The Tango–the dance with the scandalous past!–that eventually would evolve into the “ballroom” Tango originated in the lower classes of Buenos Aires, particularly in the “Red Light District”. Around the turn of the 20th century, Buenos Aires was teaming with immigrants from Europe, Africa, and ports unknown who had come to Argentina to help build the railroad and the nation as well as seek their fortunes. They were lonely and sought solace and companionship in the saloons.
Out of this cultural mixture emerged a new music which epitomized these people—lonely, sorrowful, frustrated strangers in a strange land—Tango. The music borrowed from many nations—the rhythms of the African slaves and the popular music of the pampas (flatlands) known as the milonga which combined Indian rhythms with the music of early Spanish colonists. Often, the Tango was danced as a pantomime of the relationship between the prostitute and her pimp or as a duel between two men for the favors of a particular woman, which usually ended in the symbolic death of one of the suitors. Sexual and evil forces were equally celebrated in this ritual. Accompaniment of the melancholy, wailing sound of the bandoneon (an accordion-like instrument imported to Argentina from Germany in 1886) added to the emotional tension of the music and dance.
Another important element influencing the hold and dance style of the Tango was the gaucho (Argentine cowboy). After being out on the pampas (range) for long periods, the gauchos would come into town and go to the crowded nightclubs seeking girls with whom to dance. Because they wore chaps that had hardened from the foam and sweat from their horses’ bodies, the gauchos walked with flexed knees. Since the gaucho hadn’t showered, the lady would dance in the crook of the man’s right arm, holding her head back. Her right hand was held low on his left hip, close to his pocket, waiting for payment for dancing with him. The man danced in a curving fashion because the floor was small with round tables, so he danced around and between them.
Though the Tango was initially considered obscene, the music was captivating. Gradually, the Tango became absorbed into the larger society, losing some of its abrasiveness; and eventually, it developed into a worldwide phenomenon. Even the Americans were doing it, although some ladies wore “bumpers” to protect themselves from getting to close to their male partners.
The dance spread throughout Europe in the 1900’s. Originally popularized in New York in the winter of 1910-1911, Rudolph Valentino then made the Tango a hit in 1921. As time elapsed and the music became more subdued, the dance was finally considered respectable even in Argentina. The American Tango was standardized into the slow-slow-quick-quick-slow pattern which captured the “quick stop” dramatic feel of the dance.
In Argentina, Tango waxed and waned in popularity, depending upon what was going on politically. It reached its pinnacle of popularity when Juan Peron and his wife Evita embraced it in 1946, but then receded in 1952 with the invasion of rock and roll.
There have been several styles of Tango, but the three most prominent today are American, International, and Argentine. What are the differences of these three tangos?
In American Tango, the defining figure is the “Tango Close” which has a quick-quick-slow rhythm and usually completes each pattern. In the Tango Close, the leader steps forward with the left foot on the first quick; sideways with the right foot on the second quick; and then drags or draws his left foot in towards the right without a weight change on the slow. In addition, American Tango patterns are performed in counts of 8 or multiples of 8 (i.e., 8, 16, 24, 32) so that the steps are phrased with the music.
In International Tango, the defining figure is the “link” which has a quick-quick-slow rhythm just like the Tango Close in American Tango. However, the Follower is led into promenade position on the second quick. There is no dragging or drawing of the feet to close on the slow. Instead, the slow in the link is a step in promenade position. Therefore, the link goes from closed position to promenade position and is not a repeatable step.
In Argentine Tango, partners are almost completely in a close, closed position or embrace, very inward in attitude, trading footsteps and decorations. The basic steps are built out of grapevines, figure eights, turns, and walking. To these steps, dramatic pauses, quick steps, syncopations, foot decorations, and leg hooks are added. Another characteristic is that the dancers may walk in “same” feet (leader’s left to follower’s left; aka “crossed” feet) rather than the “mirrored” feet (leader’s left to follower’s right) normally seen in American and International Tangos. While the leader “walks” the follower around, the leader’s feet may pause, switch to same or crossed feet, step into the stride of the follower, or appear to displace the follower’s footsteps.