Why do we dance tango?

To better understand the ghosts we are dancing with we decided to dig into the roots of tango and to share with you this short history of tango. With more than 100 years to cover, we divided this article into two parts. Enjoy the first one here!

Tango is a constantly evolving dance and music with a fascinating history. When starting to dance the tango, you will soon experience that there is something more to it. There is a community, a culture, a language, involving many variations depending on where you dance and who you learn from. Tango is a way to meet love, the romantic but also the universal one. In the community, we develop relationships, we find a place, or we feel excluded. The dance can be an emotional, artistic, and creative exploration. It can pull out the worth of our ego, and make us feel miserable as it can be healing, empowering, and soothing.

Whether the real roots of Tango are in Argentina, Spain or Africa is a little bit hard to track. One sure thing is that the whole world eventually adopted it. Another sure thing is that the evolution of both the music and the dance are the result of a meeting between different cultures, ethnics, countries, arts, movement technics, and social movements. The lack of early documentation leave a lot of room for interpretation and we give you in this first part the most common hypothesis. 

Rural fights and dance rituals 

Tango Argentino music and dance originated in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Montevideo (Uruguay) around 1860-1880.

Between 1860 and 1880, the nomadic Gauchos were forced into sedentarism and moved to Buenos Aires, together with former African slaves, and European migrants escaping conflicts on their continent.

Waves of immigrants arriving in the port of Buenos Aires.
Source – Wikipedia.

Afroargentinians playing music.
Source –  Wikipedia.

Gauchos engaging in a knife fight. 
Source – unknown. 

As all of them lived and worked together in Rio del plata, the natural border between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, their culture mixed to give birth to the Tango Argentino, a melodic and romantic music genre including a lot of rhythmical variations. The dance itself results from a meeting between Gauchos fight training games, African dance rituals and European folk dances.

For them, playing music and dancing was not a hobby or a profession. It was simply part of daily life as a way to train, exercise, express the sorrow and the difficulties of life. It was a social ritual to gather and measure each other agility.

In search of love

During the 1880s, European immigrants were predominantly men, and the demand for female company. It was only two ways to meet women, social dancing in Buenos Aires nightlife and the brothels. With so many options, women could afford to be picky and would accept to dance only with the ones that could make them feel good and look good.

In parallel, sex trafficking was high. Brothels flourished. Men had to wait for their turn and pass the time. Practicing tango became the thing. Seeing a business potential, brothel’s keepers hired musicians, and dance became a new business. “The academias” were created, owned by women, men or couples who were dancing themselves. There, men could learn the tango and hire highly skilled female dancers to practice. Being a good tango dancer and/or musician becomes an object of prestige, a way to gain respect. It was not uncommon for the dancers of different “barrios” to measure there dancing skills, which often ended up in violent fights. Tango entered the theatres, tents, circuses, dance halls, cabarets, and even private homes to be taught in the families. 

Slowly but surely the Tango became much more than “just a dance”. It was a culture, a way to socialize, to create a family, to earn respect and status in society. For the rootless and the disenchanted, desire, pride, violence, conflicts and trafficking were the expressions of a longing to be loved and to be recognized. 

men practicing tango steps

Men practicing tango steps. Source – unknown.

Tangomania in Paris

The first European city to be exposed to the Tango Argentino was Paris, at the beginning of 1900, when dancers and musicians from Buenos Aires travelled to Europe. Teachers and musicians came to teach and perform tango. The most famous dancer at this time was probably the elegant El Cachafaz. In the eyes of the Parisian aristocracy shaped by centuries of prude catholic education, the dance was perceived as highly erotic. Thanks to this perceived provocative and exotic character, Europe embraced it despite the Pope condemning it.

Paris dancing tango in 1912.
Source – unknown.

From there, tango reached different European capitals, and other continents. It inspired a European form of tango  with standardized steps and style created by the International Ballroom organizations in 1920. Ballroom Tango music is characterized by a regular, marching rhythm, with fewer melody and rhythmic variations than Tango Argentino music.

In Europe and the rest of the world, tango never became a mean to survive like it was in Buenos Aires. Educated people were charmed by the melancholy of the music, the exotism of the dance, and probably the delicious sensation to abandon in a prohibited sensual dance. 

The Finns and their love story with tango

Finnish Tango
Source – unknown.

In the 1930s, life under wartime was rough in Finland. The melancholy of tango music reflects those dark times and the Finns take it up. Finnish Tango is characterized by its almost exclusive performance in minor keys and themes reflecting established conventions in Finnish folklore. Like the Argentine Tango, the Finnish tango dance is improvised, and it follows the marching rhythm of Ballroom Tango.

This recognition abroad was what Tango needed to boom in Argentina. Proudly, Argentinians made it a strong element of their cultural identity. Thanks to Tango, Buenos Aires was put on the cultural world map and everything was set for it to flourish and expend.

The Golden age of Tango

After being popular in Europe almost everyone danced the tango between 1930 and 1950 in Buenos Aires. The production of tango music was extreme, and this period is called the Golden Age of Tango. Orchestras were giving concerts in all the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. The cinema featured famous tango singers and promoted the music genre internationally. The dance continued to spread around the world.

Each orchestra developed a distinct style, creating the diverse music repertoire that we are still dancing to today, almost 100 years later. The same goes with the evolution of the dance at that time. Buenos Aires was a growing port city. Immigrants came from Italy and other countries seeking opportunity.  Most of them were young men, and the single ones were pressed to find women to date. Again, milongas (social tango dance evenings) was THE place to find wife material and the competition was high. Men would meet at each other’s homes or on the street corner to compare notes, ideas, and techniques and practice with each other until they were good enough to get a woman to want to dance with them.

One wouldn’t dare to go to the milonga unprepared and it took time to become a decent dancer. The issues were almost a matter of life or death pushed the most excellent dancers of each neighborhood to develop their style and greatly enrich the repertoire of figures we play with on the dancefloor today.

D'arienzo y su orchestra tipica

D’Arienzo y su orquesta típica. Source – unknown.

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