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The Tango

Passionate Sensual Tantalizing

Passionate, sensual and tantalizing, the Tango is many things to many people. In the European and international styles, there are many dances from which to choose to suit the mood of the moment -the romance of the Waltz. the ebullience of Rock 'n' Roll, or the carnival atmosphere of Samba. Despite its reputation as a melancholy dance, Tango captures all these moods and more. Born of life's experience in the back street gutters of Buenos Aires, the Tango rose from its humble beginnings to dazzle at high class Parisian soirees, yet the back street bars remained its true home among the people who had given it life.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, Europe had been ravaged by wars, famine and economic uncertainty. With few prospects and little hope of a stable life in the land of their birth, many young men emigrated to begin a new life in South America. Many hundreds of thousands disembarked in the new federal capital of Argentina, the port of Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata. Despite a high degree of prosperity in Argentina at this time, life was hard for the immigrants, who were forced to live in the squalid outskirts of the city. Despite this, the immigrants kept coming, and by 1914 they outnumbered native-born Argentinians in Buenos Aires by three to one. About half of the immigrants were Italian, and about a third Spanish. The old port area of Buenos Aires, la Boca, where many Italians settled, is a colourful reminder of the Italian contribution to the history of Tango.

By the advent of the immigrants, the life of the famous Argentinian cowboys, known as "gauchos", had all but disappeared, so the image we have of Rudolph Valentino dancing a theatrical version of the Tango in the 1924 film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is erroneous. However, in the days when gauchos did roam the prairies, news was carried by payadores, who were a type of travelling minstrel. From these came a style of song, and later a dance, called the Milonga. The records for this period are vague, but we do know that the Milonga enjoyed great popularity in Buenos Aires, particularly among the poorer classes.

The word "Tango" is thought to be African in origin, and denotes a "meeting place" or "special place". This does not mean the Tango itself is of African origin. The Cuban Habanera, the Spanish Contradanza and the Afro-Argentinian Candombe all influenced the evolution of the Tango, but no dance more than the Milonga. Milonga means "party" or "fiesta" and the music itself was lively, vivacious and joyful. What evidence there is suggests that compadritos frequently visited Afro-Argentinian dances and may have borrowed some of the moves and adapted them to the Milonga, paving the way for the Tango - Milonga variant.

The new Argentinians of European descent shared a common bond, but one that often found currency in despair and disillusionment. This poured out into song: the song of sadness, nostalgia and longing, but also of hope and aspiration. The passion of the song demanded further expression in a dance, and so it was that in the back-street gutters of Buenos Aires, the Tango was born.

The vast majority of the immigrants to Argentina were young men, who eventually outnumbered women by fifty to one. These young men were often frequent visitors to the academias (from "dance academy") and pregundines, low-life cafes where the waitresses could be hired for dancing. In order to attract the women, it became very important for the young men to become good dancers. With no real dance academies, men would teach each other the Tango, exchange steps and practise together before exercising their skills to attract the women. Freed from the conventions of European dances, the men would devise very practical and often unique ways of skilfully leading the women.


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