Argentine Tango School

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History of Tango – Part 2: The origins of Tango

How tango came to be is unknown. What we have is information about the history leading up to the rise of Argentina as a state. From these facts, all we can do is 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In 1805 and again in 1807, England tried to invade Buenos Aires, but was repealed successfully by the population, not by the Spanish army, which abandon the city. This paved the way for ideas of independence, which eventually led to the end of the Colonial system and, 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, in accordance with British led ideas of international division of work, and invested in the technology and infrastructure that made possible such model. A modern port was constructed in the area of the Puerto Madero, and a railroad network that 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 private property of the new landowners. Also, the “chinas”, who 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 very good 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 own militia of gauchos, which would go on to be integrated into the state as an official regiment. They soon earned a reputation of 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 service of the Governor of the province in order 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 during 1835 and 1852 was the main leader of the Argentinean Confederation. This period of Argentina’s history is referred to as 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, it was during this period that 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
sentimental.

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
tradicional
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
Federación.”

“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 actors who were popular 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 at that time, with the “sainete” being the main genre offered by these companies. This genre was comprised of shorter pieces, including elements of humor, songs and dance. 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, the word “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 our 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 special 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, with the aim of maintaining 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 a 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 others 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 others arms, and the figures from the stops of the solo dancers. The other explanation is emotional: the consolation that the embrace gave to all these humans left alone by displacement, economic exile, destruction of their families, cultures and lifestyles.

Other characteristics of the new dance were that it was totally 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 backwards, which contradicted all previous approaches to partner dancing. These elements are rooted in the body language of the criollos, men and women, who were trained in the art of short knife fencing. Due to a cultural demand and the historical realities of the time, it was considered necessary to know how to fight, just as today it is considered necessary to read and write. In a historical situation of rapid transformation of the government and institutions, there was no reliable protection provided to the people, their families or their property.
Before the British, who were commissioned by the Argentinean government 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, with the purpose of marking the white shirt of the opponent. This is something which 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 as “cortes y quebradas” (cuts and breaks).

Tango regionThis dance 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 respectively the names of “chinas” and “compadritos.”

The massive immigration in Buenos Aires was intended to populate the countryside, but 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 not prepared to receive this amount of people, and housing quickly became one of the most urgent problems to solve.

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 simply 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, which was called “conventillo.”

Yellow feverIn 1871, Buenos Aires suffered a yellow fever epidemic that killed 8% of its population, most of them 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.

A great proportion of 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 of this 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, in accordance with 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 some 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 outside of being great dancers. The academias were located mainly in the area of Constitución and San Cristobal, and were also very 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 known as “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” with the title “El merenguengué” became very successful at carnivals organized by the Afro-Argentinean population in Buenos Aires in February 1876. In 1877, the restaurant “Lo de Hansen”, located in Palermo, was the first in a series of restaurants, cabarets and pubs where the youth of high society would socialize and dance tango.

The year of 1880 is when some authors mark the transition between the gestation of the tango and “La Guardia Vieja” (“Old Guard”.) There are some others who prefer to wait for the further evolution of the genre and the appearance of the first scores. In this decade, the tango and milonga are confused with one another, and both began to impose their dominance over 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” tango which was later recorded as “Entrada prohibida”, then signed by the Teisseire brothers as the composers.

Casimiro Alcorta was also a celebrated tango dancer, together with his companion “La Paulina”, 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 guitar, violin and flute. In the following years the guitar and the flute disappeared, and the piano and then the bandoneón were integrated, which shaped the “Orquesta Típica.”

OrganitoIn those years the “organito,” a portable player, had a major role in the initial spread of the tango. It was made of tubes or flutes and a keyboard which is operated by the cylinder, enabling the passage of air to produce the different notes. Air is generated by bellows which are activated simultaneously with the cylinder by rotating a handle. The “organito,” like the organ and the bandoneón, is a wind instrument. It is important to differentiate the “organito” from the “organillo,” which is more common in Spain and produced its 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

Bibliography:

  • “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.
  • https://www.todotango.com/english/

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 in Buenos Aires, includes transportation and personal assistance.

On learning to dance Argentine Tango

 in Buenos Aires, includes transportation and personal assistance.

By Álvaro Dominguez.

Several years ago, drawn by my love for and interest in Tango music, I began pursuing learning how to dance Tango.

Little did I know about the experiences this new practice would bring me or the paths it would take me through.

Like most incipient Tango dancers of the twenty first century, I thought dancing was a sequence of steps requiring a great level of mastery.

Consequently, I sought popular instructors that gave the impression of doing graceful moves across the floor on their dance studios.

These wonderful instructors showed me do a bunch of steps; the ocho, the cross, the rock-step, the boleo, the molinete… all off course with Tango music in the background.

Although I had the steps under my belt I did not feel I was dancing…something was missing and I had no clue of what that was.

Pursuing the feel of dancing I began going to all the Milongas I found within a 20 miles radius.

In doing so I soon noticed that none of the popular teachers were at the Milongas.

At the time I did not think much of it, I was a novice after all, but time it made me wonder.

Over a year after I began my Tango adventure a friend invited me to join her to a class.

I had heard of the teacher but I had not met him.

The class was small and the exercises were different. No steps. The emphasis was exclusively on musicality and connection.

Following the lead of our instructor we moved, weighing the beat of the music and keeping engaged with our dance partner.

Such approach was radical compared to previous Tango instruction I had received, and I confess that initially, the relevance and importance of being fully engaged when playing the game of dancing Tango passed way over my head…but eventually I came around as I began to realize and accept that the right attitude is essential for truly dancing Tango.

A person’s attitude towards Tango is reflected in many aspects of his or her behaviors:  our posture, how assertively and in synchrony with the music we move (or not), how we emphasizing the beat with our steps (or not), and even how we choose to dress when going out to the Milonga depict and reflect our attitude towards Tango and our dance partners.

Tango is an experience, it’s an experience of engagement with the music and with our dance partner; and once I began to realize this I began to experience Tango for what it is, when you dance Tango you experience connection.

It’s been funny to realize that I’ve learned as much Tango by talking with seasoned Milongueros about the dance, the music, and the curious or funny anecdotes of singers, players, or orchestra directors as I’ve learned from dance instructors.

During these conversations I learned and began to accept that, first and foremost, Tango dancing is an act of self-expression; I learnt that Tango lives and develops at the Milonga; and I learnt that for many, dancing Tango is sacred.

The Embrace

Repeatedly I’ve heard that the embrace is the most important aspect of Tango dancing.

Being in close physical proximity to another person brings to surface many emotions; that may explain why many dancers don’t pay attention to their embrace, as if tightly holding a body you chose to embrace was a chore and not a pleasure.

Tango is connection, connection with ourselves (we must be fully present to dance), connection with our partner, and connection with the music; the embrace is where followers rest and how leaders provide assurance and guidance, and the music is the excuse for dancers to keep embraced; intermittently for about three minutes at a time; moving through the dance floor, or barely not.

A good embrace holds many paradoxes; it is firm and flexible, it gives structure and freedom of movement; a good embrace allows two to become one, only if each part is accountable for its own.  When dancing closely embraced I juggle many emotions; I want to allow and fully enjoy the sensations that arise embracing my dance partner, and at the same time I want to provide her with comfort and assurance while she is in my arms.

The Tango embrace represents the juice of human relations, we offer ourselves to our dance partner and to the dance floor, and whether we like it or not, part of our emotional being comes out naked.

Thus, if we believe this and the embrace brings to surface so many emotions; how do we choose who to dance with?

Seasoned milongueros and milongueras agree that when they are not engaged dancing or socializing at the Milonga they pay attention to the dancers on the floor: who is moving gracefully?  Who is musical? Who is having a good time? Is their dance partner having a good time?

All this information is processed consciously and unconsciously, and the result is our decision of who we want to dance with…or not.

The Milonga and its Codes

The Milonga is a social event where people gather to dance Tango.

The Milonga provides more than the physical structure, such as the quality of the dance floor, the way tables and chairs are arranged around the dance floor, or the music played by the DJ.  Like Tango, the Milonga is about attitude, and a good Milonga fosters an attitude that promotes safe dancing rendezvous.

This attitude is determined by big and minuscule details; from how you are greeted by the host to the venue’s seating arrangements; from the lighting of the space to the way the patrons dance, their social skills, and the way they cared for themselves for the occasion.

On top of all that, another essential aspect of a Milonga is the adherence to the codes of the Milonga.

The codes of the Milonga are simple – music is organized in Tandas of three or four songs by the same orchestra, tandas are separated by cortinas (a non sequitur song), and dancers dance in the line of dance, counter clock wise.

Another important code is ‘cabeceo’.  Cabeceo, or head nod, is the way you indicate another person you are interested in dancing with them.  Unfortunately, this etiquette protocol is often overlooked locally; in fact, many local dancers (San Francisco Bay Area) resist this cultural aspect of the Milonga, and refuse to accept that cabeceo is essential because it promotes better dancing.

How does cabeceo promote better dancing? You may ask; the answer is simple.

Cabeceo:

Establishing eye contact with a potential dance partner and nodding your head indicates you are asking that person to dance.

If the person being nodded wants to decline the invitation, he or she discretely stops or avoids establishing eye contact; instead if the person wants to accept the invitation, he or she maintains eye contact and gives head nod in-turn to confirm.

Once the willingness to dance has been established, the leader walks towards the follower, looking for her sight and maintaining eye contact when possible.

The follower remains on her seat, once the leader has approached and has nodded again she gets up and proceeds to accept the dance.

Let’s say you are a seasoned Tango dancer at a Milonga.

A new Tanda starts with one of your favorite songs, “Te aconsejo que me olvides” played by Troilo and sang by Fiorentino.

You know this song by heart, and you start feeling the melody slowly creeping inside your body and you start looking for the right dance partner.

Who is the right dance partner?

Is it the first available follower at sight? Is it the first leader that nods you?

Well, maybe.

Sometimes those are our best options and we take them; however, more seasoned dancers usually don’t.

The Milonga is a social event, not a practice, and in general we want to dance with partners of our own dancing level, a partner that we are confident will understand how we move and respond accordingly.

When there is a big gap between dance partners’ abilities, it is likely that one is enjoying it more than the other, and this gap means that degree of self-expression is distorted.

Although we learn much by dancing with a more experienced dancer, the Milonga is not a practice.

Going back to you, seasoned dancer, at the Milonga where “Te aconsejo que me olvides” just opened the Tanda; you look around and see followers and leaders scaning the room for potential dance partners.

So, who do you want to dance this Tanda with…maybe someone with whom you’ve already enjoyed dancing Troilo with, maybe a leader with a melting embrace, maybe a soft and sensitive follower that is like a cloud flowing with the slightest breeze.

The beauty of cabeceo is that it clearly sets the difference between a practica and a Milonga; it allows dancers to respectfully decline an invitation, or to accept without uttering a word.

At Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires we are committed to bring to you a complete Argentine Tango experience. Learn to dance Tango with us.

History of Argentine Tango at Escuela de tango de Buenos Aires - Marcelo Solis

Argentine Tango’s history – Introduction

El Cachafaz and Carmencita Calderon - Tango dancer's leyendsArgentine 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”.

GauchoThe “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.

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 “cortes y quebradas” and a musical genre 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.

Immigrants arriving to the port of Buenos AiresTango 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.

Carlos Gardel | Argentine music at Escuela de Tango de Buenos AiresThe 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 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 portrateThe 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: happiness, homesickness, passion, wittiness and much more…

More about the History of Argentine Tango…

Learn more about Argentine Tango at Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires.

Bibliography:

“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.

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