A couple dancing at a milonga club on Nguyen Van Thu Street in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
"Is there a milonga in Saigon?" my Spanish friend Jesus, a tango fanatic, asked me in an email two months ago.
It was the first time I'd heard the term. A quick online search revealed that indeed there was, and I told him so. "What is it like?" he asked.
So one Saturday night, to satisfy his curiosity, and mine, this scribe who had never been on a dance floor showed up at perhaps the only milonga club in Saigon.
It's milonga time!
I arrived at 8.30 p.m. I'd been told it was located above a cafeteria on Nguyen Van Thu Street in District 1. The street was so quiet that I had to check with the building's security guard: Is the tango club here? He nodded his head and motioned toward the stairs. Go up! It's there.
As soon as the sliding glass door on the second floor opened I experienced what they call that "tango feeling." Melodious music, warm golden lighting, and rhythmic steps filled the room. Seven pairs were dancing, moving in a counterclockwise flow around the dance floor. All the women were wearing dresses and high heels, all the men were in trousers and shirts. The dance floor was surrounded by coffee tables, sofas and club chairs. It was not crowded and frantic but warm, romantic, even magical.
Dung welcomed me with a smile. He and his wife, Diu Thuong, founded the club and teach a tango class from seven to eight. "After 8 p.m. it's milonga time. Anyone can come to dance the tango," Dung said enthusiastically.
The cover charge for the evening is VND100,000 (US$4.8), which pays for drinks, food, music and all night dancing. "Tonight you are our guest, so it's free for you," Dung said while escorting me to my table as soon as the Cortina, or musical interlude, started up.
Following me was a foreign middle-aged couple, and five minutes later, a foreigner carrying a baby and his Vietnamese wife came in. Dung whispered to me: "That's Kristein, he's Hungarian. The woman is Ly. A year after joining our club, they become husband and wife. Their son is eight months old. They brought him here when he was just two months." Then he turned to a large foreigner standing with his partner three tables from us, "He's Sergey, a Russian living in Vung Tau. He comes to Ho Chi Minh City every Saturday by hydrofoil."
"Milonga" has three meanings: a tango dance party or venue for tango dancing, a distinct style of tango and a distinct musical genre. Although milonga uses the same basic elements as tango, it tends to be faster-paced and less complex.
Foreigners make up 40 percent of the dancing class. "Our purpose in creating this playground for Saigon tango is to get people to connect. Although they are strangers and not the same nationality, they can interact through the tango," Dung said.
Dung spent five years in Australia learning Argentine tango from renowned teachers. These days he lectures at the Polytechnic University of Ho Chi Minh City by day, and pursues his passion every Saturday night.
After Dung had told me his abbreviated story, Diu Thuong gave the gesture that the Cortina was ending and Dung excused himself and went to his "music box." It was milonga time!
Where strangers connect
Sitting at the corner table, I watched the passionate dancers and their rhythmic movements in partnership. The twosomes seldom spoke while dancing and just let their steps do the talking. The foreign middle-aged couple danced with lots of emotion but not so much grace. The man was stiff in his movements but he was enjoying himself immensely.
After the second song, they sat at the table next to mine and observed the others. They looked friendly so I broke the ice. "Excuse me, do you come here often?" "Oh no, this is our first time". "Me too," I admitted, and we were soon chatting like old friends. Sam and Christine turned out to be American tourists who had only arrived in Vietnam at two o'clock that morning. They try to go ballroom dancing in every country they visit. "Last year, we went to a milonga in Thailand. A lot of tourists there, not like here, people seem to know each other well." "Don't worry, you will become their friends just after a night, or maybe after a half night, as long as Sam is willing to change partner," I joked, and they both laughed.
In my ignorance of tango etiquette, I went to the edge of the dance floor to get a better look (Leaving your table and standing alone at the edge of the dance floor tells the others that you are looking for a tango partner). A tall thin man approached me and asked for a dance. "I'm sorry, I can't." He smiled kindly then turned to leave. "But"¦ can we talk?" He rolled his eyes, "Talk?" "Yes, I'd love to know more about the tango and"¦" So, instead of escorting me to the dance floor, Soh Wee Keong from Singapore escorted me to my table. He has been in Vietnam for two years and three months. As an architect, he has to travel a lot, but whenever he's in Saigon on a Saturday night, he comes to the milonga.
"This is a great place to hang out if you want to meet friends and enjoy dancing and socializing. It's a small tango community. I just wish that more people knew about this unique dance and came to experience it personally. There's always food, drinks and it is a relaxing time after a week's hard work."
Keong started with salsa a couple of years ago but didn't like the individuality of it. With the tango he feels a real connection with his partners. "I like the wonderful "˜floating' feeling you sometimes get when a partner connects with you". "What is the most special feeling you get when dancing at the milonga?" "The romantic feeling of holding a complete stranger and dancing like there is no tomorrow." "That's why you approached me, a 100 percent stranger tonight? Poor you!" Keong grinned. We sat in silence for a while, enjoyed the music and followed Dung's steps with his new partner the baby with a dummy in his mouth. What were their feelings right now?
I left the milonga at 10:30 p.m. Christine was discussing tango shoes with Diu Thuong and some other women. Kristein and his wife were "flying" on the floor, and Keong was connecting well and truly with his new partner. Together they were discovering the magic that only the tango can bring.
I know exactly what to tell Jesus when he comes to Vietnam soon: It's small but it's cozy, and you may find love"¦
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