by Irene Papagiannopoulou
The history and the philosophy of Argentine Tango (Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – UNESCO) are based on many years of study and research.
Nobody can explain the meaning and the origin of the word ‘tango’ precisely. The Spanish Royal Academy of Letters Dictionary (1803) recorded it as ‘tangir’. The term is associated with African dances. The same dictionary later in 1889, states: ‘African feast and dance or amusement for poor people of America’ (it refers to the spanish-speaking areas of the today’s Latin America). The weird thing is that the same dictionary in the 1925’s publication mentions: “Dance of the high society that cames to the America at the beginning of the century.” The last reference is indicative of how the Tango has changed to the human perception through the passing periods.
It is thought that Tango means ‘closed position’ or ‘cautious move on the floor’. This meaning is related to the Portuguese word ‘tangere’ that means ‘touch’. There is no coincidence in such a reading, if we take into account the attitude and the touch of the bodies during the dance.
The first song that became known as a kind of Tango was in 1857 entitled ‘Toma Mate che’. The lack of documents explained by the fact that the dance was created by obscure people whose history has never recorded.
The Argentine Tango is the result of several and different combinations. The most important seems to be the spanish-cuban style ‘Habanera’, the Argentine countryside’s ‘Milonga’ and the Afro Dance ‘Catombe’.
The most authentic form of the dance is placed around 1850 at the beginning of the economic migration to Argentina. The new visitors exceeded the local population of Buenos Aires. Germans, Spaniards, Italians and others brought their dances, their music and their lyrics and they gradually created a new civilization who began to assimilate and become the local culture.
Immigrants flooded the capital and they had lived in bad conditions. They worked long hours, they lived with many roommates in a single room, they entertained by one drink only. They held weapons and they patrolled the neighbourhoods illegally.
The ‘compadrones’ (godfathers,) were the first who danced Tango between men at the port. They were using movements that they resembled a wrestling. This was formally a representation for a woman who flirted with two men. In the countryside Tango was danced by the ‘gauchos’ (argentine cowboys).
Rumors about the existence of this dance in brothels are inaccurate. The prostitutes had not time to dance. The female population was less than the masculine, let alone that of prostitutes. There is a undetermined reference that men who waited to meet the strumpets, they danced with each other to spend their time until their turn.
In the ‘40s, the dance was in its golden era. Males felt incredible loneliness far from their homelands and they expected to find their better half. Although they were poor as a church mouse, every day they washed their suit, they used brilliantine on their hair, they put a polish on their shoes and they went to the tango dancing parties known as Milongas. There did not matter their origin or their social status, but the courtesy and the dancing flair.
They learned how to dance by dancing with men and they had to spend three to five years to visit their first Milonga. It considered unacceptable to make a woman feel uncomfortable because of their mistake, and if something had gone wrong at their first dance with a lady, they were returning again to their practice with men as followers to their dance. After several months they could go again at a Milonga. The woman was the flower that it was going to accompanies them for the rest of their life, so they should have respect for her.
The first tango songs were describing the underworld. Later the lyrics were narrating the love or the heartbreak, the longing for the homeland, the nostalgia for the beloved person who they would never face again.
Tango travelled across the Atlantic Ocean it arrived in Europe and the dancers embraced it. In Argentina of 50’s and 60’s, the political conditions (after Peron’s end governance), the spread of Rock n’ roll and the new customs displaced Tango. In that period some citizens danced secretly, so we know nothing about what really were happening. For about 3 decades the famous dance was in the sidelined, especially when Astor Piazzolla was composing. He restructured the Tango music. His intention was to compose entirely acoustic music that was not designed for choreography. Ultimately the dancers loved him and they used his melodies in dance performances.
Over the past 20 years the dance reformed and adapted in order to suit the conditions. It is different when dancers are on the stage, not alike the same style in the milongas. But it still keeps its mystery and its magic, since everything is based on the improvisation. Above all, Tango is focused in the connection between two people.
The man leads, but not authoritatively , the woman follows, but not passively. He opens a way and she is beautify it with adornments, in a kind of conversation where they keep their personality by complementing each other.
Christine Denniston: The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Dance, Anova Books, 2007
Christos Loukos, ‘Histoire sociale du tango. Des faubourgs marginaux deBuenos Aires aux salons européens’, Mnimon Μagazine, vol.20 (1998)
Personal Interviews from Tango teachers and kept notes from the module ‘History of Latin America’ at the Ionian University, Department of History, Greece.