging has been the closing of borders, preventing the arrival of tourists — the main source of financing for the tango industry in Buenos Aires. Tango tours abroad have also been canceled as Argentina continues to suffer high coronavirus caseloads more than a year after the pandemic began. The country has seen more than 80,000 confirmed deaths from coronavirus.

Posters of Argentine tango musicians (from right) Juan d’Arienzo, Tita Merello, Aníbal Troilo and Osvaldo Pugliese decorate a stage in Buenos Aires at La Viruta Tango club, closed for more than a year now by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Posters of Argentine tango musicians (from right) Juan d’Arienzo, Tita Merello, Aníbal Troilo and Osvaldo Pugliese decorate a stage in Buenos Aires at La Viruta Tango club, closed for more than a year now by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP

Godoy, who’s still able to make some money by teaching virtual tango classes to foreigners, said that funds for dancers and musicians from the mayor’s office aren’t enough to pay for expenses at the Viruta club. Of 18 employees, only three have kept their jobs.

“The city of Buenos Aires can’t offer history like Rome and Paris,” he said. “It doesn’t have a beach to offer like in the Caribbean. It doesn’t have gastronomy on offer like Italy. It doesn’t have waterfalls or glaciers. The city of Buenos Aires has tango.”

According to the Federal Assembly of Tango Workers, the cultural mainstay had employed 7,000 people throughout Argentina. Between 2020 and this year, though, 40 tango clubs of a total of 200 in Buenos Aires have permanently closed.

Before the pandemic, there were about 40 tango footwear and apparel companies, according to the group, which says only a dozen have survived.

A couple dances tango at a park amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Nostalgia for dance makes many tango dancers, or tangueros, defy restrictions with clandestine milongas in closed places or public spaces.
A couple dances tango at a park amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Nostalgia for dance makes many tango dancers, or tangueros, defy restrictions with clandestine milongas in closed places or public spaces.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP

Though it’s a symbol of Argentine culture, tango doesn’t get any specific subsidies.

“Tango workers suffered from permanent job insecurity long before the pandemic,” said Diego Benbassat, a musician with the Misteriosa Buenos Aires orchestra and spokesman for the tango workers assembly. “There were never public policies designed for tango, so that is why we are so vulnerable.”

Argentine tango dancer and director Mora Godoy in her bathroom, which she has decorated with pictures of her dancing. “It is very painful not to be able to dance,” Godoy said.
Argentine tango dancer and director Mora Godoy in her bathroom, which she has decorated with pictures of her dancing. “It is very painful not to be able to dance,” Godoy said.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP

Mora Godoy, who once taught tango steps to Barack Obama and received standing ovations for her international performances, has had to close her dance school.

“I did 419 shows with my tango company in 2019,” she said. “We had done more than 100 in 2020 by the time everything was closed, and this madness, this sadness, this world tragedy began.”

A corner of her apartment is decorated with images of the dances that marked her life before the pandemic. One of her favorites: then-President Obama resting his hand on her bare back, taking steps to the beat of “Por una cabeza” by Carlos Gardel during an official visit to Argentina in 2016.

“It is very painful not to be able to dance,″ said Godoy, who says some tango professionals turned to taxi-driving and selling groceries to make a living.

She said entrepreneurs who previously made money running tango clubs had done little during the pandemic to help the professional dancers so essential to their profits.

Tango dancer and musician Nicolas Ponce outside the plant shop he started after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown closed dance venues in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Tango dancer and musician Nicolas Ponce outside the plant shop he started after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown closed dance venues in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP

“Everything froze,” said musician and dancer Nicolás Ponce, who started a business selling plants during the pandemic.

The essence of tango, Ponce said, is what makes it so difficult to perform in the current health emergency.

“A bit of the success of tango is its corporality, the act of embracing each other,″ he said. “In life, one does not hug everyone. That feeling of embrace is what makes tango stand out from other dances.”

Nostalgia for that hug makes many tango dancers, or tangueros, defy restrictions to dance in outdoor spaces.

On a recent Saturday, a dozen couples got together to dance at the Obelisco, an emblematic monument in the center of Buenos Aires, some even without a mask.

“Tango in the open air is health. What is dangerous is stillness,” read a sign posted on the sidewalk by dance teacher Luciana Fuentes.

“I am afraid that one day my muscles will forget to dance,” Fuentes said. “I do it alone with a broom every day in my house. I am not anti-quarantine. I do not think that COVID does not exist. I take my precautionary measures, but I will not stop dancing tango in public spaces.”

In Buenos Aires, a couple dances tango in protest to demand to be allowed to dance in open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
In Buenos Aires, a couple dances tango in protest to demand to be allowed to dance in open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP
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