Tango was born in an era where the now-familiar ballroom “closed hold” was still frowned upon by the upper crust of society, and Viennese waltz, though becoming more widely accepted, was still considered improper and somewhat scandalous. The Opera of Paris first included Viennese waltz demonstrations in their performances in the late 1800s, and this helped the close embrace (“closed” hold) of Viennese waltz gain marginal acceptance in society, and more liberal minded dancers of the time accepted the technique as the cool new way to social dance.
If Viennese waltz shook up some European aristocrats though, tango would be enough to give them a heart attack. The tango close embrace didn’t just require intertwining of arms and legs, but also included chest to chest contact, and sometimes (gasp) cheek to cheek contact as well. For this reason, many social dancers in tango’s homeland, Buenos Aires, thought the tango was too scandalous for proper society, and the music and dance developed mainly within poor immigrant communities.
According to historians, tango got started around the turn of the century in Buenos Aires, around the conventillos (boarding houses) of the city. These conventillos were mainly where the poor European immigrants lived, and the sentimental longings of these hardworking outcasts were what gave tango music and culture the underlying angst and melancholy that is at the heart of the tango feeling. The idea that tango was mainly developed by prostitutes and their clients was likely reinforced by the lascivious and sometimes crude lyrics of the tangos of the day. Think of the original tangos as the turn of the century version of gangsta rap. Many tangos that are still popular today contain remnants of these crude sexual references and turn of the century Argentinian slang. Although as tango spread in popularity, many of the most provocative lyrics were codified, or changed altogether. (El Chocolo a very popular tango song, means “Corncob”; use your imagination.) These scandalous beginnings are still a big part of tango culture, and form a big part of the dance’s dangerous allure.
France has given the world many things: the Eiffel Tower, diesel fuel, the pencil, braille, and strangely…tango? That’s right, tango became popular not because of Argentina, its birthplace, but because of the French. Here’s what happened: A rich Argentinian playboy, novelist, and poet named Ricardo Guiraldes was one of the few Argies who wasn’t turning his nose up at the tango in the early 1900s. Guiraldes was quite a hipster, and he frequented tango performances in Buenos Aires and apparently spent some time dancing it himself. In 1910, Guiraldes wrote a poem called Tango, and allegedly performed the dance in a fashionable Paris dance hall, sparking intense interest amongst the hipster Parisians. Soon, tango was all the rage in France. The rest of Europe, who looked to France for the latest trends and fashions, soon caught the tango fever as well, and tango became the first of many South American dance crazes to sweep across Europe. Meanwhile, back home in Argentina the tango started gaining social acceptance because of its fanfare in Europe, and ingrained itself into all levels of Argentine society.
One misconception about tango is that it was originally danced only by pairs of men. This notion is fueled mainly by photos like the one below in which two men can be seen dancing the tango with each other.
Some have speculated that since respectable women didn’t engage in the dance, men who couldn’t afford a prostitute to dance it with were forced to dance with each other. Others have even gone as far as to insinuate that some early tangueros were homosexual. The reality is, men in Argentinian culture were and are hyper-macho. This means that when they take a woman in their arms to dance tango, they’ve got to know what they’re doing. Being corrected by a woman would be extremely shameful, so the guys had to make sure that they had their steps perfected before they went to the dance. As for dancing with prostitutes, I also find that to be an unlikely scenario (after all, we all know what prostitutes are really for).
Another common misconception is that the first tango dancers were Gauchos (Argentinian Cowboys). This misconception probably comes from one of the most famous early proponents of the tango, Rudolph Valentino. Valentino starred in the 1926 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and, dressed as a gaucho with a carnation in his mouth (not a rose, as per the pop culture cliche’) and a whip in his hand, he danced his way to what some consider to be the most famous tango in history.
Even though gauchos probably never danced tango (there weren’t, and aren’t any tango orchestras that play out in the desolation of the Pampas) the iconic image of Valentino in that scene cemented the gaucho as a prominent figure in tango lore from then on.
“Argentine Tango” vs “Ballroom Tango”
As a result of the Tango’s popularity in Europe, European dance teachers began scrambling to learn the dance in order to satisfy their tango-crazed clients. Some of them even traveled to Buenos Aires to learn the dance from its source. Teaching the authentic tango presented a bit of a problem however, since there has never been a consensus in the tango community regarding technique, and the movements of tango don’t fit into neatly prescribed patterns which are easy to teach. There are of course, certain core movements in the tango that can be taught (caminatas, ochos, gyros, and cortes, for instance) but the purest expression of tango itself is very improvisational and relies heavily on strong partnering skills in the dancers themselves. European dance teachers sought to solve this problem by organizing the movements of the tango into steps that could more easily be taught to the public. Over the years, this organizing of the material of the tango led to the development of a tango style which is different from, and sometimes in conflict with, the parent dance. This has become what we now call “Ballroom tango”.
As other dance styles gained popularity in Europe throughout the 20th century (like Two Step, Foxtrot, Waltz, and Quickstep) teachers began blending the various aesthetic elements of these dances together to form a more complete package of “proper” ballroom dance forms and technique. This of course corrupted many of the unique qualities of the dances themselves on order to standardize the techniques into a comprehensive system. The result of this ballroom dance standardization eventually became known as the “International Standard” style of ballroom dance in Europe, and in America, the standardized version of ballroom is known as the “American Smooth” style.
The International Standard and American Smooth styles of tango are different, (International style tango dancers never dance out of closed hold, but American style dancers can use up to 13 different dance positions) but are essentially both “ballroom-ized” versions of tango in that they feature holds and postures in which the partners are strongly stretched away from each other from the waist up (in contrast to the cheek-to cheek nature of the classic Argentine dance hold). Ballroom tango steps are also highly choreographed, which is of course different from the improvisational nature of the original Argentine style. Ballroom tango and authentic Argentinian tango are both beautiful dance forms in my opinion, but many Argies will turn their nose up when they see Ballroom tango, and unfortunately, many Ballroom dancers turn their noses up to Argentine tango as well.
As with almost all popular Latin American dances, tango music is said to have its roots in African rhythms, but European instruments and musical influences are what ultimately shaped tango into the sound that we recognize today. The bandoneon, an instrument originally used in German churches that couldn’t afford a pipe organ, made its first appearance in tango music around 1910, and since then the instrument has been a tango icon.
Despite originally being somewhat scandalous among the upper crust, early tango music (like Rock and Roll, Disco, and Hip Hop in our era) became very popular very fast. Between the years 1903 and 1910, over one-third of the gramophone records released in Argentina were tangos. From 1910 t 1920, over half of the records released in Argentina featured tangos.
In 1917 a charismatic new singer named Carlos Gardel released his first recording, Mi Noche Triste, which added the sentiment of tragic love to the growing tango culture and feeling. The arrival of Carlos Gardel is said to have sparked the Golden Age of tango. Gardel was the biggest thing to hit tango…ever. If you’ve never been to Buenos Aires, it’s kind of hard to explain how big Carlos Gardel was, and still is, today. Gardel in Argentina was like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Elvis, and Michael Jackson all put together. There are streets, restaurants, and buildings named after him in Buenos Aires, and you can’t go into a record shop without seeing his face even today, 75 years after his death. Gardel died in a tragic plane crash in 1935, and it is said that Latin American women in Buenos Aires, Puerto Rico, and New York killed themselves in tribute. Don’t say anything bad about Carlos Gardel around an Argentinian, or you might get your ass kicked.
There are of course many other influential tango composers and musicians (too many to do justice to in this article), but most notable among them is probably composer Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla took tango music to places it had never been before, namely stage and screen. Piazzolla reworked tango music to be played “for the ear, rather than the feet”, and for this he is still considered a very controversial figure in the history of tango. Some, (like me) feel that Piazzolla was an innovator and a brilliant composer, but others (mostly traditionalists) feel that Piazzolla was a tango heretic. Many consider Piazzolla’s musical stylings to be more “Nuevo tango”, and thus not part of traditional tango mythos.
Tango, after having been around in its various forms for around 120 years, continues to be popular and surprisingly, very relevant to pop-culture. Tango has been featured in many movies during the past century, and has been danced famously by actors such as Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), Antonio Banderas (Take the Lead), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (True Lies). There have also been many films devoted solely to the dance, as well as stage productions such as Forever Tango and Tango Argentino.
Tango has also been taken into new directions by proponents of the Nuevo Tango movement, whose adherents believe in moving tango beyond the restrictive customs and traditions (and dated music) of the past, and developing the dance to change with trends in music, and evolution in forms of movement.
Whew, that ended up being a long post. If you stayed with it this long, hopefully you’ve learned something cool about tango that you didn’t know already. Thanks for reading. If you would like to add your own thoughts, leave a comment!