Tango: A Short History
Red dresses, high heels, passionate embraces and roses? Embraces, yes, but let’s stay away from the clichés. Tango has made its comeback in the early 2000s with traveling teachers, new international music groups like Gotan Project and Bajofondo, and sprouting communities around the world.
Tango, a music and dance originating from the Río de la Plata region including Uruguay and northern Argentina, spanned throughout the twentieth century and is now the symbol of Ríoplatense culture. It originates from the curious mix of communities in Buenos Aires in the late 1800s, including European immigrants, African slaves, and native Argentines from rural areas that extend beyond the capital called the pampas. Tango music and dance combine elements of the habanera from Cuba, European partner dancing, and African dancing from the Kongo peoples. This combination creates the paradoxical aspects of the dance: the close embrace of the couple’s upper bodies, similar to other partner dances from Europe such as the waltz, and the quick movements of the feet that gravitate around the couple, mirroring the ‘embodied percussion’ aspect of Kongo dancing.
Tango is improvisation and connection. It is a partner dance with two distinct roles: a leader and a follower. Tango is like a language, the couple learns the alphabet and vocabulary, and when they meet in embrace they start a conversation.
During the Golden Age of tango (roughly 1930s-1950s), the music and dance picked up pace, creating an extremely important role in Argentine and Uruguayan national culture. Big band orchestras called orquestas típicas such as Juan D’Arienzo would play every night at milongas, or tango dance halls with hundreds of dancers. Communities sprouted throughout Buenos Aires and different styles of tango dance were thus created. The milonguero style was danced in the center of the city to rhythmic orchestras. Because there was little dance space in downtown clubs like El Beso, the steps became very sharp, small, and quick. In less central neighborhoods such as Villa Urquiza, there was more space on dance floors and dancers preferred to dance to orchestras with a slower, more dramatic sound, like Carlos Di Sarli. In milongas like the Sunderland Club, the tango salón style developed, with larger and more fluid steps. These groupings or preferences are still seen to this day.
Tango has evolved over the years. After the Golden Age when tango was considered a mass culture, it became less and less popular. Rock music took over the Río de la Plata, until the reemergence of new dancers and musicians, such as Ástor Piazzolla. Show tango, or tango fantasia, became popular with the tango for export movement when Europe began to adopt the dance, and gave tango the extravagant image we associate it with today. Even later, in the 21st century, tango experienced a rebirth with dancers who began to explore new possibilities, apply more organic movements, focus on the aesthetics of connection, and apply a more pedagogic teaching technique. This occurred during the beginning of the idea of mixing tango with other music forms, like Piazzolla did with jazz music or more contemporary artists such as Gotan Project and Bajofondo with electronic music and rock. Although some purists argue that this ceases to be tango, the nuevo tango movement nevertheless increased tango’s popularity in the last fifteen years, especially amongst younger generations. As with any individual or group attempting to break from the norm, the tango musicians and dancers who diverged from what was defined as tango at the time were seen as controversial.
This is the afterlife, or the rebirth of tango. Who would have thought that in the age of globalization, the age of the World Wide Web, there would be small communities scattered all over the world where people gather in clandestine places weekly (or even daily) and dance to Argentine music recorded almost a century ago? These tangueros seek that one moment of pleasure on the dance floor; when the couple’s body movement and embrace click, with each other and the music…sometimes only for three minutes, the length of a tango song. Tango events or milongas cannot be seen by the general public. It is a world that you enter because you know the information beforehand, like a secret pass code. Entering the tango space is like living in a new planet for a few hours.
Written By Katia Alferova