Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A history of Argentine Tango



  • Tango beginnings
  • Invading Europe
  • Etymology of Tango/Milonga
  • Lunfardo

Tango was initially danced in bars, cafes, gambling houses, and quilombos (prostitution places). Later on, "Dancing Houses," that provided girls for dancing and entertainment, appeared.

We have to remember that during the early part of the nineteenth century social dancing was done standing opposite to each other. These types of dances were generically called "Contradanza" . The progression of the dancers was somewhat lineal around the dancing floor. The contact among the partners was limited to touching the hands at certain moments. There were also "Round dances" in which there was a circular movement.

Minue (mee-nueh with accent in the final eh) was a very popular social dance during colonial times in Argentina. The habanera one of Tango's ancestors is also a contradanza.

The word 'Contradanza' might have originated from English Country Dance transformed into the French Contredanse and the Italian Contradanza. Mozart and Beethoven wrote Kontretanze. The Viennese Waltz and the Quadrille drove the contradanza out of the ballrooms.

The Viennese Waltz was the world's first popular dance to use the actual closed hold, the Polka was the second dance in Europe to use this scandalous new hold. European society had an ambivalent feeling about this somewhat immoral way of dancing which was taken with them as they moved to Argentina.

It was, if I remember correctly, that around 1850 when the Opera of Paris going through bad economical times it's director had the audacious idea of including V.Waltz in some of the performances on a trial basis. It was a great success, the curious public filled the theater again. Paris being the center of arts and refinement slowly made this dancing in 'Close hold' acceptable to the rest of the world.

It is then in this historical context that we have to judge the situation of tango at its beginnings and during the period 1880-1910 and the reason men had to dance with each other.

Viennese Waltz was the first social dance that used a "close hold" . This is the way we dance today...we think of it as the most logical hold for a couple to dance... but at the beginning ...during the second part of the 19th.century this proximity of the bodies in public was considered to be scandalous. It took many years for people slowly accepting it.

We arrive now at the period in which tango originated before or around 1880. The periphery of Buenos Aires, bars, gambling houses, brothels... lonely men spend time socializing, drinking, gambling, looking for some 'romance' in the company of women of ill repute, trying the steps of the new dance...the milonga and the tango. We can imagine that in those places, under those circumstances every experimentation as to dancing steps was possible irrelevant of good, bad taste, lewdness or even obscenity.

Remember that at the time just to dance in front of each other the right arm of the man touching the back of the lady was a little too much... now here we have a dance in which there is a close embrace, cheek to cheek, chests together, the legs invading each other's space, in a long conversation of love and passion, with amagues, hooks, flirtatious looks and caresses ...the writing of a prologue to a love story that was soon to follow.

The original lyrics frequently were references to sex and obscenities. As tango became socially acceptable the dance and lyrics were later depurated or totally changed. Some elements of them still are present although they lost the original meaning. The name of a most famous tango, for instance "El Choclo" (corncob) initially was a phallic reference.

Decent families and women of good reputation did not want any part of it the women a the brothels had to be if a man wanted to practice the new dance his only possibility was.. another man.

Groups of men would get together to practice, improvise and innovate, creating new moves and new steps this approach allowed a rapid development of this dance.

To be a good dancer was (still is) a sure way of attracting the ladies' attention... men practiced among themselves so that they could surprise, and attract the admiration of other men and women.

...So, dancing among men had nothing to do with homosexuality.

The next scenario was "el patio de los conventillos" (Boarding house common areas). These conventillos housed thousands of poor immigrants from all over Europe (mostly Italy and Spain) and some from the Argentinean interior. They were long, open areas, bordered at both sides by rooms and kitchens; every so often there was a shared bathroom.

Tango took many years to spread to these boarding houses because their inhabitants were in general, decent people that did not want their families to be exposed to that sinful music and dance. Saturday nights and Sundays were used to celebrate weddings, birthdays, baptisms and other holidays. It was at these occasions that little by little somebody would ask for the musicians to play a tango and later on somebody would dance one, purified of the sinful moves such as "cortes y quebradas" - a simplified variety that was initially tolerated with disgust, but later on, anxiously expected.

It took even longer to get to the houses of the mid- and high-class families. Boys of those families took to the habit of going to the suburbs looking for emotions and adventure. They returned home excited by their lecherous experiences.

They started teaching their sisters, neighbor girls, and other female members of the large Argentinean family, such as cousins and aunts, this most unusual new dance. They were taught the "purified version" as well.

If one considers that Saborido sold about one hundred thousand samples of his tango 'Yo soy la morocha' (I am the brunette) in the few first months of 1906, one could deduce that tango was executed fairly frequently, including by family girls, who inserted its beats between the Blue Danube vals and Fur Elise.

The singer Flora Rodriguez took 'La Morocha' to recordings a little later. To cylinder first, then disk and also to perforated paper rolls for 'pianolas' (pianos that play by themselves, by activating two pedals). The lyrics of 'La morocha' are innocent enough to be readily accepted. This way, tango slowly spread from the periphery to the interior of the Argentinean home.

Nonetheless, tango was still generally a shameful, sinful element to be dealt with in secret. Politicians of both right and left condemned it; for they did not want this new nation to be associated with such a 'prostibularian' dance. How was it then that tango reached Europe? This is another story ...

Tango was born in the periphery of the city, bars, cafes, brothels; from there it moved inside the city to Dancing Houses. The next step was the patios (yards) of conventillos (boarding houses) and finally inside the Middle and High Class Argentinean Home. Tango was still a pariah, the bastard son of pimps and women of ill reputation, dressed like a poor compadrito.

The next stop of this pilgrimage is Europe.

Argentina developed very fast between 1880 and 1930. The whole city of Buenos Aires was rebuilt during this period. The old colonial Spanish city, with one story buildings and narrow streets, was replaced by a metropolis of wide avenues and beautiful parks and buildings of French and Italian architecture.

The country became one of the 10 richest nations in the world, a position it maintained until the early 50's; when paralysis and the decline of the economy began ... a situation that was to last for the next 30 years (until 1985 when the Global economy decided that this country was an "an emergent market").

During that period of fast development the very rich had the habit of going to Europe at least once a year. They had big homes in Paris or London. Their parties were regularly attended by the nobility, the famous and the very rich. The French coined the phrase "he is as rich as an Argentinean" to mean extremely rich. The sons of those people remained in Europe to study. It was they that introduced Argentine Tango to the Parisian nobility. Tango became the craze of the time right away.

Everybody started giving parties with Argentinean orchestras, tango lessons and milongas. Women's fashion had to change to adjust to the moves of tango. The very bulky dresses were replaced by lighter, looser ones. A famous fashion designer had a fair amount of material of orange color that he could not sell. He decided to name the material's color "Orange Tango"; he ran out of the cloth right away and had to order more. Tango became the dance of the moment; from Paris, rapidly migrated to the other big capitals, London, Rome, Berlin, and finally New York.

Next tango returns to Buenos Aires, dressed in a tuxedo, where it is received as the most beloved son. What a change!

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