Very Brief Tango History

Igor Polk, September 20, 2007

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Other articles not linked to within the text you might be interested in:

Tango in America in 1914;

Here you can find about tango styles;

Why competitions in Argentine Tango make no sense.


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Tango as a dance was born in Argentina in 19th century.

Black slaves enjoyed some freedom in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, a region called Rio de La Plata. They gathered together and danced in their own African way. Words Tango, Candombe, Canyengue, Milonga are of their origin. Dancing for people of traditional culture as were blacks has a lot of social, spiritual, and even political meaning.

Spanish settlers enjoying abundance of meat and wine in the country danced in their own way carrying the spirit of ancient Spanish dances.

Gauchos, which were the mix of Indians and Spaniards formed their own distinctive sub-culture. Hated being hired they lived in Pampas and their favorite entertainment was singing, dancing, playing guitar and .., yes, yes, competitions in poetry! Later, when they were forced to live in Buenos Aires, they settled in suburbia and continuing their tradition of freedom spending time drinking, dancing, and knife-fighting.

In this potluck, we do not know how, but to the middle of 19th century tango was formed as a dance. It hardly was the same like most people see it now, but some figures were there for sure: Corte and Quebrada.

European immigrants flooded the country in the second half of the century bringing with them modern European traditions of music and dancing including a Bandoneon. Job opportunities were scarce. So the immigrants lived in hostel-like houses had plenty of time to prefect their dancing skills.

Among them there were a lot of Italians, born musicians, who brought their distinctive flavor to tango. Almost all famous musicians in Tango are of Italian origin.

Due to the immigration wave, male population of the area greatly surpassed available females for dating. So at the dance parties men must be really good to get a chance to introduce themselves to a potential fiance. So men practiced together until they became perfect dancers.

For the same reason, a prostitution "business" flourished. Prostitutes developed the seductive side of the tango dance to the incredible heights in order to seduce the best "customers". This was a dirty business but tango might bring a positive side to the participants.

A low class dance, tango steadily gained recognition of higher classes of Argentine society. In 1895 tango theatrical productions started with the music played by classically trained composers and orchestras.

The blood-pumping music shortly traveled overseas and as early as 1906 it appeared in France taking Paris as a storm! In the period 1908-1913 tango spread all over the Europe from London to Saint-Petersburg and traveled back to America to United States. The year 1913 was a year of Tango ! Tango stockings ( black-net ), tango hats, tango shoes, tango jackets, tango color - orange were all around.

Ennobled tango came back to Buenos Aries as a winner. Now this slow Salon Tango was danced in the ballrooms alongside with more folk and rhythmic Orillero on the streets. With  the economic boom of 20s and growing level of life, Salon Tango adopted many Orillero elements and spirit.

In Europe shocked by the Great War (WWI ) with the incredible hardships dances like waltz virtually disappeared leaving the room for more Tango. Tango the Healer of the Soul Wounds. Many great Tango musicians like Canaro made their pilgrimage to entertain and to learn from the old world public.

In 30s Tango in Europe continued to be popular carrying traditions of 20s, and gradually was transformed by the Ballroom activists into Ballroom Tango making a branch from the further development of the South American dance.

In Rio de La Plata, dance flourished reaching new heights. Orchestras like Donato, Lomuto, Canaro, D'Arienzo, Di Sarli, and many others composed and played music specifically to the virtuoso dancing crowd.

In flaming Europe of 40s tango continued to be danced in all countries and under all circumstances, even at fronts and in ghettos, while in peaceful blessed Argentina Tango came to its peak with the ruling of Eva Peron during which orchestras were paid by the government. There was up to 650 Tango Orchestras there! Close Embrace Apilado style carried the sorrow of what happened in the rest of the world. Quality of music and singing of that period could be compared to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Especially incredible were Biagi, Calo, Laurentz, Demare, Pugliese, and Troilo with such singers which can be hardly heard at modern times. Firpo, Canaro, Ortiz carried forward older traditions.

With the death of Eva Peron it came to the abrupt end. Tango was forbidden. Gold records destroyed. Milongas closed. In 50s rock-and-roll became popular instead. Most orchestras disappeared or transformed the music. Now it became music for listening. Many artists had to look for jobs abroad as far away as Japan. Dancing tradition was steadily evaporating.

Based on the experience of 40s new Salon Tango was distilled by the handful of milongueros. But this style was distinctly different from what actually was danced at the Milongas. This work continued in 50s.

The next blow came in 70s. Tango revived a little was forbidden again when Junta came to power. Freedoms were suppressed.

It would bring practical end to tango dancing.

If not the musical genius of Astor Piazzolla. Astor Piazzolla, an argentinean, but grown in New York, a bandoneon soloist of the Troilo orchestra, jazz and classically trained musician unified the Tango traditions with the classical and jazz audience of the world keeping the awareness that such thing exists and is not an artifact of the recent past.

Dance-wise, it was firstly French staged Tango Argentino show with the best available tango dancers from Argentina. This wonderful international show sparkled the interest to tango again in the world. First groups of interested people invited the stars of this show as the very first tango teachers in the American, Europe, and Asian cities.

That was carried further by a group of young so to speak re-inventors of the dance: Gustavo Naveira, Fabian Salas, Mariano "Chicho" Frumboli, Luciana Valle, Andres Amarilla. Even though some of the great dancers like Juan Carlos Copes, Gloria and Eduardo Arquimbau, Orlando Paiva and others still were carrying traditions on the stage, they failed to raise interest to social dancing creating broad social base needed for the continuation of the Tango art.

That group of young dancers talking the same language as their US and European friends were able to spark their interest in tango. Nuevo Tango was born and brought onto United Stated and Europe ground. Interest to Tango Nuevo lead to the interest to traditional tango the way it was danced in the past. Slowly but surely tango gained grounds and I am pleased to tell that thanks to people like Richard Powers (interview), Nora Dinzelbacher, Daniel Trenner, Susana Miller, Brigitta Winkler we experience the renaissance of tango in America and particularly in San Francisco.

Other tango shows like Forever Tango with incredible Carlos Gavito and Marcela Duran fueled the interest of public to the magnificent seductive dance.

Foreign interest was probably the one which re-instantiated the interest to Tango back in Buenos Aires, still the center of the dance where every week there are about 130 milongas and the number is growing.

One more song of Mersedes Sosa.
See you at Milongas!

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