History of Tango – Excerpt: Tango and knife fight
“Nació en los Corrales Viejos allá por el ochenta.
Hijo fue de la milonga y un “pesao” de arrabal.
Lo apadrinó la corneta del mayoral del tranvía
y los duelos de cuchillos le enseñaron a bailar”
“El Tango”, Miguel A. Camino, 1877-1944.
When Argentina took on the model of the “Generación del ochenta” (the governing elite which ruled the country from 1880 to 1916), the gaucho lost his habitat. The Pampa would be divided into “private property”, so Argentina could join “civilization”.
Many of these gauchos opted for the opportunity to adapt to a new way of life in Buenos Aires, with its rapid growth due to a large influx of immigration.
They brought their knowledge and skills to the big city. They were expert cattle herdsmen who fed the locals and the world, slaughterers, butchers, horse trainers, tram drivers, and carters who knew the most efficient way of transporting cargo to the port. Their effectiveness in handling a knife was not limited to use with livestock. The gaucho was a man skilled in the art of fighting. The wars of independence, civil wars, and other less illustrious circumstances had trained him. But the gaucho was not a criminal. He had incorruptible ethics.
In the chaotic origins of our country, a new state that had just begun to get organized, the police force and justice system were not as efficient as one would have wished, with the population increasing by the day due to a careless immigration policy, which also led to more diversity, the most vulnerable sectors of the people found in those gauchos someone who supported them in their daily disputes. They were arbiters of justice spontaneously elected by their neighbors, residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the suburbs, the “arrabales”, and received in gratitude the title of “compadres”.
Young people in these slums learned to admire those strong men. They admired his independence, self-reliance, and skill in wielding his weapon, the knife, if necessary, to defend those characteristics that defined them.
However, these fans never came to incorporate the ethical values of the compadre, arising from the moral of the Knight of the Middle Ages. You could say they were already “tainted” by the modern city and its utilitarian pragmatism. The “compadritos”, so-called contemptuously, thus signaling its lowest moral stature in the shadow of the “compadre”, responded to the demands of a new historic moment: the birth of Buenos Aires as the great city of South America, incorporated into the global capitalist market.
The visteo (knife fighting training) and Tango, cockfighting, and pimping were compadrito features.
The compadre, however, did not dance, did not amuse himself by fighting, and had no commercial ambitions. He was a man who had made his life and, now in the city, preferred to take a contemplative and wise position.
During the formative years of the modern Argentine state, which could be dated starting in the battle of Caseros and ending the government of Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, the flood of immigrants brought to the daily life of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires various manifestations of the many cultures that arrived here. Among them, new forms of partner dance originated from the waltz’s popularity in Europe. Those who witnessed their arrival at the port of Buenos Aires called them “a la europea (in a European fashion) “. These dances were mainly the waltz and the polka, which were fashionable in Europe. The novelty of these dances was that the woman was “in the man’s arms”. This was a significant change concerning the minuet, the most popular couples danced until the appearance of the waltz, in which contact between members of the couple did not go beyond holding hands.
Young men from the slums, the “compadritos”, could see this way of dancing mainly in places of nightlife near the harbor and adopted the technique of bringing the woman in his arms, but with some critical changes.
The compadrito was fond of visteo (knife fight training). Knowing knife fight, not the larger gaucho or compadre knife, but a shorter one that could be hidden under the lapel of his jacket since it was not allowed by the authorities, was a direct way to express his status. The visteo was the physical education of these men (and many women, too) before the arrival of a more “civilized” sport brought to our land by Englishmen: football (or soccer). (The first football game was played in Argentina in 1867, and all participants had English surnames).
By taking a woman to dance, the compadrito used his “body language”, which he had acquired in the visteo. That made it necessary for the dancers’ bodies to be completely united in an intimate embrace, which was very shocking for the time.
Carlos Vega, researcher and historian of Argentine dances, differentiates the mode of holding the woman in waltz/polka, calling it “linked” instead of the “embrace” of Tango.
The Tango is the first dance that is based on human embrace.
Another amendment introduced by compadritos completes the originality of the Tango, which is also a consequence of their body language, natural way of moving, and embrace. In Tango, there is, for the first time in a dance, linked/embraced the opportunity to stop and be still. So far, the dances which had static moments, called “figures”, were separated couples dances, while in those linked, the movement was constant, and there were no moments of stillness.
Tango’s intimate embrace made this innovation possible because the dancers now had more physical connection, which allowed them more accurate communication.
And to complete, also due to the embrace and the skills of the compadritos, the legs’ games “invade” the other partner’s space in the couple.
These features were called dancing with “cortes y quebradas” at the time.
In 1861, a police document mentioned three couples detained near the port of Buenos Aires for dancing using “cortes y quebradas”. The document does not mention Tango. At this time, this dance technique was used by compadritos to dance to all kinds of music. Later, in the last decade of the 1800s, Tango would be adopted by the compadritos as their distinctive music, so the music of Tango would be united forever to the dance with “cortes y quebradas”.
Probably Tango music would have developed many of its features from the adaptation of street musicians and the dance of the compadritos.
In the origins of Tango, there is also an influence of the culture of the Afro-Argentines, who had enjoyed greater freedom of expression during the years of the Juan Manuel de Rosas government. After slavery was abolished in Argentina in 1853, the Afro-Argentines were the residents of the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires at the time of the great flood of immigrants. The immigrants arriving in Buenos Aires, not only from the other side of the sea but also from within the country (displaced gauchos and the “chinas” or women from indigenous races who came to Buenos Aires after their men died in the wars of extermination of the natives), they met with the Afro-Argentines as locals. They were responsible for the places of entertainment, dancing, and drinks in the city of Buenos Aires. Thus, it can be said that the sociocultural characteristics of the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires had definitive Afro-Argentine features. Many Afro-Argentines were gauchos, and many of them were then compadres and compadritos.
The Argentine governing classes and the country were defined during the years of transition between the aristocratic/feudal and bourgeois/capitalist systems. In those years, everything about the aristocratic lifestyle still possessed an aura of distinction, which was looked up to by the nascent Argentine ruling class.
Thus the “niños bien”, the children of the most powerful families, saw in the compadrito, not without envy, virtues that were well appreciated in the aristocratic culture: duel and seduction.
When Tango later became well appreciated in Paris, and from there the rest of the world, compadritos and “niños bien” undertook an exchange of customs and skills, which refined the first and made good milongueros of the others.
Jorge Emilio Prina, Maestro de Esgrima Criolla
- “Crónica general del tango”, José Gobello, Editorial Fraterna, 1980.
- “El tango”, Horacio Salas, Editorial Aguilar, 1996.
- “Historia del tango”, Editorial Corregidor 1977.
- “Danzas Populares Argentinas”, Carlos Vega, Instituto Nacional de Musicología, 1986.
- “El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires”, Carlos Troncaro, Editorial Argenta, 2009.
- “El Tango, una danza. Esa ansiosa búsqueda de libertad”, Rodolfo Dinzel, Corregidor, 1999.
- “Historia del baile social. De la milonga a la disco”, Sergio Pujol, Gourmet Musical Ediciones, 2013.
- “Masculinidades. Fútbol, tango y polo en la Argentina”, Eduardo Archetti, Antropofagia 2003.
- “Encyclopedia of Tango”, Gabriel Valiente, 2014.
- Todo tango https://www.todotango.com
“El hombre de la esquina rosada” de René Múgica, con Francisco Petrone, Walter Vidarte, 1962.
“Un guapo del 900” de Lepoldo Torre Nilsson, con Alfredo Alcón, 1960.
“La guerra gaucha” de Lucas Demare, con Enrique Muiño, 1942.
“Historia del 900” de Hugo Del Carril, con Sabina Olmos, 1949.
“El Gatopardo” de Luchino Visconti, con Lancaster, Delon, Cardinale.
“Tango” de L. M. Barht, con Tita Merello, El Cachafaz, Carmencita Calderón.