On the trail of South America's most famous dance form.
While we clash spoons with our Kiwi neighbours over pavlova and its true origins, in Latin America, passions are inflamed over who invented the region's most famous musical export, the tango. Both Argentina and Uruguay claim the sultry music and dance as their own.
It is included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009, with UNESCO taking a diplomatic approach. "The Argentinian and Uruguayan tradition of the tango, now familiar around the world, was developed by the urban lower classes in Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the Rio de la Plata basin," it says.
It is, however, the Argentinian city of Buenos Aires that has taken the lead, with neon lights advertising dance shows and touts pushing tour brochures into hands at every corner. We meet Catalina Cabana, not in the barrio of La Boca with its celebrated coloured houses or the bohemian San Telmo, where most tours take the tango-curious, but in the workaday barrio of Abasto. Cabana is a university lecturer in history, a dance teacher and author of four books on the history of the tango, including Abasto, y de porque aca nacio el tango ("Abasto and why the tango was born here").
Read more on Explore:
"It's not that the tango was played or danced here for the first time, but rather they all came together at the Abasto in one way or another - the emblems who made tango and the people who were all part of this cultural movement," says Cabana.
The most important of those was Carlos Gardel, a French immigrant and arguably the godfather of the tango - his image and name are everywhere from streetside murals to cafe windows, his former Abasto home turned into a museum.
The barrio is also home to another icon, the magnificent art deco edifice of Abasto shopping centre, rebuilt as a market in the 1930s over the original iron-framed market from 1893. It was from this central produce market (abandoned in 1984 and reborn as a shopping centre 14 years later) that Abasto grew, creating a barrio of immigrants and a 24-hour economy, where market workers would look for entertainment after their night shift. And musicians like Gardel would oblige, singing songs in restaurants and cafes about the grief of exile and nostalgia of missed homes, unrequited love, even the pain of losing at the race track.
"At the beginning, the tango was just music, not dance," Cabana says. "And it was not the tango that you see now. It was just people holding each other and they used to wear a lot of clothes also. It was in the 1990s that we re-created the tango the way it is now and began to promote it abroad."
Today, Portenos - Buenos Aires locals - often follow "circuits" moving from milonga (a kind of informal dance gathering space) to milonga. And while the tourist tango shows would have you believe the required attire is tight and sexy, all high heels and pinstripe suits, anything goes, says Cabana.
"There are different kinds of milongas. Traditional ones, where the women have the high heels and dresses with splits and the men wear tuxedos, then there are more relaxing milongas, where the people go with sneakers and jeans."
Cabana's own preference leans to the casual. "I teach in these," she says, laughing and pointing down at her baby blue Crocs.
Catalina Cabana's Real History of the Tango Tour can be booked through Airbnb Experiences, $32 per person, see airbnb.com.au/experiences/172445
For tango shows, El Querandi tickets cover dinner, the show and transportation from your hotel, from about $US84 ($132), see querandi.com.ar