"A guide to Argentine Tango" Tango Tip by Guerrero_Zulu1
Tango, Buenos Aires: 49 reviews and 64 photos
Argentine tango has been thrilling dancers for more than 100 years. Tango is loved by dancers and audiences for its beauty, passion, drama and excitement. Learning to dance tango socially is based on improvisational movement and respecting both your partner and the other dancers on the floor. The essence of Argentine tango is about life and, especially, about the relationship between a man and a woman. Graciela Gonzales, a leading tango instructor, calls the dance "the history of love—for three minutes." In this guide, I offer a brief overview of tango history, what to expect in classes, the various types of tango danced at social events, the music, and tango etiquette. I've also included useful terms, a Beginner's checklist and some resources available through the Internet.
Tango Yesterday and Today
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 to dance.
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.
Argentine Tango Basics
Argentine tango is an improvisational dance based on the four building blocks of walking, turning, stopping and embellishments. The dance is like a puzzle that gets put together differently each time. Women and men bring their own styles and embellishments to the dance which contribute significantly to the excitement and unpredictability of the experience. Even though dancers follow certain conventions, they never quite know how someone will construct a dance, add an embellishment or interpret the music. The surprises possible within the dance are what make the dance so addicting. It really does take two to tango, because the dance isn't just about the man leading and the woman following. Both partners have important things to contribute—like all good conversations.
Tango is danced counterclockwise around a floor just like a horse race. Dancers try to stay on the outside edges of the floor and away from the center space. If you were able to look down on a tango dance floor, you'd see dancers move as if floating down a river—flowing smoothly forward sometimes and occasionally stopping for a spin in a shallow eddy.
Is Argentine Tango the Same as Ballroom Tango?
No. They started out from the same roots, but location, time and the ever evolving nature of dance have made them separate dances. The American and International ballroom tangos you may see on PBS, are very different from the tango danced socially in Argentina. Argentine tango is different from the ballroom tangos in its posture, embrace, improvisation, movement, balance, steps, and music. It's completely different from the top of your head to the bottom of the soles of the shoes you dance it with.
If you have a background in ballroom tango, just think of Argentine tango as a completely new dance—not as an enhancement of the one you already know.
Styles of Argentine Tango
Within Argentine tango there are various styles you may hear people refer to. They will say, "Oh, he's milonguero dancer," or "She dances salon style." Styles are as unique as dancers and I think it's rather foolish to try to categorize either. Just remember if you hear terms like "salon," "milonguero," "fantasia," or "orillero" someone is talking about a certain style.
As with any evolving art form, trying to pin down the rules is impossible. Every day, new styles come forward and dancers find ways to play with them and incorporate them into their dance. In the past few years, styles known as neuvo and liquid have appeared. Who knows what's coming next? All we know is that it's coming.
The history of tango music is as rich and interesting as the dance. Tango music in Argentina followed much the same evolution as swing music did in the United States. It started as simple rhythms played for dancers by orchestras led by some colorful and charismatic bandleaders. Over time, simpler rhythms evolved to more complicated ones and finally edged toward more jazz-like interpretations less suitable for dancing but wonderful for listening.
Tango music is probably most distinguished from other types of music by two things: the bandoneon and the lack of drums. The bandoneon is a German instrument that looks and sounds like the offspring of an accordion and an organ. In fact, the instrument was invented to provide organ-like music to church congregations unable to afford a real organ. Like a lot of immigrants to Argentina, the bandoneon found its way into the culture and left an indelible mark on it.
You may also notice that there are no drums in tango music. The beat is kept on a bass and the lower register of the piano with (usually) bandoneons, violins and the upper register of the piano providing the fascinating rhythms.
When you start dancing tango, you'll most likely be dancing to the most rhythmic music from the 1940s and 1950s known as the Golden Age of tango. Music from the late 1930s is also great for learning how to hear the beat and feel the rhythm. As you become more experienced, later music (including that of modern tango orchestras) with its more modern jazzy rhythms becomes very interesting to interpret.
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