Tuesday, March 1, 2011

One Step at a Time

For more than a century, Argentina and Uruguay have butted heads about where the first tango steps were taken. They’ve also spent many decades arguing about the birthplace of Carlos Gardel, one of tango’s greatest crooners. But in 2009, the two countries kicked aside their differences and joined forces to persuade UNESCO to list the tango as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Tango lovers around the world celebrated, happy their beloved dance and music will forever be protected. This massive achievement is especially impressive for a little dance that had some very dodgy beginnings.

The first time I saw tango dancers was in the quaint neighborhood of San Telmo, Buenos Aires. On a cobblestoned plaza, amongst a crowded antique bazaar, a woman in a sequined dress and gentleman in a designer suit danced with an intensity and passion that captured the onlookers, including me. That was the moment I fell in love with the tango, and I’ve been fascinated with its history ever since. 

Back in the 1800s, Argentina and Uruguay opened its doors to immigrants. They came from Africa, Spain, Italy, England, Wales, Poland, and Russia and each brought their own music and dances. Eventually, the African rhythms mixed with the South American milonga music (a fast-paced polka) and new steps were invented. This was the first foray into tango.

Most immigrants were single men hoping to make a fortune in their new country. Destitute and desperate, they gravitated toward each other in the brothels and port-side bars, wallowing in their sorrow and longing for the people and places they’d left behind. This remorse and mourning is the basis of most tango lyrics. I advise you not to listen too closely unless you’re ready for a good cry or want to spiral into a pit of depression.

As tango was initially danced by people who couldn’t read or write, there is no documentation backing the tango’s history. Of course, people are happy to give their own version of events, even though they happened over a century ago. It is well known that men first danced the tango together, but no one knows exactly why. Some historians say it’s because the men got bored waiting for their turn in the brothels. Others say men practiced their steps so they could woo the woman of their dreams through dance. I have my own idea, but that’s a whole other post I promise to write at a later date. Or maybe you’ll have to wait until I finish writing my tango mystery novel.

Argentine and Uruguayan high society looked down their noses at those dwelling in the brothels, even though their well-to-do sons were not averse to slumming it every now and again. Word of the tango spread, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, the tango became popular with everyone apart from the elite.

The wealthy sons traveled to Paris and introduced the tango to Parisian high society, which embraced the risque moves. The year 1913 saw the tango become an international phenomenon in England, France, and the United States, although the dance had been modified slightly. The “ballroom tango” had less body contact, though many were still shocked by the obvious passion compared with the tame waltz. High society Argentines and Uruguayans, who had rejected this dance and music, were now forced to accept it with national pride and gathered to dance in ostentatious dance halls, complete with crystal chandeliers.

In 1926, the Italian-born Rudolph Valentino starred in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He performed the tango in wide trousers and leather chaps (as worn by a gaucho—an Argentine cowboy) and had a carnation in his mouth and whip in his hand. This visual brought the Argentine tango to the attention of the cinema-going public, despite the fact that gauchos didn’t dance the tango. Probably the most famous tango scene ever on film, Valentino’s performance cemented the Hollywood future for all tango stars at the time to wear gaucho attire. 

By the 1930s, Argentina was one of the world’s ten richest nations and the arts flourished. Carlos Gardel, one of tango’s most famous singers, made his mark in Hollywood until he was tragically killed in an air crash in Colombia in 1935. His legend still lives on, with millions of his recordings and paraphernalia sold the world over. 

Carlos Gardel
The 1950s saw Argentina’s economic situation take a dive. The country was in political turmoil with military dictatorships banning large gatherings. The tango went underground but still managed to survive. Small, unpublicized venues were frequented by the people, reflecting the drive and passion behind the music and the dance. 

With the advent of rock and roll, the tango declined even further until the mid-1980s when a stage show, Tango Argentino, hit the stages of Paris. Once again, France became the springboard for the tango’s worldwide popularity. 

In last week’s blog (here), I mentioned the amazing talents of Astor Piazzolla, a man who has mastered the art of tango’s main instrument, the bandoneón. Born in 1921, he spent decades paving the way for Tango Nuevo, a style of tango that incorporates jazz and classical music. Piazzolla wrote 3,000 songs and recorded around 500, and even though he died in 1992, his death is still mourned by tango lovers around the world. 

Tango today is changing again. The Argentine and Uruguayan youth that once thought of it as a fuddy-duddy dance now embrace it. Musicians are mixing the old with the new, dancers are creating more complicated steps, and the two countries are uniting over a shared passion for a dance with a very colorful history. 

I’ll never play a bandoneón like Piazzolla, sing like Gardel, or be a cast member of Tango Argentino, but what I can do is appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to create a style of music and dance that tells stories of love and heartache. In a way, the tango is a reflection of the turbulent history of Argentina and Uruguay. 

And for your viewing pleasure, I present a couple of brothers who can not only dance, but will make you laugh; Rudolph Valentino at his finest; and a couple of dancers who will amaze you. Enjoy!


  1. Fascinating history, Alli! I didn't know the Tango had such humble beginnings. Now I'm ready to put on my dancin' shoes!

  2. Yep, I'm going through a big tango phase right now. I am sure it won't be long until everyone in my house tells me to turn it off!