Argentine Tango is a dance originated in the poor neighborhoods of the largest cities in Argentina and Uruguay at the end of the XIX century. It represents the cultural mix of immigrants and the established population. In the 1800’s, Buenos Aires and Montevideo had a population of 25 % to more than 50 % of Africans each. They were servants of the most influential families of these cities and were more integrated to the life of these families and the society in general than the Africans of other societies like North America. “Tangos” were called the black people celebrations and places of meeting since the beginning of the XIX century. Is in these places where the dance known today as tango began the development of its choreography and music. Other African terms directly related to tango are “milonga” and “candombe”. “Milonga” is a Quimbanda expression that means “words” and referred originally to a kind of duel between two countryside singers called “payadores” that playing guitar will improvise verses of eight syllables with a structure type question/answer; while “candombe” is a Bantú word that referred originally to the rhythms and dances made by the Africans in their tango meetings and also to these meetings.
When they were given freedom (1853) they created several associations -kinds of unions- to help themselves, and placed them mostly in the area of the neighborhood of Montserrat. During carnival, they used to go out on the streets with bright colored costumes and big-feathered hats, dancing many hours to the monotonous rhythm of “candombe”— the music they played at these events. Different associations competed for the supremacy and this developed into bloody incidents in the streets. The repetition of the violence forced the police to close many of those associations in 1877. It was the end of black people’s carnival. The consequence of this was the creation of several dance centers where they developed a kind of couple dance called “tango” using the same choreographic elements they used before in their candombes. But that tango was not an embraced couple dance. They danced it separately.
Other influence in the origins of tango comes from a typical character of the Argentine Pampas: the “gaucho”.The “gaucho” is the product of the mix between the first Spanish arrived to the lands later called Argentina, and the natives. They were very skillful in the techniques needed to survive in the countryside. They liked to live far away from populated cities and towns, had not regular jobs, occasionally get hired by the owners of the “estancias” (farms), and knew the secrets of the knife fencing and horse riding. They had a strong morality of independence and, if needed, faced the arbitrarily police. These “gauchos” had a very important participation in the battles for the emancipation against the Spanish Kingdom. They symbolized the ideals of autonomy, courage and justice without arbitrariness.
After the Constitution of 1853 the ideas of modernity and progress start to shape the new country. The “gaucho” did not fit in this project and began to suffer a persecution. The lands where the gaucho used to wander were confiscated and given to others. Having not other option they moved into the poor suburbs of the city and got jobs as butchers, herdsmen, horse-breakers or cart drivers. Even though the gaucho goes under a metamorphosis, leaving the horse, shortening his knife to hide it better because it was not allowed in the city, changing his clothes and getting the new name of “compadre”; he still keeps the same ideals of justice, independence and courage. His new neighbors start to admire him and many times came to him looking for protection or advice. The young men of these poor suburbs start to imitate the attitudes of the compadres and soon got for themselves the name of “compadritos”. Although the gaucho, transformed in compadre, brought the “milonga” to the slums, he did not dance. His inheritors, the compadritos, did dance. They took the choreographies of other dances which had arrived from other places of the world and were danced in the port of Buenos Aires and Montevideo such as polka, mazurka, waltz, and habanera; and danced with them to the music of the milongas. Further more, they also incorporated elements from the black people’s dances, from their “tangos”, most of the time with racist sarcasm. This originated a way of dancing called either “tango” or “milonga”. Although the gaucho, transformed in compadre, brought the “milonga” to the slums, he did not dance. His inheritors, the compadritos, did dance. They took the choreographies of other dances which had arrived from other places of the world and were danced in the port of Buenos Aires and Montevideo such as polka, mazurka, waltz, and habanera; and danced with them to the music of the milongas. Further more, they also incorporated elements from the black people’s dances, from their “tangos”, most of the time with racist sarcasm. This originated a way of dancing called either “tango” or “milonga”. When these dances arrived to the port of Buenos Aires in the second half of XIX century, the embrace technique was known as “dancing to the European fashion”. The compadritos adopted this technique and incorporate it to the movements they took from the African’s tangos. Until this moment, all the embraced dances were of continuous movement, which means that one time the couple starts to move will not stop until the end of the song. On the other hand, the African’s tangos, as well as the other not embraced dances, used “figures”, which means that one or both partners will suddenly stop and take a position called figure. In order to put together these two different ways of dancing – the embrace and the figures – the compadritos had to go further into the embrace technique and create the “close embrace” technique. Before the tango, there was space in-between the partners in all the embraced dances. With tango there are not space in-between partners anymore. Tango incorporated the close embrace technique that allows the “figures” in the embraced dance: one partner will stop while the other keeps moving or both will suddenly stop for a while and restart the movement a few beats later. The close embrace was enough for tango to be disapproved by the serious society. In addition, the compadritos liked to play with the scandal and with a mocking and unconcerned attitude making provocative movements in the dance for the amusement of some and the shock of the others. The 1853’s Constitution opens Argentina to the immigration. Millions of immigrants, mainly Italians and Spanish, arrived to the country and changed it radically. Tango was influenced by the immigration too. Its rhythm slowed down and its melodies acquired a nostalgic flavor in contrast with its original joking attitude. Its choreography also changed, leaving its provocative character and tidying up its figures. A novel instrument was incorporated to the tango music, the bandoneon, created in Germany, which fits perfectly with the new shape of tango. Soon, the bandoneon became the icon of tango music. All this will prepare tango for its acceptance in the Europeans ballrooms. The 1913 was the year of its highest popularity in Paris. This made it return to Argentina, its natural country, from the “big door”. Rejected before by the high society as a product of the slums, it became praised for everyone thanks to its international fame. Everybody wanted to learn to dance tango at this time. Only the 1917 World War will stop the popularity of this dance in Europe, but just for a while. The same year, 1917, a countryside singer, included in his repertoire the first tango with a lyric, creating the way of singing tangos. This man was Carlos Gardel, and even he died in 1935, he still reigns as the model of the tango singer thanks to his 1500 records. The WWI, the post war crisis and the bright presence of Carlos Gardel eclipsed tango as a dance for a while. This was the period of the popularity of the “tango-canción”(tango-song), good for listening but not necessarily for dancing. In 1935 Juan D’Arienzo incorporated the piano player Rodolfo Biaggi in his orchestra and with a fast and playful rhythm which reminded the origins of tango, started to attract thousands of dancers back to the ballrooms. The acceptance of this orchestra was so big, that other orchestras begun to imitate its characteristic rhythm. At this point, tango was a mature artistic expression. Music, dance and poetry reached its pinnacle and developed during the 1940’s in what was known in Argentina as the Golden Age of Tango. During these years, tango defined the shape we know today. Three decades of dictators made tango blur in Argentinean’s life, especially tango as a dance, but was not enough to make it disappear. 1984 was the year where the democracy came back in Argentina and it also the year which tango revived. The worldwide acceptance of Astor Piazzolla music, who knew how to integrate tango to other musical expressions as classical music, jazz and rock, incorporating electronic instruments; the triumph in Russia of Julio Bocca, an international known Argentine ballet dancer who danced to Piazzolla music; and the amazing success in Broadway of the show “Tango Argentino” which presented the greatest tango dancers at that time; all of these plus the freedom of expression that democracy brought to Argentineans, made possible what we are able to see today: a strong presence of tango not only in Argentina, its natural country, but also in the whole world. Why did tango triumph all over the world? It is not easy to find one absolute answer but maybe has to do with the necessity of expression and Tango is a dance where all the range of human feelings can be expressed: happines, homesickness, passion, wittiness and much more.
“Crónica general del Tango”, José Gobello. Editorial Fraterna, Buenos Aires, 1980. “La historia del Tango”, tomo 2 “Primera época”, Roberto Selles y León Benarós. Editorial Corregidor, Buenos Aires, 1977.