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History of Tango – Part 3: La Guardia Vieja

Part 1

Buenos Aires 1900Between 1860 and 1915, Buenos Aires experienced exponential growth.

The “Gran Aldea” (Great Village) became a cosmopolitan city, which, despite its isolated geographic location, was one of the greatest cities in the world.

During this period of multiethnic and multicultural interaction, Tango developed its unique characteristics and became a cultural identity, philosophy of life, and lifestyle. Its name was not mentioned in well-mannered conversations. It was practiced, protected, and cared for by powerful people, the only ones who would not care about its bad reputation and defy the rejection by the comfortable, afraid, and obedient society. It needed to develop in places prohibited by a society that denied that an entirely new creature was coming to life. A creature not a child of a well-established family, in the portrait of religions and hypocritical political speeches. A being that was happily excited to deal with the chaos of unpredictability, with all that can’t be rationalized, accounted for, and fit in the big plan laid out by the ruling classes for the population of that corner of the world.

Even when Tango began to enter family homes and broadly accepted social events, the name Tango would not be used as the label to refer to it, nor would the musicians use this term to describe the orchestras.

The dance technique that today we associate with Tango and milonga, the “cortes and quebradas”, was in its origins a dance technique created by the “chinas” and “compadritos” and applied to all kinds of danceable music played in Rio de La Plata: “mazurka”, “polka”, “habanera”, “cuadrilla”, “lanceros”, waltz (called “vals cruzado” when danced in this way), “pasodoble”, “Spanish tango”, Tango and milonga.

Later this dancing technique remained in Argentine Tango (referred to as “tango criollo”), milonga, and vals criollo because these music styles were better suited to it.

On September 9, 1862, four men and two women were put in jail for dancing “tirando cortes y quebradas” at a conventillo of Paraguay 58 (today, in Puerto Madero).

The police report does not mention Tango or milonga.

It was on September 28, 1897, that for the first time we find that the “cortes and quebradas” are elements associated to the choreography of a particular music called Tango. It is at the play written by Ezequiel Soria “Justicia Criolla”:

“Era un domingo de carnaval
Y al “Pasatiempo” fuime a bailar.
Hablé a la Juana para un chats
Y a enamorarla me decidí.
En sus oídos me lamenté
Me puse tierno y tanto hablé,
Que la muchacha se conmovió
Con mil promesas de eterno amor.
Hablé a la mina de mi valor
Y que soy hombre de largo spor,
Cuando el estrilo quiera agarrar
Vos, mi Juanita, me has de calmar.
Y ella callaba y entonces yo
Hice prodigios de ilustración,
Luego, en un tango, che, me pasé
Y a puro corte la conquisté.”

And also:

“Qué cosa más rica…! Cuando bailando un tango con ella, me la afirmo en la cadera y me dejo ir al compás de la música y yo me hundo en sus ojos negros y ella dobla en mi pecho su cabeza y al dar vuelta, viene la quebradita… Ay! hermano se me vá, se me vá… el mal humor.”

Rosendo MendizabalThe following year, in 1898, “El entrerriano”, the first Argentine Tango registered by a known author, was published. This was the time before recordings when the music was commercialized by publishing it in music sheets. The author, Rosendo Mendizábal, was an Afro-Argentinean born in 1868 (and died in 1913). Coming from a wealthy family, he was able to study piano. Unfortunately, his lifestyle made him squander his fortune, and so he began to teach piano lessons and to play in all kinds of brothels and dancing houses, from the ones of the poorest clientele to those visited by the wealthiest people, like “Lo de Laura (Monserrat)” in Paraguay street 2512, where he premiered “El entrerriano”, and dedicated it to Ricardo Segovia, a landowner born in the Argentine province of Entre Rios, who gave Rosendo a $100 bill. This was a common practice among composers before the benefits of authors’ rights.

Before the publication of tangos, they became known only from the authors playing them over and over again in many places. When a tango was fortunate enough to be accepted by the audience, it was frequently requested, contributing to the recognition of the piece and its creator. Sometimes another musician would like a song and learn it by listening to it and incorporating it into his repertoire. But since the time that it began to be written, it was easier to propagate it. Eventually, musicians could play more and more varied songs, and city-sponsored orchestras, military and police bands, and club orchestras would be able to play them, contributing to a more excellent and more efficient divulgation of Tango. It was also how it could surreptitiously enter the family homes, hidden between piano methods and Chopin’s waltzes. And, it made possible the printed rolls for “organitos”, which played a significant role in the initial spread of Tango. Finally, it prepared the ears of those who initially liked Tango to accept a new instrument that became central to Tango and transformed it: the bandoneon.

El ChocloEnrique Santos Discépolo’s father, José Luis Roncallo (who was presumably the one that first suggested tango music for them), and Ángel Villoldo (who probably wrote “El Choclo” to be played through this media) were involved in the construction of the first locally made cylinders for organitos.

Related to this need for mobility that the primitive Tango required to spread itself and survive was the portability of the instruments of its origins. The guitar was the “criollo” (autochthonous) instrument par excellence, which the payadores chose to accompany their singing. It is, indeed, a privileged instrument to accompany the human voice. Still, the payadores that were already laureates and socially accepted, wouldn’t, in general, risk losing their contracts playing such dubious music. The violin was also a prevalent instrument. Wind instruments rose in popularity to the extent that they showed up increasingly in bands and theatre orchestras of the time. The harmonica also played a decisive role, especially in the hands of Ángel Villoldo.

These instruments that first played Tango made their music energetic, lively, and shaky because they were high-pitch and light instruments that could easily be played fast. Later, with the introduction of the “bordoneos” (melodies and bridges played in the lowest pitch range of the guitar strings), the incorporation of the concertina and the Italian accordion, it will start a process of slowing down that will reach its depth with the bandoneon and the lower pitch string instruments. During this period, the bandoneon became the most characteristic instrument of Tango.

In 1899, “El Pibe” Ernesto Ponzio (1885-1934) published “Don Juan”. “El Pibe” Ponzio played the violin “sacando chispas” (extracting sparks from it), according to the testimony left to us by Gabino Ezeiza. When his father (also a musician) died, he needed to help his family and went to play in canteens, at dance parties, and on the streetcars. Soon he was asked to play at the most famous places of the time, like “Lo de Hansen”, “Lo de Laura”, “Lo de María La Vasca” and “Lo de Mamita” Lavalle 2177, among many others. At this last one, it is said, he premiered “Don Juan”, dedicating it to Juan Cabello, a well-known “compadre del arrabal” porteño.  This tango was the first one recorded with bandoneon by Vicente Greco and his orchestra in 1910.

In 1924, when playing in Rosario, he shot and killed a man and was condemned to 20 years in prison. He had other previous violent incidents on his record, but he was pardoned in 1928 and returned to playing. According to his wife, he was not a violent person. He was handsome, kind, and always smiling, even when playing. Still, his talent, overwhelming energy, and charm as a musician, dancer, artist, and person provoked the envy and jealousy of those for whom beauty did not regard respect and tried to impose their mediocrity with sheer force. “El Pibe” Ernesto considered a lack of honesty with himself, with those he loved, and with his art, to retreat when insulted by disrespectful attitudes to people and what is beautiful in life. Nevertheless, he stood up for his thoughts and ideals in every moment, even difficult ones, and dealt with the consequences.

The only recording by “El Pibe” Ernesto Ponzio is in this scene from the first sound film made in Argentina, “Tango!” of 1933, playing his most celebrated composition:

In 1899 they closed the last “Academias” that remained in Montevideo, while the tango came to wider audiences entering the theater, tents, circuses, dance halls, and cabarets. Following this development, the original “tango canyengue” was transformed and made more “decent”, smoothing or eliminating the “cortes y quebradas” and the most straightforward sexual elements of its practice, giving birth to the tango “salon”, also known as tango “de pista” or ‘liso”.

Most of the precursors of tango music were also well recognized as great dancers.

Angel VilloldoÁngel Villoldo (1861-1919) is considered by many “El padre del Tango” (The father of Tango) and unanimously considered the most representative artist of the Guardia Vieja. Little is known about his childhood, and the information about his youth is often contradictory. From an interview made with him by the newspaper “La Razón” in 1917, we know that he was “cuarteador” [1] of “La Calle Larga” (The Long Street, today’s Montes de Oca) at the time that his interest in music appears, and that he sung and played guitar and harmonica.

Between 1879 and 1886, he was a typographer at the newspaper “La Nación” and Jacobo Peuser’s print, conductor of the carnival choir “Los Nenes de Mamá Viuda”, librettist for choir societies, a herdsman in two slaughterhouses of Buenos Aires, a clown at “Raffeto” circus.

Around 1900 he began to be known as a payador, composer, and singer in “Corrales Viejos” (Parque Patricios), Barracas, La Boca, Constitución, San Telmo, Palermo, and in Recoleta for the celebrations of the Virgen María in September. At these celebrations, big tents were erected for several days. They started to be frequented by “compadres” and “cuchilleros” [2], so their original character was replaced by another, less family-oriented, alcohol, dancing, and knife fighting. At these gatherings, in which the life of a man was of little value, everyone respected Ángel Villoldo, who performed there his first tangos.

Cochero de tranvía. History of Argentina at Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires.The tango was still developing and had not yet achieved a defining shape. Therefore, the first works of Villoldo were milongas of the payador style that described characters and current events of the places he frequented. These first songs are precious testimonies of these times and their people. Like this milonga that refers to the known rivalry between cart drivers (carreros) and streetcars drivers (cocheros):

“El Carrero y el Cochero”, listen…

Villoldo’s lyrics are “cheerful, wittily talkative, sometimes in jest, but never bawdy. The compadres of his stories are reliable criollos, as its creator, who recently left the horse on the outskirts of the city, men in whom the knife is not yet ostentatious bravado, but the defense of honor and cause” [3].

El porteñitoHis rise to fame came in 1903 when the singer Dorita Miramar sang “El Porteñito” in the varieté Parisiana of Esmeralda Street, obtaining great success. Pepita Avellaneda had already sung several of his compositions a year earlier on Avenida de Mayo. Soon other female singers included his songs in their repertoire. In the same year, 1903, José Luis Roncallo premiered “El Choclo” at the restaurant “El Americano”, labeling it as “danza criolla” since the category of the place did not admit including tangos in the playlist. After the truth was known, the audience demanded it is played every night. However, it was not published until 1905.

La MorochaOn Christmas day in 1905, Villoldo wakes up at 7 am by Enrique Saborido, who was up all night writing a song and needed a lyric. He knew that Villoldo was fast, that he could improvise verses as a payador. The night before, on Christmas Eve, Saborido was mocked by his friends for paying too much attention to the Uruguayan singer Lola Candles. So they challenged him to write a song for her. He took the challenge and promised to have the song ready to be sung by Lola the next day. At 10 am, they presented to Lola La Morocha”, which she premiered that night. This tango was of great success, not only in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Argentina, and Uruguay, but copies of the music sheet were taken to many port cities worldwide by the school ship Fragata Sarmiento.Fragata Sarmiento, in Puerto Madero

Villoldo finds humor in daily life events. In 1906 the Police Chief of Buenos Aires ordered a fine of 50 pesos to those who say “piropos” (compliments) to a woman in the street, and Villoldo composes, “Cuidao con los 50!”. He tries to get extra advertisement for his song, so he goes to the street and starts to “piropear” to every woman he sees, expecting to be denounced and fined, making his song a way of protest, but all he got was a sweet “viejo enamorado” reply from one lady.

Around those years, “El esquinazo”, another of his compositions, was prohibited from being played at “Lo de Hansen” because the crowd beat their glasses on their tables accompanying the song, breaking them, and making it too expensive for the business.

Alfredo Eusebio and Flora GobbiIn 1907 he was sent by the department store Gath y Chaves, the most successful in Buenos Aires then, to make some of the first tangos and Argentine music recordings to Paris with Alfredo Eusebio and Flora Gobbi (the parents of the great orchestra conductor Alfredo Gobbi). The recordings of Villoldo songs, already thriving, potentialize their success.

Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Unfortunately, the sound quality on the phonograph was terrible, and each recording lasted for only one play. Alexander Graham Bell’s graphophone followed Edison’s phonograph. It could be played many times. However, each cylinder had to be recorded separately, making the same music’s mass reproduction impossible with the graphophone.

GramophoneOn November 8, 1887, Emile Berliner, a German immigrant working in Washington, D.C., patented a successful sound recording system. Berliner was the first inventor to stop recording on cylinders and start recording on flat disks. The first records were made of glass, zinc, and plastic. A spiral groove with the sound information was etched into the flat record. Next, the record was rotated on the gramophone. The “arm” of the gramophone held a needle that read the grooves in the record by vibration and transmitting the information to the gramophone speaker. Berliner’s disks (records) were the first sound recordings that could be mass-produced by creating master recordings from which molds were made.

These inventions were taking place when tango was becoming more and more popular and are vital to the history of Tango.

Being in Paris, Villoldo subscribed to the Authors and Composers Association of France, following which then created in Buenos Aires in 1908 “La Sociedad del Pequeño Derecho”, precursor of “SADAIC”, created by, among others, Francisco Canaro, Osvaldo Fresedo, Augusto Berto, Agustín Bardi, Enrique Santos Discépolo and Francisco García Jiménez. This institution and its precedent, “Círculo Argentino de Autores Compositores de Música” and “Asociación de Autores y Compositores de Música”, played an essential role in the history of tango and its existence since, thank them, the authors, composers, and musicians of tango were able to make a living.

Back in Buenos Aires, in 1908, we could find Villoldo playing in La Boca at the “Café Concert” of Suarez and Necochea streets, the center of tango of the moment, where, in different places, Canaro, Greco, Firpo, and others were playing. Villoldo performed a solo act, playing guitar, and harmonica (attached to his body in the manner of Bob Dylan), singing, storytelling, and standup comedy and dancing.

From that year is his milonga “Matufias, o el Arte de Vivir”, which is seen as a precursor of Discépolo’s “Cambalache”.

Villoldo was also a journalist and wrote plays.

In 1913 he wrote the lyrics for “El 13”. This will be his last significant hit. After that, Tango changes, and “La Guardia Vieja” gives place to “La Guardia Nueva” and the tangos that Carlos Gardel recorded with Contursi’s lyrics. In 1917 the duet Gardel-Razzano made their first recording with Villoldo’s song; “Cantar eterno”. It was the magic of Tango linking the two eras.

[1] Was a person driving a team of horses and pulled a vehicle stuck in the mud or needing help in a hill climbing.

[2] Quarrelers who use knives to fight.

[3] José Gobello “Historia del Tango”, “La Guardia Vieja”, Editorial Corregidor 1977, page 364.

Read also:


  • “Crónica general del tango”, José Gobello, Editorial Fraterna, 1980.
  • “El tango”, Horacio Salas, Editorial Aguilar, 1996.
  • “Historia del tango – La Guardia Vieja”, Rubén Pesce, Oscar del Priore, Silvestre Byron, Editorial Corregidor 1977.
  • “El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires”, Carlos Troncaro, Editorial Argenta, 2009.

What makes you a good dancer, and Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires

Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires. We offer you Argentine Tango classes with Marcelo Solis. san Francisco bay Area.
The Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires is an enterprise entirely dedicated to Tango.  It is through Tango that we understand culture. It is a way of life. It is a way to see our own lives in the context of realities such as society, individuality, beauty, responsibility.

These words seem abstract, but they manifest as real problems in our everyday life.

Tango lends the experience of past generations, gives us the perspective of how people in the past lived and danced, of the mistakes they made in the process. It offers us the opportunity to make better choices in the present, and through our sense of responsibility, personal strength and awareness, to make life more beautiful.

Tango shows us that our individual lives are meaningless without a connection to past generations and traditions that link us to others in the present and throughout history. Passion for life, which we can only achieve and sustain through our subjectivity, is necessary to give meaning to our lives and make valuable contributions to society.

Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires and Marcelo Solis. Argentine Tango classes San Francisco Bay AreaWhat I am describing can be found in the lyrics of many tango songs.

For example, below is a verse from “Canción de rango”:

“Que bailen los que vienen pa’ bailar,
que escuchen los que quieran escuchar.
Pa’ todos hay un tango acompasado,
pretencioso y retobado reinando en mi ciudad.”

This first verse talks about society, made up of uncountable individuals driven by their own passions: dancing, enjoying the music… there is something in tango for everyone. Tango is for all.

Another verse:

“Yo canto porque vivo la emoción
del tango cadencioso y compadrón.”

In these lyrics the individual presents his motives: passion, emotions. Still, these passions are related to something that transcends him as an isolated individual: Tango.

And finally:

“Yo canto cuando alguno pega el grito
que hay un tango compadrito
buscando un corazón.”

This verse demonstrates how he is moved by responsibility of responding to a call from Tango and others.

If you listen to any rendition of this song, you will be moved by the total commitment of the orchestra/singer into the composition. The authors, Suñé and Kaplún, really left the ball ready for a goal in this match. I enjoy all of them: Demare/Arrieta, Biagi/Acuna, Tanturi/Castillo, Caló/Rufino, Pugliese/Córdoba, Troilo/Goyeneche. I just discovered the last one:

I am not going to talk about the dance. You must do it, if you want to know anything about it. It is pure beauty.

The Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires is based in Buenos Aires, where it has a staff of regular and guest maestros such as Blas Catrenau, Myriam Pincen and Néstor Pellicciaro, who is also one of the co-directors.

The other co-director (and author of this article) is me, Marcelo Solis, working in San Francisco Bay Area.

Since tango is a globalized phenomenon that is rooted in Buenos Aires, we promote a strong connection to the roots of tango at each branch abroad. Teachers at every location organize classes and events keeping in mind that their goal is to see their students dancing in Buenos Aires’ milongas, helping them to integrate to the milonguero culture.

In order to make that possible, every year, the Escuela organizes several tours to the Tango capital. See more information about tours here…

I recently came back from Buenos Aires where I was guiding my tour.

Buenos Aires Tour. Travel with marcelo Solis. Argentine Tango classes in San Francisco bay Area

This experience is always very positive, and all of the participants became better dancers. That makes me feel deeply happy and proud.

And now the question is… what makes you a good dancer?

My answer in the framework of Tango:

1.    To be madly in love with the music. Tango originates as a dance first, and then a specific music was associated to it. The first milongueros would dance using the particular technique of dancing based on the embrace, to the rhythms in vogue at the second half of the 1800’s: waltz, polka, habanera, that came to the port of Buenos Aires from abroad, and a local rhythm called milonga.

Musicians were itinerant at the time. They played improvisations based on popular melodies, and received payment directly from the dancers. The musicians who paid attention to the dancers learned to play to their cadence, the natural inertia of a couple dancing embraced. That was greatly appreciated by the dancers and rewarded with a greater pay. That is how tango evolved as a musical genre.

This process went on, with a period where tango was partially disassociated from the dance; the tendency that today, in retrospect, we relate to Carlos Gardel, a singer, and Julio De Caro, a violin player, composer and director. It lasted until 1935, when Juan D’Arienzo initiated the Golden Era of Tango by reconnecting tango to its roots as a dance.

The music from that period (that continued strong for a decade, and faded out gradually after –although never completely disappearing) is played nowadays in the milongas in Buenos Aires.

That is why it is not possible to understand Tango without passionate love for its music. The music tells you how to dance, tells you what tango is. To read more about the history of Tango.

2.    To have the patience to achieve a great control of your movement, up to the “subtleties” level. Be never satisfied with what you are already able to do. However, do not allow the quest for improvement deprive you and your partner of the joy of dancing.

3.    To have the passion and the commitment to practice, to put aside other things and make time to practice. Nothing will change or improve in your dance without physically doing and repeating your exercises in order to build up the necessary good habits. I heard people saying that this is neurotic obsessive behavior, an addiction, and other similar things. My response to them is: when an activity makes you stronger, wiser, more aware and alert, healthier in general, it cannot be classified so negatively. Although, for some, it may be an escapism… But that is not Tango.

4.    To be generous, pay more attention to your possibilities and opportunities to give, rather than calculating how much you would receive. I tell you right away: it may be a long time before you can truly enjoy it. It is always going to be a work in progress that is never finished. It will ask you to be always in alert mode, to consider more what you can do and how much you can give, not how much good it is given to you. From the moment you go to your first class or your first milonga, the right attitude will be “I come to participate”, rather than “I come to receive”.

5.    To have the desire to share, pay attention to your partner’s joy, to dance “with” your partner. That is the same principle stated in 4, but on the partnership level. At the couple level, tango is made by two people. They have to act as accomplices, give support to each other, encourage their respective strengths, provide support and a friendly challenge in relation to their respective weaknesses.

6.    To respect the other people’s space. Tango is intimate, but should not be invasive. That is why, to give one example, “cabeceo” is so essential to tango: you ought to ask a partner from a distance if she or he would allow you to get so intimately closed. A milonguera or milonguero has to be aware of the following: a good dancer is clean, well mannered, respectful, strong, considerate and gentle.

7.    To be humble, even when you have a lot to be proud about. The greatest of the greatest dancers keep learning.

8.    To be aware that Tango is not only “your” Tango, to acknowledge that it has belonged to others before you, to respect what Tango is, so your love for Tango grows on the soil of what has already been done. That implies your acting in order to know tango better, its history, the people who made Tango their lives.

9.    To assume responsibility that others who come after you will get to know Tango from you.

I would like you to tell me what other elements, in your opinion, make a good dancer. Please write to me at

History of Tango – Part 2: The origins of Tango

How Tango came to be is unknown. We have information about the history leading up to the rise of Argentina as a state. From these facts, we can only speculate about how Tango came to be.

In 1805 and again in 1807, England tried to invade Buenos Aires but was repealed successfully by the population, not by the Spanish army, which abandoned the city. This paved the way for ideas of independence, eventually leading to the Colonial system’s end. After a war against Spain and a civil war, the Argentine Republic unified during the decade of 1860. Most of the references related to Tango point to this time to signify its origins.

Railroad networkThe first Argentinean Presidents promoted the immigration of the European workforce, defeated the indigenous people who had still claimed part of the Argentine territory, favored an economic model of production and export of agricultural goods following British-led ideas of the international division of work, and invested in the technology and infrastructure that made possible such model. A modern port was constructed in Puerto Madero, and a railroad network transported the whole production of the entire country to this port. Buenos Aires greatly benefitted from these changes and grew exponentially. Between 1871 and 1915, Argentina received 5 million immigrants, mostly Europeans. Almost all of them stayed in Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires, known at that time as “La Gran Aldea” (“The Great Village”), also received other immigrants from the countryside who had been displaced. The gauchos’ natural environment was the Pampas, which became the private property of the new landowners. Also, the “chinas” were indigenous women whose men were killed in battle, defending their territory.

ImmigrantsAll these new arrivals to Buenos Aires had few resources and were very poor. They could only afford housing in the poorest neighborhoods, where the Afro-Argentineans, descendants of the African slaves, had been populating since 1813’s abolition of slavery. They were the locals. If any newcomer wanted to know something about Buenos Aires, they had to ask the Afro-Argentineans, who, before this massive immigration, constituted one-third of the population.

Juan Manuel de RosasBetween 1820 and 1850, before the Argentine Constitution was written and immigration was promoted, Argentina was under the administration of Juan Manuel de Rosas. During this time, the Afro-Argentineans enjoyed a period of greater participation and freedom of expression. Rosas was a landowner in the province of Buenos Aires with a perfect resume. When he was only thirteen, he fought heroically against the English invasions. Later on, he proved to be a very efficient administrator of cattle ranches and a successful businessman. Rosas created, financed, and trained his militia of gauchos, which would go on to be integrated into the state as an official regiment. They soon earned a reputation for being highly disciplined, and Rosas was able to establish order at the border with the indigenous populations. In 1819, Rosas put this militia at the province’s governor’s service to quell an uprising against him. This is how Rosas became known as “El Restaurador de las Leyes” (”The Restorer of Law’).
Afroargentineans during RosasHe became the Governor of the province of Buenos Aires and, between 1835 and 1852, was the prominent leader of the Argentinean Confederation. This period of Argentina’s history is called the “Era of Rosas.” He obtained the necessary support for his administration from the poorer sectors of the population of the City of Buenos Aires (integrated for a majority of Afro-Argentineans), and the gauchos of the countryside close to the City (many of whom were also Afro-Argentinean.) During his tenure, Rosas attended the “candombes” (celebrations) of the Afro-Argentineans as an honored guest. Also, during this period, the carnivals began in Buenos Aires.

“Abuelita Dominga era muy vieja
y vivía en el barrio de los candombes.
Del carnaval de Rosas no se olvidaba
al cantar esta copla roja de amores:

Rosa morena,
de la estrella federal,
yo se que tu alma está llena
de un pasión que es mortal.
Rosa morena,
todos la vieron pasar,
en su garganta morena
sangraba un rojo collar.

Abuelita Dominga siempre lloraba
al recordar la historia de amor y sangre.
Y me dio esta guitarra para que un día,
la cante como nunca la cantó nadie.

Rosa morena,
muerta en los cercos en flor
la vio una noche serena
todo el Barrio del Tambor.
Rosa perdida
aún dice el viejo cantar
que le quitaron la vida
porque quiso traicionar.”

“Rosa Morena (Abuelita Dominga)”, Héctor Blomberg and Enrique Maciel.

“Están de fiesta
en la calle Larga
los mazorqueros
de Monserrat.
Y entre las luces
de las antorchas,
bailan los negros
de La Piedad.
Se casa Pancho,
rey del candombe,
con la mulata
más federal,
que en los cuarteles
de la Recova,
soñó el mulato

Baila, mulata linda,
bajo la luna llena,
que al chi, qui, chi del chinesco,
canta el negro del tambor.
Baila, mulata linda,
de la divisa roja,
que están mirando los ojos
de nuestro Restaurador.

Ya esta servida
la mazamorra
y el chocolate
y el favorito
plato de locro,
que ha preparado
un buen federal.
Y al son alegre
de tamboriles
los novios van
a la Concepción
y al paso brinda,
la mulateada,
por la más Santa

“La mulateada”, Julio Eduardo Del Puerto and Carlos Pesce.

Juan Manuel de Rosas’ regime affected all aspects of life in Buenos Aires and the culture. After his fall in 1852, local famous actors under his regime were dismissed, and the theaters of the City received foreign companies in their place. The Spanish theater companies from Andalusia were the most popular then, with the “sainete” being the primary genre offered by these companies. This genre comprised shorter pieces, including humor, songs, and dance elements. Soon, the music and dance of Tango could be seen on these stages.
Also, after Rosas was exiled, the candombes were prohibited in open spaces, so the Afro-Argentineans had to continue them inside. This change of venue forced them to dance closer to each other, shaping the choreographic elements of their dance, which eventually fit the embrace of Tango. During this period, “Tango” referred to any dance performed by the Afro-Argentineans.

All the necessary elements for Tango to appear were there: the Great City of Buenos Aires, the Afro-Argentine culture, the criollo and the gaucho, the native “chinas”, the massive immigration, the reconciliation with the Spanish heritage after the end of the War of Independence, and the open door to the rest of the world through the port.

In modern society, dancing is viewed as a specialized activity, such as a profession or a hobby. For the people of the 1800s, dance was integrated into everyday life. A person was not particular because they danced, but they stood out if they did not or could not dance.

The Renaissance was the beginning of dance as a modern social activity. Before the Renaissance, dance was a purely ritual activity, intending to maintain a connection between the human realm and the Cosmos, which involved mythological and religious connotations and rationales.
Then with the development of the modern city and its lifestyle, and the consequent secularization of all aspects of life, dance assumed the role of facilitating social interaction.

Minuet 1738In the origins of social dances, we observe no physical contact between partners; then they take each other hands, developing the “minuet” during the 1600s, which led to dancing in each other’s arms, with the “waltz” in the 1700s. The direction of the evolution of social partner dancing becomes evident: a closing of the distance between the partners that culminates in the embrace of Tango.

There are two explanations for why the embrace happened in Tango, which are not contradictory. The first is the eclectic origins of the dance, which combined techniques of opposite tendencies, like the continuous movement in acceptance of the inertia, characteristic of waltz, and the “figures”, detention of the movement opposing the inertia, characteristic of the dances with separate partners or solo dancers, performed, among others, in the Afro-Argentinean and Andalusian dances. The greater communication made possible in the embrace produced a social partner dance that could have both the partners united in each other’s arms and the figures from the stops of the solo dancers. The other explanation is emotional: the consolation the embrace gave all these humans left alone by displacement, economic exile, and destruction of their families, cultures, and lifestyles.

Other characteristics of the new dance were that it was improvised, favoring the skill and creativity of the dancers, their spontaneity, in contrast with the repetition of choreographed formulas that the other dances demanded; and the innovation that the woman walks backward, which contradicted all previous approaches to partner dancing. These elements are rooted in the body language of the criollos, men and women trained in short knife fencing. Due to a cultural demand and the historical realities of the time, knowing how to fight was necessary, just as today it is considered necessary to read and write. In a historical situation of the rapid transformation of the government and institutions, no reliable protection was provided to the people, their families, or their property.
Before the British, who the Argentinean government commissioned to construct the railroad network, brought futbol (“football” in England, “soccer” in the United States) to Argentina (effectively making it the most popular sport), the criollos of Buenos Aires practiced “visteo.” Visteo is a variation of fencing using a wooden stick burned in one end, or the index finger painted with grease or ashes, to mark the white shirt of the opponent. This is something that was inherited from the gauchos. The popularity of this practice prepared the Porteños of the 1800s with the necessary skills to create the dance of Tango.

The characteristic elements of the dance of Tango were referred to as “cortes y quebradas” (cuts and breaks).

Tango regionThis technique soon became the characteristic dance of the poorest inhabitants of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rosario, and the villages located south of Buenos Aires in an area known as “Barracas al sur”, Avellaneda, and Sarandí.
These women and men received the names: “chinas” and “compadritos.”

The massive immigration in Buenos Aires was intended to populate the countryside. Still, a failure in the implementation of the necessary policies, corruption, and the “Panic of 1873” (the great financial crisis that triggered a worldwide economic depression) conspired to detain almost the entire human wave in “The Great Village.” The City was unprepared to receive this amount of people, and housing quickly became one of the most urgent problems.

ConventilloThe Andalusian-style houses of the Southern side of Buenos Aires, San Telmo, and La Boca were soon creatively transformed into rooms to rent.
This type of construction, typical of the Colonial time, constituted a string of rooms aligned one after the other, with doors that opened to a patio or corridor connecting them. Their owners made each room a separate apartment to rent.
The huge demand for rooms made them expensive, so sometimes more than one family would rent one room and further divide it to make it affordable. This created a very crowded living unit called “conventillo.”

Yellow feverIn 1871, Buenos Aires suffered a yellow fever epidemic that killed 8% of its population, most living in these houses. The situation was so dire (with more than 13,000 people dying in 4 months) that it was necessary to open a new cemetery in the area of La Chacarita.

Many immigrants were male because they did not want to risk their families in the adventures of a “new world.” This created the conditions for the rise of prostitution as a very profitable business.
After the 1871 yellow fever epidemic, the authorities of Buenos Aires became more concerned with public health. Among many public health measures, prostitution was regulated. The unintended outcome was the differentiation between foreign women and the locals. Foreign women, who did not understand the language and the culture, were lured into being sex slaves by an international network of human traffickers and had to accept these regulations, fees, and taxation. The locals, Afro-Argentineans and native “chinas,” together with the Spanish and Italians, went into hiding. This also satisfied the demand of two different sectors of the market, per their purchase power, making the “loras” (“parrots”, due to the language barrier) the better off and the “chinas” (Quechua word for “woman”) the less favored. The legal business, called “casas de tolerancia” (“houses of tolerance”), were located downtown, in the area of Corrientes Street, San Nicolas, Palermo, San Cristobal, and Barracas. The clandestine ones were called “cuartos de chinas.”

“Milonga del tiempo guapo, milongón de rompe y raja,
la bulla del empedrado va marcando tu canción;
soy porteño del 80 y al compás de tu canyengue
desfilan por mi memoria los recuerdos en montón.

Te conocí en los fortines
que cuidaban la frontera
reclamando los amores
de una china cuartelera.
Animando las retretas
del Parque de Artillería
y en la barriada bravía
de las Barracas del Sur.

Milonga del tiempo guapo, milongón de los milicos,
de “kepises” requintados y bombachas de carmín;
con tu música sencilla fuiste ley de los porteños,
grito de los cuarteadores y alma del piringundín.

Te conocí en los corrales
de los viejos Mataderos,
hecha jerga en los quillangos
del recao de un forastero.
tu canto fue la corneta
del cochero del tranvía
y el Palermo de avería
tu escuela sentimental.”

“Del tiempo guapo”, Vicente Fiorentino and Marcelo De La Ferrere.

The demand was always greater than the supply, meaning customers had to wait. The owners of these houses soon realized that they needed to offer something to these customers while they waited, to keep them from leaving and to entertain them. They began to hire musicians as a form of entertainment. The most popular music at the time was polka, habanera, milonga and a new kind of rhythm called… tango. Sometimes the men who were waiting would dance, which led the owners to the realization that perhaps the dance in itself could generate business.

The first “academias” began to open during the 1870s. These were places where men could go and dance with a superb female dancer, improve their skills, and try new moves, all for a fixed price per song. These women shared the customer’s pay with the owner of the hall. The better dancers were more in demand and would dance nonstop for several hours, song after song, man after man. They did not need to be pretty or possess any other quality besides being great dancers. The academias were located mainly in Constitución and San Cristobal and popular in the City of Rosario. The owners and managers of the academias were mostly Afro-Argentineans.

Outside the circuit of academias, in 1857, the Spanish musician Santiago Ramos provided a distinctive Andalusian contribution, which in turn recognized Afro-Cuban and African roots. He composed one of the first tango-flavored songs, “Tomá mate, che” a proto-tango with “Rioplatense” lyrics and Andalusian-style musical arrangements. It was part of the “sainete” “The Gaucho of Buenos Aires,” which premiered at the Teatro de la Victoria. Also from that time came the proto-tango “Bartolo tenia una flauta” or simply “Bartolo”, derived from a classical XV century Andalusian melody, and the Montevidean “candombe tangueado” “El chicoba”.

Lo de HansenThe first Andalusian tango to reach mass popularity was composed in Argentina in 1874. The title is “El queco” (slang for ‘brothel’, of Quechua origin), from the Andalusian pianist Heloise de Silva, which makes open reference to the “cuartos de chinas.” Also, a candombe called “tango” titled “El merenguengué” became very successful at carnivals organized by the Afro-Argentinean population in Buenos Aires in February 1876. In 1877, the “Lo de Hansen” restaurant in Palermo was the first in a series of restaurants, cabarets, and pubs where high society youth would socialize and dance Tango.

The year 1880 is when some authors mark the transition between the gestation of the Tango and “La Guardia Vieja” (“Old Guard”.) Some others prefer to wait for the further evolution of the genre and the appearance of the first scores. In this decade, the tango and milonga were confused with one another, and both began to impose their dominance over the habanera. During this time is when tangos began to multiply, “Señora casera” (Anonymous, 1880), “Andate a la Recoleta” (Anonymous, 1880), “Tango # 1” (José Machado, 1883), “Dame la lata” (Juan Pérez, 1883), “Qué polvo con tanto viento” (Pedro M. Quijano, 1890.)

In 1884, the Afro-Argentinean Casimiro Alcorta composed the oldest famous tango, “Concha sucia”, with openly pornographic lyrics referencing life in the brothels. Three decades later, Francisco Canaro changed the lyrics and the title to “Cara sucia” (“Dirty Face”), definitely making it the inaugural tango. Casimiro also composed “La yapa”, a tango that was later recorded as “Entrada prohibida”, then signed by the Teisseire brothers as the composers.

Casimiro Alcorta was also a celebrated Tango dancer; his companion “La Paulina” was of Italian origin.

Around the same time, another Afro-Argentinean, the “payador” Gabino Ezeiza, introduced the “contrapunto milongueado”, linking the milonga to candombe. He told another payador, Nemesio Trejo, that “contrapunto milongueado” is ‘pueblera’ (‘of the city’) and a daughter of African Candombe, and while hitting his fingers against the edge of the table began to hum “tunga … tatunga … tunga …” to demonstrate with an onomatopoeia the link between the milonga rhythm with the Candombe (In an interview to Nemesio Trejo, made by Jaime Olombrada, published in the newspaper “La Opinion” of Avellaneda -Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina- on April 15, 1916).

At this time, the most common Tango ensemble was the guitar, violin, and flute. In the following years, the guitar and the flute disappeared, and the piano and then the bandoneón was integrated, shaping the “Orquesta Típica.”

OrganitoIn those years, the “organito,” a portable player, had a significant role in the initial spread of the Tango. It was made of tubes or flutes and a keyboard operated by the cylinder, enabling the passage of air to produce different notes. Bellows generate air activated simultaneously with the cylinder by rotating a handle. The “organito,” like the organ and the bandoneón, is a wind instrument. It is essential to differentiate the “organito” from the “organillo,” which is more common in Spain and produces sound from strings. The sound of the “organito” prepared the ears of the Porteños for a natural transition to the bandoneón in Tango when it finally arrived in 1880.

It is around these “organitos,” where men were seen dancing Tango in the street, practicing “cortes y quebradas.”

“Las ruedas embarradas del último organito
vendrán desde la tarde buscando el arrabal,
con un caballo flaco y un rengo y un monito
y un coro de muchachas vestidas de percal.

Con pasos apagados elegirá la esquina
donde se mezclan luces de luna y almacén
para que bailen valses detrás de la hornacina
la pálida marquesa y el pálido marqués.

El último organito irá de puerta en puerta
hasta encontrar la casa de la vecina muerta,
de la vecina aquella que se cansó de amar;
y allí molerá tangos para que llore el ciego,
el ciego inconsolable del verso de Carriego,
que fuma, fuma y fuma sentado en el umbral.

Tendrá una caja blanca el último organito
y el asma del otoño sacudirá su son,
y adornarán sus tablas cabezas de angelitos
y el eco de su piano será como un adiós.

Saludarán su ausencia las novias encerradas
abriendo las persianas detrás de su canción,
y el último organito se perderá en la nada
y el alma del suburbio se quedará sin voz.”

“El último organito”, Homero and Acho Manzi.

Read also


  • “Antología del Tango rioplatense”, Jorge Novati, Irma Ruiz, Néstor Ceñal e Inés Cuello. Instituto Nacional de Musicología “Carlos Vega”, 1980.
  • “Crónica general del Tango”, José Gobello, Editorial Fraterna, 1980.
  • “El Tango”, Horacio Salas, Editorial Aguilar, 1996.
  • “Historia del Tango – Sus orígenes”, Rubén Pesce, Oscar del Priore, Editorial Corregidor 1977.
  • “El Tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires”, Carlos Troncaro, Editorial Argenta, 2009.



Argentine Tango’s history – Introduction

El Cachafaz and Carmencita Calderon - Tango dancer's leyendsArgentine Tango is a dance that 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. For example, in the 1800s, Buenos Aires and Montevideo had a population of 25 % to more than 50 % of Africans each. They were servants of the most influential families in these cities. They were more integrated into the life of these families and society in general than the Africans of other societies like North America.

“Tangos” was called the black people celebrations and places of meeting since the beginning of the XIX century. It 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” who playing guitar, will improvise verses of eight syllables with a structure-type question/answer. At the same time, “candombe” is a Bantú word that referred initially to the rhythms and dances made by the Africans in their tango meetings and to these meetings.

When they were given freedom (1853), they created several associations -kinds of unions- to help themselves, and placed them mainly in the area of the neighborhood of Montserrat. During the carnival, they used to go out on the streets with brightly 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 supremacy, which developed into bloody street incidents.

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 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”.

GauchoThe “gaucho” is the product of the mix between the first Spanish who arrived in 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 no regular jobs, occasionally got hired by the owners of the “estancias” (farms), and knew the secrets of knife fencing and horse riding.

They had a strong morality of independence and, if needed, faced the arbitrary police. These “gauchos” had an essential participation in the battles for 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 this project and began suffering persecution. The lands where the gaucho used to wander were confiscated and given to others. Having no other option, they moved into the city’s poor suburbs and got jobs as butchers, herders, 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 admired him and often approached him, looking for protection or advice. The young men of these poor suburbs began to imitate the attitudes of the compadres and soon got themselves the name “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 from other places. They 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. Furthermore, they 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 “cortes y quebradas” and a musical genre called either “tango” or “milonga”.

When these dances arrived at the port of Buenos Aires in the second half of the XIX century, the embrace technique was known as “dancing to the European fashion”. The compadritos adopted this technique and incorporated it into their movements from the African tangos. Until this moment, all the embraced dances were of continuous motion, which means that one time the couple starts to move, they will not stop until the song’s end. On the other hand, the African tangos and the other not embraced dances used “figures”, which means that one or both partners will suddenly stop and take a position called a figure. To combine 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 Tango, there was space in-between the partners in all the embraced dances. With Tango, there are no in-between space 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 of by the “respectable” 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 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.

Immigrants arriving to the port of Buenos AiresTango was influenced by immigration too. Its rhythm slowed, and its melodies acquired a nostalgic flavor, contrasting with its original joking attitude. Its choreography also changed, leaving its provocative character and tidying up its figures. A novel instrument was incorporated into the tango music, the bandoneon, created in Germany, which fits perfectly with the new shape of the Tango. Soon, the bandoneon became the musical instrument of tango music. All this will prepare Tango for its acceptance in European ballrooms.

The 1913 was the year of its highest popularity in Paris.

This made its return to Argentina, its natural country, through the “main door”. Rejected before by the high society as a product of the slums, everyone praised it thanks to its international fame. Everybody wanted to learn to dance Tango at this time. Only the 1914 World War stopped the popularity of this dance in Europe, but just for a while. A few years later, in 1917, a countryside singer included the first Tango with a lyric in his repertoire, 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.

Carlos Gardel | Argentine music at Escuela de Tango de Buenos AiresThe WWI, the post-war crisis, and the reassuring 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), which is good for listening but not necessarily for dancing.

Simultaneously, a renewal of the instrumental Tango was being developed by the violinist Julio De Caro. Julio De Caro, Argentine Tango musician, leader and composer.
With his academic training, he contributed to Tango what its intuitive primordial musicians had been unable to provide.

In 1935 Juan D’Arienzo incorporated the piano player Rodolfo Biagi 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.

Juan D'Arienzo portrateThis orchestra’s acceptance was so significant that other orchestras imitated its characteristic rhythm.

At this point, Tango was a mature artistic expression. Music, dance, and poetry reached their pinnacle and developed during the 1940s 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 life, especially Tango as a dance, but it was not enough to disappear. Although 1984 was when democracy came back in Argentina, it was also when Tango revived. The worldwide acceptance of Astor Piazzolla music, who knew how to integrate Tango into other musical expressions such as classical music, jazz, and rock, incorporating electronic instruments; the triumph in Russia of Julio Bocca, an internationally known Argentine ballet dancer who danced to Piazzolla music; and the fantastic success in Broadway of the show “Tango Argentino” which presented the most excellent tango dancers at that time; all of these, plus the freedom of expression that democracy brought to Argentineans, made possible what we can 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. Still, maybe it has to do with the necessity of expression, and Tango is a dance where all the range of human feelings can be expressed: happiness, homesickness, passion, wittiness, and much more…

Learn more about the History of Argentine Tango…


“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.

Leer este artículo en español…