The Story of Tango


003Tango has had a tremendous impact on couples dancing since its inception at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Its history is as rich, colorful, and tantalizing as the dance itself.

Tango was radically different from any dance that came before it, largely because it introduced the concept of improvisation. In addition, Tango was only the third dance in history to be performed with the man and woman facing each other. The Viennese Waltz, a dance craze across Europe in the 1830’s was the first, and the Polka, popularized in the 1840’s, was the second.

The Birth of Tango in Argentina

The first piece of music written and published in Argentina to be labeled a “Tango” appeared in 1857. It was called "Toma maté, ché". It is believed that the word Tango at that time probably referred to what is now known as Tango Andaluz or Andalucian Tango, a style of music from the area of Spain that is also home to the Flamenco, one of the most popular types of music in Buenos Aires in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

A popular belief is that Tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires. However, a more likely scenario is that members of the Argentinean upper and middle classes first encountered Tango at the brothels they frequented. The only place in Argentinean society where members of the literary classes – individuals most likely to leave written historical evidence – mixed socially with members of the lower, immigrant classes was in brothels. Brothels were a major source of entertainment for the working class. The major shortage of women in Buenos Aires resulted in a thriving prostitution industry. The shortage of women in the general population was mirrored in the brothels where scores of potential clients waited for their opportunity to employ the services of the working women.

In the confines of this society, a man could only get close to a woman through prostitution or dance. With the fierce competition from other men on the dance floor, the good male dancers attracted the women. It didn't matter if the men had plenty of fancy steps or if the other men considered them good dancers. The only thing that mattered was that the woman in his arms enjoyed herself while dancing. With so many men to choose from, if a woman did not enjoy dancing with a certain fellow, neither she nor any of her friends would dance with him. Men began practicing together to develop their expertise in pleasing the scarce potential dance partners. Men in Buenos Aires dance and play tango (ca. 1900)With no recorded music at the time, the men could only practice where live music was available. Brothels, with their live music and plentiful men in wait, provided the perfect environment for practice. The men honed their skills together in preparation for that rare moment when they actually held a woman in their arms. Music and dance became the common language that united the men from varying cultures. In their relentless quest to please their female dancing partners, the men who merged music and dance styles brought by the immigrants with those already existing in Argentina, unwittingly created the Tango.

The Birth of Tango in Europe

Tango was the first couple dance in Europe that was based on improvisation. Before the arrival of Tango, couple dance was sequence based, with every couple on the floor dancing the same steps at the same time. It was the arrival and popularity of Tango that really defines the beginning of couple dance as we understand it today.

The earliest evidence of Tango being danced in Europe comes in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. It is thought to have come into France through the port of Marseille, where Argentine sailors danced with local girls. There is evidence of a couple dancing Tango on stage in Paris as far back as 1909. In 1912, Tango took Paris by storm.

008By this time Argentina was the seventh richest country in the world, with an average per capita income four times that of Spain or Italy. While the poor remained poor, the rich became very wealthy and it became fashionable for families to send their young sons to Europe, either to attend university or simply to do the “Grand Tour” and complete their education.

Young men from good families had a tendency to spend time in places they were not supposed to with girls their mothers would rather they did not marry. Consequently, several of these young men became good Tango dancers despite the fact that Tango was still completely unacceptable in polite Buenos Aires society. As the young men began to dance in Paris, the upper classes were entranced and the Tango craze surfaced.

The Year of the Tango all over the world was in 1913 when Tango became the couple dance that everyone wanted to learn. Tango Teas began at the Waldorf Hotel in London, picking up the trend from the Tes Dansants in Paris. A grand Tango ball held in a Selfridges department store was declared the event of the season. All of Europe was dancing the Tango. While there were many disapproving voices, the mania continued. Fashions already steering away from the restrictions of the Victorian corset and hooped skirts, changed more rapidly under the influence of Tango. In fact, it is said that women in Paris abandoned the corset in order to better dance the Tango. The feathers in women's hats evolved from horizontal and sweeping across in front of the face, to vertical and rising up from the forehead thus letting a couple dance without the feather getting in the way. Tulip skirts, which opened at the front, also facilitated dancing. Women purchased Tango shoes, stockings, hats, dresses, and anything else that manufacturers could think of.

Tango postcard, c. 1919Tango postcard, c. 1919

The popularity of Tango in Europe, and especially in Paris, now made it an interesting choice for the upper classes in Buenos Aires, and Tango was re-imported for their benefit. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 coupled with the restrictions introduced after the overthrow of the Argentine government in 1930, caused Tango to decline. Its fortunes were reversed as Tango again became widely fashionable and a matter of national pride under the government of Juan Perón. Tango declined again in the 1950s with the economic depression, the banning of public gatherings by the military dictatorships, and the increasing popularity of Rock and Roll. Tango did live on in smaller venues until its revival in the 1980s following the opening in Paris of the show Tango Argentino and the Broadway musical Forever Tango.

The Argentine Tango

Argentine Tango is based on a variety of styles, rhythms, and cultures that evolved through different eras. Although it is largely based on the styles from Argentina and Uruguay, it was also influenced by its re-importation from Europe and North America. Accordingly, there is some confusion and overlap between existing styles and fusions continue to emerge.

Tango is essentially walking with a partner to the music. Musicality - dancing appropriately to the emotion and speed of a Tango - is an extremely important element of tangoing. A good dancer can make you “see” the music. Dancers generally keep their feet close to the floor as they walk, the ankles and knees brushing as one leg passes the other.

Argentine Tango is danced in an embrace that varies from very open, where the leader and follower connect at arms length, to very closed, where their connection is chest-to-chest. The closed embrace is often associated with more traditional styles, while the open embrace leaves room for many of the embellishments and figures that are associated with Tango Nuevo.

013Argentine Tango relies heavily on improvisation. Although certain patterns of movement have been codified by instructors over the years as a teaching device, there is no "basic step." One of the few constants across all Argentine Tango styles is that the follower is usually led to alternate feet. Another is that the follower rarely has her weight on both feet simultaneously. While most couple dances have a rational-pattern that can be predicted by the follower, the Tango’s improvisational nature demands constant non-verbal communication between dancing partners. A Tango is a living act in the moment that it happens.

Argentine Tango is danced counterclockwise around the outside of the dance floor (the "line of dance") and dance "traffic" often segregates into a number of "lanes." Cutting across the middle of the floor is frowned upon. In general, the middle of the floor is where either beginners who lack floor navigational skills or dancers performing "showy" figures or patterns that take up more dance floor space can be found. It is acceptable to stop briefly in the line of dance to perform stationary figures, as long as the other dancers are not unduly impeded. The school of thought this is that if there is an open space in front of you, there are likely people waiting behind you. Dancers are expected to respect the other couples on the floor; colliding, crowding another couple, or stepping on others' feet is to be avoided. Aside from being rude and potentially dangerous, these tactics can disrupt another couple's musicality.

Modern Day Tango

In 1986 Tango arrived in San Francisco and Montreal. Throughout the late 80’s, Tango spread into Cincinnati, Seattle and other American cities. In 1983, the dance show Tango Argentino, opened in Paris, France. In 1985, the show opened on Broadway in New York City. Throughout 1990, Luis Bravo's Forever Tango played in eight West Coast cities, further piquing the viewers’ interest in Tango. Forever Tango returned to the United States late in 1994 in Beverly Hills and then San Francisco, where it ran for 92 weeks. From there, the show opened in New York where it became the longest-running Tango production in Broadway history.

Throughout the 1990’s, many Tango schools and milongas appeared in the US, Canada, and internationally, and more continue to emerge. Tango has become a popular couple dance, which more recently has been praised for its many physical benefits.

Tango Clément

Clément Lafond and Lydia Martone
Tel.: 514.219.1068


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