The history of Argentinean Tango
No one is certain of the date that marks the creation of tango. However, we believe this dance was born at the end of the 19th century, along the Rio de la Plata in the more popular neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
The Rio de la Plata was at the time the largest port for arriving immigrants in America, after New York. These new immigrants came from all of Europe: Italy (the majority), Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine… They used to listen and dance to habaneras, polkas, mazurkas and waltzes. The Africans, representing a quarter of the city’s population during the 19th century, danced to the rhythm of the candombe (a type of music developed in Ururguay, but of African origin).
The birth of Tango
Tango traces its origins to the Hispano-Cuban habanera. The habanera had no trouble being the vehicle for numerous mercantile exchanges between the Cuban port of the Havana and that of Buenos Aires.
At its beginnings, tango was interpreted by small groups of musicians playing violin, flute and guitar. They even sometimes used a comb covered in cigarette paper as a wind instrument.
The famous “bandoneón”, the mythical tango instrument, that only arrived a few years after, during the start of the 1900s, little by little replaced the use of the flute.
At its origins, tango drew inspiration and took melodies that already existed. The majority of those who interpreted tango knew neither how to read nor how to write, the melodies were never written down. Then after a few years, the first written tango melodies began to appear. They weren’t signed by their authors but rather by their interpreters who took advantage of earning money by signing their names.
The origin of the word "tango"
We have several paths leading us to the etymology of “tango”. During the 19th century the word “tango” in Spain signified a stick. In Africa, tango was the name of the room in which black slaves joined together to celebrate. The Africans, not knowing how to say the Spanish term “tambor” (drum in English) changed the word to “tango”.
Buenos Aires, the homeland of tango
One thing is certain: tango originated in the capital of Argentina. At the end of the 19th century, Buenos Aires was a city full of demographic evolution. More than 2 million people were living there at the end of the 1890s, half of which were immigrated foreigners. The capital was at the time in large part masculine, with over 70% of the population being men.
Tango, a sulfurous reputation
Tango began to be danced in the slums and brothels, so this dance quickly became associated with loose women (the only ones present at these gatherings)…Given the few women in the capital of Argentina, some men would even dance together.
The dance is danced in a manner that is extremely corporal and very sensual. It is provocative and explicit, far from the puritan morals valued at the time.
The songs written for tango are, to say the least, sensual and even obscene. Their titles are very evocative: "Con qué tropieza que no dentra", "Dos sin sacarla", "Siete pulgadas", "Qué polvo con tanto viento". We’ll leave you to do the translating...
And little by little... the urbane success of Tango
Young men from good families didn’t hesitate to visit these “hot” neighborhoods to have fun, dance and charm young women, “milonguitas”. Of course the young bourgeoisie girls and those of nobility were still excluded. Tango stayed anchored in the bohemian neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the travels of these young men in Europe, notably in Paris, helped move things along. Indeed, the capital of France, at the start of the 20th century, was a joyful and animated city, where new dances and attractions were welcomed with success. Tango quickly imposed itself in the urbane parties in the city of lights, and by extension, all across Europe. As a result, tango eventually broke into the high society salons of Buenos Aires.
But this success was marred by the rejection of a layer of the puritanical society. Pope Pius X banned the tango, as did the German Emperor for his officers. The Spanish Journal, “La Ilustración Europea y Americana” deemed tango to be indecent, using delinquent and grotesque gestures. Many English, German and French newspapers took similar stands, making the same argument against this dance.
Carlos Gardel, the face of Tango
Carlos Gardel, a French composer born in Toulouse (his real name being Charles Gardes) was one of the great composers of Argentinean tango. His family immigrated to Buenos Aires when he was 2 years old. Gardel began to sing in bars to earn a bit of money. He recorded his first songs at the age of 22; tango was the dance that saw the rise of its lead singer.
In the 1920s, he brought the tango to Europe, in Spain and France, and then he took New York. Gardel was also a well known actor, when he died prematurely at the age of 44 in a plane accident on June 24, 1935.
Tango is a sensual dance which today is a phenomenal success; with the number of classes growing both in France and worldwide. You can easily take advantage of a trip to Buenos Aires to go and see the tango shows, or take a class to introduce yourself to this sensual dance.