At first glance, it seems almost impossible to escape tango in Buenos Aires. It’s on seemingly every postcard and every shop speaker, while many people buy tickets to dinner theatre tango shows. High on the stages, flexible women can kick their legs up to their ears through thigh-high slits in their slinky black dresses.

On a sunny afternoon, itinerant tango dancers roll out a mat in squares packed with tourists and perform a couple of songs. There’s a lot of heel flicking and twangy accordion music. Then they pass around a hat and are rewarded with a fedora full of pesos.

Yet all this is just the sequins on the costume, the glitz on the surface. It has little to do with the way real people dance tango together.

People at a tango dance (or “milonga”) will not perform the stylish tricks you see in stage tango. They’re quite restrained, and that’s the beauty of it. At the milonga you will see how the dancers move together with their heads, shoulders, and chests touching. They sway with an elegance that shows less, but is more suggestive. It’s said that tango is a truly sensual dance, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a milonga or “practica” (practice session).

So it’s worth checking out this aspect of tango, but for the casual tourist, breaking into the world of the dancers is intimidating and can leave you feeling intrusive. How is it done?

Recommendations in guidebooks and online are an excellent place to start, but if you are already on the ground, try a dance shoe store. These are plentiful in Buenos Aires, and tango shoes make a great souvenir. While admiring the high heels, see if the shop has a copy of El Tanguata a monthly magazine featuring all things tango. The magazine is available in Spanish and English, and in the back of the magazine there will be weekly listings of practicas and milongas, along with the addresses of the clubs. There are so many club listings it’s theoretically possible to dance tango every night of the week. If you are on a short schedule, you’ll want to know where the best dance is tonight – so ask.

The owner of the dance shoe shop may have some insight in where to go, but you can also follow the approach of my travel partner, who’s bolder than I am. He approached two street dancers after they’d finished passing their hat. He introduced himself, chatted for a while, then showed them the listing page and simply asked: “Where are your favourite milongas?” They were very happy to circle three great options.

We ended up at La Viruta, a large, dark room in the basement of the local Armenian cultural centre. The crowd arrived after 10pm, and it included people of all ages, some performing some pretty spectacular dancing. At the table next to us was a single old man with a bald head and very dapper beige suit. He sat silently through the whole evening with nothing on his table but a glass of whisky, a small bucket of ice, and ice tongs. Every now and then he would put a single ice cube in his whisky, and raise his hand to salute the start of a new song. No one seemed to think it odd that he was there alongside the university students in black leggings and t-shirts.

If you are not a dancer, it’s all right to sit at a table and watch, but remember that a milonga or practica is not a show. It’s not appropriate to get in the way by taking a lot of photos of the dancers. This is especially true of distracting flash photos. If you do want to get on the dance floor, watch the way the other dancers are moving about the floor and try to move along with them. Tango couples are very aware of their own space and seldom have collisions. Bumping about against the flow of traffic is going to get you some very dirty looks.

And if someone should ask you to dance – do. Your new partner can forgive you for not knowing the steps, but trust me, you won’t be able to forgive yourself for passing up a dance so central to the heart of Buenos Aires.