The Heart of Tango

Mention the word ‘Tango’ and all sorts of romantic, passionate and almost mystical thoughts come to most people’s minds.  The dance of Tango is the dance that is probably more associated with romance than any other social dance that couples do.  But how much do you actually know about it?

Well, whether or not you ever learn how to do it, even just knowing some of the background of it could very well make you the center of attention at your next party so….here it goes:

Tango, just like any other dance or in fact any other art form is a constantly evolving art form.  It has a history, a present and, no doubt, a future.  But let’s look at the land of Tango and something about its historical background.

Tango is truly now an international dance but it originated in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  And only a few miles north of Buenos Aires, across the Rio de la Plata (Plate River) is the country of Uraguay.   Argentine and Uruguay are culturally very similar and Tango is also popular in Montevideo, the capital of Uraguay.  Argentine Tango is virtually the same as Uruguayan Tango.

Another factor important to understanding Tango is to remember that Argentine culture is very closely related to European immigration and the culture they brought.….especially from Spain, Italy, France and Germany.

What this scenario creates is a strong flow and counter-flow of culture.  Just like American jazz artists have been strongly influenced by Brazilian singers and musicians and they in turn have been strongly influenced by American musicians and singers….the same thing happens with dance styles and Tango.

So….what you have with Tango is a dance with an ethnic beginning in Argentina.  It grew and evolved and went through a series of ups-and-downs of popularity and suppression.  Then it became popular abroad where they added their own twists and variations to it…and then it came back to Argentina.  The Tango dance we see today is a mash-up of all these influences.

Also not to be forgotten is that the ‘commercial’ Tango productions and dancers that you see (as in anything) are usually markedly different than the ‘popular’ styles that the real people of the country enjoy and favor.

Another dance example of this would be the dance of Bachata from the Dominican Republic.  US style Bachata (up until just a few years ago) only barely resembled the Bachata that middle class, working class people did in the Dominican Republic.

So ……let’s look at a bit of the chronology of how Tango started:

The closest traceable relative to today’s Tango was something known as ‘Tango Criolla’ which started in Argentina and Uraguay (very close geographically…remember?) in the period 1850-1890.  Just like American ‘rock’n roll’ it wasn’t a dance that ‘nice people’ did.  It was a very passionate, sexy (for that time), emotional dance for people who lived hard, played hard and who liked the opposite sex.

tango couple 2

Tango Show in Buenos Aires
photo credit: Un Milonguero Mejicano via photopin cc

Even at that early time, you could tell Tango music that the music was a fusion of European influences.  Remember that from its earliest history, Argentina has been a country that welcomed immigrants….and their music.

Next, we see the dance spreading to Europe where, in Paris and other sophisticated capitals, it went through a period of being the craze of the underground sophisticates.  One of the reasons that tango was unique on the European dance scene was because Tango was the first social dance that called for improvisation between the couples.

Although we take improvisation in dance for granted now, it was considered very ‘liberating’ back then.  Records exist of the Tango being danced by a French couple in Montmartre, France, in 1909 and it’s very possible that the dance entered the country via Argentine sailors dancing their dance-of-choice with local girls in the French port of Marseilles early in the 1900’s.

Another possible way the dance got to Europe was that Argentina at that time was the seventh richest country and per-capita income was very high.  However, France was still considered culturally advanced (at least…by the French).  So…lots of Argentine young men traveled to France to study and/or do business.

‘Boys will be boys’ and these young travelers could do things in Paris that weren’t acceptable at home.  Naturally they wanted to practice their Tango and in fact were probably encouraged to show Tango to the young French ladies of Paris who of course wanted to experience the embrace of the handsome young Argentines.

In 1913 the Tango craze hit the US and the world…it was almost everywhere.  Even women’s fashion changed to accommodate their new interest in Tango.

Around 1913 you first heard the term ‘Tango’ used to describe a dance but it’s important to note that the term Tango didn’t necessarily mean the dance you’d recognize as Tango today and when Tango-type music was played it was often played at a faster tempo.  This came to be called “American Tango”.

tango in street

Playing and dancing tango in the streets of Buenos Aires
photo credit: papalars via photopin cc

Remember that at this time Tango was still not danced openly in genteel society in Buenos Aires but as evidence of the reverse pollination of Tango from abroad back into Argentina, an undated book published in Buenos Aires shortly after WW1 says that its purpose is ‘to teach people in Buenos Aires the elegant Tango as it is danced in Paris’ and that it is nothing like the squalid, primitive dance of the lower classes in Buenos Aires

Back on its ‘home turf’, in Argentina, Tango went through a serious of ups and downs mostly due to politics.  The intricacies of Argentine politics aren’t the subject here but suffice it to say that even though tango survived as an ‘underground’ dance and was alive and well abroad, Tango was not looked upon favorably by the government in Argentina and thus nobody learned to Tango between the coup of 1955 and the fall of the military junta in 1983 after the Falklands War disaster (for Argentina).

Probably the golden formative years of modern Tango were in the 40’s and 50’s.  During that time you would see styles which would differ in 3 different areas.

The manner in which the man and woman connect in Tango is very critical because dancing Tango actually follows the large phrases of the music more so than the ‘beat’ of the music (like most other dances).  That’s why proper leading and following takes so much longer to learn in Tango.

In some styles, you’ll see couples dancing in long lines across the floor.  In other styles you’ll see them dancing in more circular patterns.  In some styles you’ll see very stylistic, quick jerks of the head and also of the lower legs.  In some styles you’ll see dancers traversing the floor ‘heel-first’ and at other time or in other styles you’ll see dancers placing their toes on the floor first.

But first and foremost in importance is the ‘embrace’, also known in Spanish as the ‘abrazo’.  In other dance styles (i.e. Salsa, Swing, Waltz, Fox-trot, etc.) this is called the ‘connection’.  It’s obvious which term conveys the most passion, right?

Tango has in its roots a very blatant form of sensuality and sexuality.  In this regard it is similar to Bachata (from the Dominican Republic) although much more so.  Tango conjures images of men who take what they want from women, women who exact their price for it and a lifestyle lived in the dividing line between seduction and civility.

Sometimes you’ll see Tango partners making strong connection between their upper body and at other times you’ll see them making the connection between the thigh and pelvic regions.  At other times it’ll be a mix of the above depending on how formal or how choreographed the dance performance is.  Dancing tango is definitely not for anybody, man or woman, not comfortable with their sexuality.

Most people like tango music when they hear it but it’s interesting (especially if you’re a dancer) to realize that Tango dancing can be done ‘on the beat’ or can be done at a much more subjective, higher level based on the phrases of the music.

It’s not uncommon at all for dancers experienced in other forms of dancing to have a very hard time dancing Tango well because they haven’t tuned into the large phrases of the music.  In this regard, performing and appreciating Tango is a developed taste similar to developing a wine or cigar consciousness.

If you’re going to Buenos Aires and you think you want to learn some Tango, it is possible.  But remember that there are two different styles…the very basic commercially-taught style (often touted in hotel + lesson packages) and then the more traditional style that will teach you both the open and closed-embrace and a greater variety of movements.  It’s unrealistic to expect to learn anything in just one lesson.

You probably won’t learn hardly anything in the cheesy tourist-packages but you can learn something if you go to a real studio.  You can buy ‘dance-cards’ with several studios there which will entitle you to attend group classes on a flexible schedule.  Again…you won’t emerge an expert but you will probably be well past the ‘beginner’ stage if and when you want to take some lessons when you get back home.

In the US, it’s not easy to find places to Tango unless you live in a big city.  Even then it’s hard to find other ‘Tangueros’ (as they’re called).  But it is a very close and friendly community once you can find it and once you start, you probably will wish you’d done so many years earlier.  All forms of dancing are fairly addictive and Tango perhaps even more so.

When in Buenos Aires book a tango tour to appreciate first hand this fantastic dance.

Enjoy the following tango videos;

Tango on the street of LaBoka

for people who love tango. BA 2007

Street Tango

26/04/06 legendary tango dancers on the street in Buenos Aires.

La Ventana Tango show 

A short sample of the Tango show at La Ventana in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, book online your tango show at

Book the La Ventana Tango Show

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