It’s here, under a motorway bridge covered in graffiti, that a group of dancers have been meeting weekly at 6PM to dance the milonga. The Argentinian dance incorporates elements of tango, but it’s faster and less complicated. The meetings aren’t technically legal – they break COVID rules – but participants have been showing up in growing numbers.

A green thread marks the dance floor where Walter, 50, repeats the eight basic steps of the dance over and over again. His flared trousers glide across the pavement, grazing his dance shoes as he practises the footwork. This is only his third week taking milonga classes, but Walter’s determination has helped him master the steps quickly.

A martial arts teacher by day, Walter looks about 35 and doesn’t have an ounce of fat to his tattooed body. After partnering with the teacher, he switches to a woman who’s new to the sessions, but clearly experienced. Observing the intimacy between the two, you’d think they’ve known each other for years. The song ends and they change partners.

Tito, 70, wearing an outfit freshly-ironed for the occasion, invites the new woman to dance. He hasn’t missed a session in Chacabuco Park since they began in September of 2020, not even on the evening when it was so hot that older people were advised to stay home. “For me, these meetings are an elixir,” he says. A tango aficionado, Tito even participated in the 2018 World Tango Dance Tournament, an Argentine tango competition held annually in August in Buenos Aires.

Tito’s friend René arrives shortly after. He’s come all the way from Berazategui, a city 30km away, to dance in Chacabuco Park. It’s an hour trip by bus, but he’s made it on time to make the most of the free three-hour-long session.

René says he feels right at home, since he worked in Chacabuco Park for more than 20 years before being made redundant during the pandemic. “I have a new job now on the south side, but I get off at 5PM to come and dance here,” he says. “It’s quite the trip, but what am I going to do? If I go home I’m stuck between four walls. Here, I have a life project – I come and feel happier.”

Argentina imposed a nationwide lockdown on the 19th of March, 2020, which remained in place until July in Buenos Aires. Under the strict rules, people were only allowed to leave their homes if absolutely necessity. In September, tango dance partners Juan Carlos and Valeria were walking through Chacabuco Park when they spontaneously decided to have a dance. Eventually, people started joining them and the meet-ups were born. These spontaneous milonga sessions were later replicated in other areas of Buenos Aires, like the Heras and Lezama parks, by other dance groups. 

Five months after that first dance, the milonga sessions now happen every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 6 to 10PM. The first hour is for beginners to learn the basic steps, so everyone gets a chance to practice. The original organisers are now supported by other instructors to keep it going. They post the meeting point and timetables on Facebook – if it rains, the event is cancelled, otherwise someone will be there setting up the speakers. But most participants aren’t on social media – they’re more likely passersby who once stopped to watch and then gave it a try.

“Most of them are locals over 40,” Valeria said. “They hug us and thank us. It’s nice to see joy back in their bodies.” Despite what we know about the spread of COVID-19, Valeria says she believes that fresh air and company can strengthen the participants’ immune systems and lower infection rates. “It’s therapeutic,” she said.

But not everyone believes the milonga has immunity-boosting powers. Omar Viola is the founder of Milonga Parakultural, an association that’s been hosting milonga dance nights in Buenos Aires for 21 years. An iconic figure in the city’s dance scene, he’s kept venues alive and open even through the toughest times – but the pandemic is different, he says. Dancing is at odds with social distancing, which remains the priority at the moment.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to hold milonga sessions without the proper protocol, whether they’re clandestine or in protest,” he said. “It endangers lives. We have to take into account that the scene has a high percentage of high-risk people.”

Viola held off on reopening milonga spaces, waiting for a consensus to be formed on safety protocols. The two most prolific milonga organisations in the city, the Association of Milonga Organisers and the Association of Milongas with Social Meaning, stopped holding events at the beginning of the pandemic. They’ve since proposed a set of safety measures to cautiously reopen – including registering all dancers, sanitising dance spaces, shortening sessions and mandating ample space for ventilation – but the city of Buenos Aires still hasn’t allowed them to reopen. No such measures are being upheld in the parks – anyone can simply drop by, dance and leave. There’s no plan in place if a participant tests positive for COVID-19.

The milonga was born in the golden age of tango in the middle of the last century, anchored in community spaces like clubs, schools and associations. Over the years, the dance has lost its appeal to younger generations, but is still popular in some areas of Buenos Aires, like San Telmo and La Boca. Other hip neighbourhoods, like Palermo and Villa Crespo, have seen younger and queer milonga dance sessions emerge, which challenge the traditional roles in couples dancing. 

More than 800,000 of Argentina’s 2 million COVID-19 cases have been recorded in Buenos Aires, where about a third of the country’s population lives. Almost half of those living in the capital have lost income during the pandemic, too. In a climate of hardship, these outlawed sessions are an escape – albeit a risky one – for many of the dancers.

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