Tango is a dance to some and an art form to others. The exact origins of tango, both the word and the dance, are ambiguous and are lost in myth and unrecorded history. The generally accepted theory is that in the mid-1800s, the African slaves who had been brought to Argentina and Uruguay began to influence the local culture. In 1889, the Real Academia Espanola dictionary defined the word “tango” as a “popular celebration and dancing of black people in America.” The expression of “toca tango” or “tocatambo” in the Bozal dialect (Portuguese Spanish spoken by African slaves) means to play the drum, or to start the dance, or the meeting space.
It took almost 100 years for the dictionary to redefine tango as a “world-wide known Argentinian dance for two people who join in movement, based on a binary 2/4 beat”. Not only has the meaning of the word tango changed, but the music has transformed also from being played on portable instruments such as the flute, guitar and violin into a full concert with a big orchestra. The dance has also been transformed from being in a close embrace, almost fastened together to more open flowing styles of today.
On August 31, 2009, UNESCO approved a joint, proposal by Argentina and Uruguay to include the tango to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
In 1870-1880 both Argentina and Uruguay saw an influx of millions of European immigrants. Most immigrants were penniless single men hoping to make their fortunes working the land, but ended up in the cities. In Montevideo in Uruguay, public dances were held in warehouses for the lower class and prostitutes were paid to dance. They danced a range of music from habanera, polka, mazurka and waltzes but in the “corte and quebrada” way, i.e. a tight embrace where they would stop and pose for a beat or two and then continue. From this mixing pot of cultures and candombe rhythms the street dances of the Montevidean milonga developed into now-called Argentine Tango. Improvisation was a key element of the dance which still remains today, unlike the percussion instruments which were gradually lost and replaced by the bandoneon. The bandoneon being the most recognizable tango instrument, with its deep melancholic feeling, reflecting the profound sense of loss and longing for the people in destitute times with nothing to their name except macho pride and desperation.
THE GRANDEUR: May 25, 1908 the Colon Theater opened its doors and wowed the crowds becoming one of the world’s top opera venues. Buenos Aires, a multicultural city competed with major European capitals for grandeur and refinement as the public was eager for arts and culture. Tango began to raise its profile by entering theatres, cafés and the upper-class brothels. Opening of Academia’s (places where you could learn many dances including tango) contributed to tango’s popularity. The typical bandoneon, violin and piano, were replaced by a sextet two bandoneons, two violins, piano and double bass, as it provided richer and more sophisticated orchestrations.
TANGO FOR EXPORT: Tango was then exported around the world by traveling poets, dancers and musicians. There were no recording studios in South America, so many orchestras traveled to Paris to record their music. Over a third of the 1,000 gramophone records released were of tango music and tango sheet music was also sold in large quantities. The sons of South American society families such as Ricardo Guiralde (major Argentine writer) had made their way to Paris. They introduced the tango into a society eager for innovation, which was not entirely averse to the risque nature of this import, especially taught by the dashing, rich South American men. Tango became a craze in Paris: tango music, tango lessons, tango dance, tango teas, tango train excursions, tango everything. In 1913 Tango had spread from St Petersburg to New York, and become an international phenomenon. The South American upper classes who had shunned the tango were now forced into embracing it, because it was fashionable in Europe.
TANGO IN MOVIES: Dancing had always been recorded in films, such as the highly dramatic Apache dance associated with Parisian street culture (1903), or the glamourised Hollywood tango of Rudolph Valentino, as the most famous if not completely inauthentic tangoing gaucho in the movie “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”(1921). There are recordings of tango as an everyday socialisation, a romantic dance to seduce or a competition to show off and to be watched compared to being danced. These examples highlight the conflict that “Art” which represents a non-authentic portrayal of the dance, has over time influenced or created a stereotype for tango: tango being the dance of thugs and prostitutes; or you must dance it with a rose in your mouth. Although movies have helped make tango popular, they have also created false impression of the dance and many tanguero’s would argue that the tango in the movies or even on stage, is not tango at all.
THE VOICE: Carlos Gardel became the champion of the authentic tango with his beautiful voice and macho looks as a popular singer and movie star. His fame spread worldwide with the help of the invention and wide use of radio, records and film.
THE CRASH OF TANGO: Tango was now out of fashion in Europe, a military coup in Argentina led by the pro-fascist general suppressed and censored it for 10 years, and Gardel had died in a plane crash in 1935. South America was also devastated by the Great Depression after the Wall Street Crash, which also changed the character of tango again, where the lyrics reflected the renewed poverty and social divisions.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF TANGO: Argentina and Uruguay were able to stay neutral for the majority of WW2 and became very wealthy due to trade. Music, poetry and culture flourished and by the mid to late 1940s, tango was at its height. There were more than 50 orchestras and ensembles playing around the city at salons, cafés, cabarets and social clubs. The demand of producing so much live music, created the competition between musicians to strive thus creating so many legendary tango musicians, conductors and composers. The best tango orchestras would be booked for more than a year in advance. Those were the years of the great dance balls, with countless tango radio shows and hundreds of big bands with popular singers. The dancers created a style that was elegant, sleek, choreographically complex, and mysterious. Tango became a matter of national pride under the government of Argentina’s President Juan Peron, in his first term (1946-1955).
THE REPRESSION ERA: Tango has always reflected the economic condition of the time. You can hear it in the music in poorer times — orchestras were smaller, and lyrics ranged from poetic, subversive or ‘corrupt’ language of the lunfardo slang or politically censored. The dance and its music went underground as large dance venues were closed as public gatherings in general were prohibited. The tango was repressed by post-Peronist nationalist government and only survived in smaller, unpublicised venues and in the hearts of the people. At the end of the 1950s tango eventually went out of fashion, crushed like many other dances, by the arrival of American swing and rock-n-roll, and from the 1960s to the 1980s, was only danced and played by a few of the older generation enthusiasts.
ASTOR PIAZZOLIA had the vision of tango “for the ear rather than the feet”. He created numerous operas, concertos, theatre and film scores. In 1975 he set up his Electronic Octet an octet made up of bandoneon, electric piano and/or acoustic piano, organ, guitar, electric bass, drums, synthesizer and violin, which was later replaced by a Flute or saxophone. Piazzolla produced innovative works and interpretations which broke away from the original mold of an “orquesta tipica” and created chamber music instead, music without a singer or any dancers. He achieved world acclaim by combining a wide range of styles from Jazz, Rock, Electronic and Tango, however, he generated hatred and criticism among the orthodox tanguero’s.
CULTURAL REVIVAL. With the return of Argentina to democracy in 1983, a new generation launched themselves on a cultural revival – recovering the almost forgotten tango. Luckily, the elder tanguero’s and musicians of the 1940’s were still alive and were a great source of knowledge. This revival spurred the worldwide touring of tango troupes starring dancers such as iconic Juan Carlos Copes. They created a dazzling romanticisation of tango of the golden age. One of the most influential teachers of the 90’s was Antonio Todaro. He transformed tango beyond simple steps into an intellectual challenge that encouraged new dancers. In Todaro’s tango, instead of just walking, both the man and the woman have important roles to play using figurers and styling to showcase tango to its best. This development of new figurers, was stimulated by the creation of new orchestras, as Todaro felt the need to invent new movement to match the music instead of just dancing how it was. He also taught many of the professional stage dancers, and toured frequently in Europe —Todaro’s protégé, Miguel Zotto, become one of the greatest stage performer of this generation.
NOT SO NUEVO: In the late 1990’s, the Tango Nuevo movement emerged in Buenos Aires. It was spear-headed by Gustavo Naveira & Fabian Salas, who applied the principles of dance kinesiology from modern dance to analyze the physics of movement in Argentine tango. Taking what they learned from this analysis, they began to explore all the possibilities of movement within the framework of Argentine Tango. As a result, the work of these Founders of the Tango Nuevo movement brought about a shift from teaching what to dance toward teaching how to dance.
FUSION: Contemporary Tango (electronic) – Paris-based group Gotan (Lunfardo wordplay on ‘Tango’) Project was one of the first to renew the sound of tango (again) by adding electronic elements to tango dance music around the year 2000, and since then many other groups have followed suit by making both subtle or prominent changes to traditional tango. This evolved into the fusion with contemporary non-tango music and other dance genres. Although more young and adventurous people are attracted to the world of tango by the prospect of dancing to modern music, such as the electronic beats of Carlos Libedinsky’s Narcotango, or complete non-tangos, such as jazz and pop, it is still not as popular as traditional tango.
Today, tango is danced around the world: from Montevideo to Berlin to almost every city in the world. This is reflected not only by the number of annual international tango festivals which are supported by professional instructors on a global circuit, but by the quality of dancers throughout the world.
Like any art form, no-one knows what is next in the evolution of tango. We will just have to wait and see…