The exact origins of tango—both the dance and the word itself—are lost in myth and an unrecorded
history. The generally accepted theory is that in the mid-1800s, African slaves were brought to Argentina and began to influence
the local culture. The word "tango" may be straightforwardly African in origin, meaning "closed place" or "reserved ground."
Or it may derive from Portuguese (and from the Latin verb tanguere, to touch) and was picked up by Africans on the slave ships.
Whatever its origin, the word "tango" acquired the standard meaning of the place where African slaves and free blacks gathered
Argentina was undergoing a massive immigration during the later part of the 1800s and early 1900s.
In 1869, Buenos Aires had a population of 180,000. By 1914, its population was 1.5 million. The intermixing of African, Spanish,
Italian, British, Polish, Russian and native-born Argentines resulted in a melting pot of cultures, and each borrowed dance
and music from one another. Traditional polkas, waltzes and mazurkas were mixed with the popular habanera from Cuba and the
candombe rhythms from Africa.
Most immigrants were single men hoping to earn their fortunes in this newly expanding country. They
were typically poor and desperate, hoping to make enough money to return to Europe or bring their families to Argentina. The
evolution of tango reflects their profound sense of loss and longing for the people and places they left behind.
Most likely the tango was born in African-Argentine dance venues attended by compadritos, young men,
mostly native born and poor, who liked to dress in slouch hats, loosely tied neckerchiefs and high-heeled boots with knives
tucked casually into their belts. The compadritos took the tango back to the Corrales Viejos—the slaughterhouse district
of Buenos Aires—and introduced it in various low-life establishments where dancing took place: bars, dance halls and
brothels. It was here that the African rhythms met the Argentine milonga music (a fast-paced polka) and soon new steps were
invented and took hold.
Although high society looked down upon the activities in the barrios, well-heeled sons of the porteño
oligarchy were not averse to slumming. Eventually, everyone found out about the tango and, by the beginning of the twentieth
century, the tango as both a dance and as an embryonic form of popular music had established a firm foothold in the fast-expanding
city of its birth. It soon spread to provincial towns of Argentina and across the River Plate to Montevideo, the capital of
Uruguay, where it became as much a part of the urban culture as in Buenos Aires.
The worldwide spread of the tango came in the early 1900s when wealthy sons of Argentine society families
made their way to Paris and introduced the tango into a society eager for innovation and not entirely averse to the risqué
nature of the dance or dancing with young, wealthy Latin men. By 1913, the tango had become an international phenomenon in
Paris, London and New York. There were tango teas, tango train excursions and even tango colors—most notably orange.
The Argentine elite who had shunned the tango were now forced into accepting it with national pride.
The tango spread worldwide throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The dance appeared in movies and tango singers
traveled the world. By the 1930s, the Golden Age of Argentina was beginning. The country became one of the ten richest nations
in the world and music, poetry and culture flourished. The tango came to be a fundamental expression of Argentine culture,
and the Golden Age lasted through the 1940s and 1950s.
Tango's fortunes have always been tied to economic conditions and this was very true in the 1950s.
During this time, as political repression developed, lyrics reflected political feelings until they started to be banned as
subversive. The dance and its music went underground as large dance venues were closed and large gatherings in general were
prohibited. The tango survived in smaller, unpublicized venues and in the hearts of the people.
The necessity of going underground combined with the eventual invasion of rock and roll sent the tango
into decline until the mid-1980s when the stage show Tango Argentino opened in Paris. Once again Paris was ground zero for
igniting tango excitement worldwide. The show toured the world and stimulated a revival in Europe, North America and Japan
that we are part of today.
- by Susan August Brown