Tango is one of the most influential and famous dances of the modern history.
The tango evolved about 1880 in dance halls and perhaps brothels in the lower-class districts of Buenos Aires, where the Spanish tango, a light-spirited variety of flamenco, merged with the milonga, a fast, sensual, and disreputable Argentine dance – it also shows possible influences from the Cuban habanera.
When the tango began to spread internationally around 1900, cultural norms were generally conservative, and so tango dancing was widely regarded as extremely sexual and inappropriate for public display. This led to a phenomenon of culture shock. Additionally, the combination of African, Native American and European cultural influences in tango was new and unusual to most of the Western world.
By 1912, dancers and musicians from Buenos Aires travelled to Europe and the first European tango craze took place in Paris, soon followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals. Towards the end of 1913 it hit New York in the US, and Finland. These exported versions of Tango were modified to have less body contact (“Ballroom Tango”) – however, the dance was still thought shocking by many, as had earlier been the case with dances such as the Waltz.
In 1922 guidelines were first set for the “English” (international) style of ballroom tango, but it lost popularity in Europe to new dances including the Foxtrot and Samba, and as dancing as a whole declined due to the growth of cinema.
In 1917, folk singer Carlos Gardel recorded his first tango song Mi Noche Triste, forever associating tango with the feeling of tragic love as revealed in the lyric. During the first decade of the 20th century, some songs under the name of tango were recorded, but these recordings did not achieve great popularity. However, in 1921, ‘El Sonido de la Milonga’ helped bring about the rise of tango, and introduced it properly as a form to the people.
Classically trained musicians weren’t associated with tango music until Julio De Caro, violinist, formed an orchestra in 1920 and made the tango more elegant, complex and refined, as well as changing the time signature of most pieces from 2/4 to 4/4. With Pedro Laurenz on bandoneon, De Caro’s orchestra was famous for over a decade.
Depression began in the 1930s, tango was not immune. The Depression coincided with the overthrow of the Argentinian government at that time, meaning that the focus of the Argentinian people was elsewhere (and few were in the mood for dancing).
Tango’s fortunes took a turn for the better when the newly minted government of Juan Perón took power. Perón viewed tango as a matter of national pride, reviving its fortunes and helping the dance to become more widespread throughout the country. Unfortunately, its new found favour wouldn’t last long.
Tango was dealt another blow when the Argentinian military dictatorship of the 1950s banned public gatherings. Male dancers would traditionally train for up to three years by attending milongas, or public dances where tango music was played. But with public gatherings forbidden, would-be milongueros found themselves with no where to go – and no way to practice. Tango once again fell into decline.
Fortunately, tango could not be kept down. It continued to live on in smaller venues across Argentina for decades until once again finding a foothold in Paris in the 1980s with the opening of the show Tango Argentino. The Broadway musical Forever Tango and Europe’s Tango Pasion followed shortly thereafter, returning tango to international acclaim.
The tango consists of a variety of styles that developed in different regions and eras of Argentina as well as in other locations around the world. The dance developed in response to many cultural elements, such as the crowding of the venue and even the fashions in clothing. The styles are mostly danced in either open embrace, where lead and follow have space between their bodies, or close embrace, where the lead and follow connect either chest-to-chest (Argentine tango) or in the upper thigh, hip area (American and International tango).
There are numbers of theories about the origin of the word “tango”. One of the more popular in recent years has been that it came from the Niger–Congo languages of Africa. Another theory is that the word “tango”, already in common use in Andalusia to describe a style of music, lent its name to a completely different style of music in Argentina and Uruguay.
On August 31, 2009, UNESCO approved a joint proposal by Argentina and Uruguay to include the tango in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
The list of names of those most strongly associated with tango is long, but among the best-known are Juan d’Arienzo, Anibal Troilo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Carlos Di Sarli, Francisco Canaro, Astor Piazzolla, and Carlos Gardel.