Tango History

A history and overview of the tango, including the different kinds of tango, tango music and how tango began.

The tango is unlike any other dance. It combines the rhythms of African, Spanish and Cuban music in a series of gliding, almost violent steps. The reason for its flavor is the atmosphere in which it developed. The tango has the unique distinction of being a dance that formed along with a new nation, and the struggle of young Argentina is mirrored within it. Read this article for an overview of the tango and its history, including how it is viewed today.

The tango got its start in Argentina, where it developed in the "barrios," or the slums of the city. Immigrants from many countries would gather in the slums of Buenos Aires to dance and revel, often with prostitutes. The tango developed as a form of entertainment for these rootless men, as well as a pantomime of the sexual act between a man and a woman. If the dance was danced three times, rumor held, the two would be sharing the same bed for the night. While tango was known as a forbidden dance (it was actually banned by a Pope!), it gradually became accepted in Europe, then in America. It was the rage in Paris at the beginning of the 1900's, which in turn led to it being danced in England, Spain and Italy. It reached America around the 1930's where it was immediately embraced. Europe's response was enough to convince America that the dance was worth performing

The tango is a product of the milonga, African rhythms and instruments, and even European and Latin influences. It is played on a typical orchestra of piano, violin, bass and an instrument known as the bandoneon, an accordion-shaped piece of German history. This instrument is beautiful and rare, since almost every bandoneon in Germany was melted down before World War !! to get metal for rifles. There are very few players of this instrument alive today, and because of this, tango music has an eerie, otherworldly quality, as did Buenos Aires during its inception. In the early 1900's, tango singers came into the limelight, giving the movements and steps of the dance even more meaning.

Tango singers must be examined in more detail. One singer in particular is renowned for bringing the tango, by his singing, into the realm of performance art. Carlos Gardel is perhaps the most famous tango singer that has ever lived. Known as the songbird to Buenos Aires, Gardel was born in France and grew up alongside the tango. Gardel invented the "tango song," or another line in the tango orchestration for voice, essentially making the tango a performance for both a musical audience and a dance show. Although his life was cut short by a plane crash in Colombia, South America, Gardel managed to achieve immense fame in Latin America. His singing was what finally convinced initial opposers of this risque dance that it belonged in elite, high society.

There are four known kinds of tango. The "Argentine" tango is the most natural form of the dance, done in a half-embrace. This dance contains slow movement and an almost rocking beat, to which dancers move in square-like patterns around the floor. This form of the dance retains the original flavor of the Argentine history behind it. It is improvised by the male, which the female leads. The "International" tango is the name given to the form of tango used in competition. This tango is a very stately affair, and requires that both partners arch their backs and face away from each other for the duration of the dance. Its steps are very difficult, for they must be done rapidly in time to the music. This dance is prearranged, and often practiced for long periods of time before being showcased. The "American" form of the tango is somewhere in between the above two forms. It requires the same holding pattern as the International tango, but it allows a greater range of expression in movements, and spaces where improvisation is allowed. "Tango fantasia" is the fourth, and most ornate, form of tango. This tango requires that the partners use intricate steps in combination with the original Argentinian style. It is not uncommon to see lifts, dips and spins in this type of tango.

The tango is very popular today, in movies like "Evita" and "The Tango Lesson." It is also featured in Broadway musicals like "Tango Forever" and "Tangomano." While the form of tango often displayed in movies and shows is very flashy, it accurately reflects the character of the dance as it is perceived today. Tango has been idealized as a passionate, sexy performance, one that is more suited to a showroom than a dance hall. Only in Argentina does the dance retain its most pure, original distillation, and its not unusual to see tango danced at weddings and funerals, political events and parties.

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