DANCE, A CULTURE, A WAY OF LIFE
A History (from http://www.showgate.com)
Although it has come to epitomize the glamour and
elegance of high society, with women in sleek glittering evening gowns
and men in tux and tails, the tango originated in society's
underbelly--the brothels of turn-of-the-century Argentina. As
immigrants from Europe, Africa, and ports unknown streamed into the
outskirts of Buenos Aires during the 1880's, many gravitated toward
the port city's houses of ill repute. In these establishments,
the portenos (as they were called) could drown their troubles in a few
drinks and find some companionship. They looked desperately for
a distraction to ease their sense of rootlessness and disfranchisement
as "strangers in a strange land."
From this heady, intermingled cultural brew
emerged a new music which became the tango. Though musical
historians argue as to its exact origins, it is generally accepted
that the tango borrowed from many nations--the relentless rhythms that
the African slaves--the candombe--beat on their drums (known as
tan-go); the popular music of the pampas (flatlands) known as the
milonga, which combined Indian rhythms with the music of early Spanish
colonists; and other influences, including Latin. Some say the
word "tango" comes from the Latin word tangere (to touch.)
Ironically, as these lonely immigrants and
societal outcasts sought to escape from their feelings, they instead
developed a music and dance that epitomized them. The wail of
the tango, it is said, speaks of more than frustrated love. It
speaks of fatality, of destinies engulfed in pain. It is the
dance of sorrow.
Originally, the tango dance developed as an
"acting out" of the relationship between the prostitute and
her pimp. In fact, the titles of the first tangos referred to
characters in the world of prostitution. These tango songs and
dances had no lyrics, were often highly improvised, and were generally
regarded as obscene. Further, the early tangos not only
represented a kind of sexual choreography, but often a duel, a
man-to-man combat between challengers for the favors of a woman, that
usually ended in the symbolic death of an opponent. Sexual and
evil forces were equally celebrated in this ritual. During this
time, the wailing melancholy of the bandoneon (an accordion-like
instrument imported to Argentina from Germany in 1886) became a
mainstay of tango music.
In the early 19th Century, the Tango was a solo
dance performed by the woman. The Adualisian Tango was later
done by one or two couples walking together using castanets. The
dance was soon considered immoral with its flirting music!
Ballroom Tango originated in the lower class of
Buenos Aires, especially in the "Bario de las Ranas".
Clothing was dictated by full skirts for the woman and gauchos with
high boots and spurs for the man.
The story of Tango as told is that it started
with the gauchos of Argentina. They wore chaps that had hardened
from the foam and sweat of the horses body. Hence, gauchos
walked with knees flexed. They would go to the crowded night
clubs and ask the local girls to dance. 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, looking for a 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.
With the advent of the universal suffrage
law--passed in Argentina in 1912--the lower classes were allowed to
vote, which served to legitimize many of its cultural mainstays,
including the tango. As it became absorbed into the larger
society, the tango lost some of it abrasiveness. The structure
of the dance, however, remained intact, and soon the tango developed
into a worldwide phenomenon. Even the Americans were doing it,
although some ladies were given to wearing "bumpers" to
protect themselves from rubbing a bit too closely against their male
the first two decades of the new century, the tango took Paris by
storm. The blessings of the Parisians, in turn, made it a staple
of Argentinean high society. Tango was reigning supreme in the
cabarets and theatres frequented by the rich. Out of this
culture, the tango musician became elevated to professional composer
status. A pioneer in this genre, Roberto Firpo, created the
typical tango orchestra--rhythm played on piano and double bass;
melodies played on the bandoneon and the violin, with strong counter
melodies and variations. The stars of this era were Osvaldo
Fresedo and Julio de Caro.
In 1918, lyric writing for the tango become the
latest trend, bringing forth the birth of a star who is still
celebrated five decades after his death--singer Carlos Gardel.
The memory of this handsome, charismatic performer has reached hero
worship status in Argentina, not unlike what Elvis Presley inspires in
Originally popularized in New York in the winter of 1910-1911, Rudolph
Valentino then made the Tango a hit in the United States in 1921.
In 1930, a sudden military coup in Argentina
ended the citizens' right to vote, and thus largely silenced the voice
of the people, the tango. During this time, a very pessimistic
philosopher/singer of the tango emerged, Enrique Santos Discepolo.
He is famous for the line, "The 20th Century is a trash heap.
No one can deny it."
Tango revived in the late 1930's when the
Argentinean masses regained a good measure of their political freedom.
They celebrated their social rise with the tango, which became a
symbol of their physical solidarity and part of their daily life.
Again, tango musicians emerged who took the form in new directions
including Fresedo, de Caro, Pugliese, and Anibal Troilo.
Soon, wealthy intellectuals, far removed from the
working class, "orilla," began writing new lyrics for the
tango. Because of their influence, tango took on a more
romantic, nostalgic, and less threatening air, a sweet remembrance of
youth in an idyllic society that never existed.
When Juan Peron rose to power in 1946 the tango
again reached the pinnacle of popularity in Argentina, as both he and
his wife Evita embraced it wholeheartedly. Yet, with Evita's
death in 1952, the tango again fell from the mainstream spotlight.
American rock-and-roll invaded the popular scene, and the tango again
seemed out of step with its times.
Today the tango is enjoying a renaissance of
popularity, keeping the fire of this daring art form burning brightly.
After breaking San Francisco touring musical box
office records with 92 weeks at San Francisco's Theatre On the Square
through May, 1996, Luis Bravo's FOREVER TANGO spent the summer and
fall of 1996 and the first part of 1997 on the road. Wild and
frenzied ovations greeted performances at the Spoleto Arts Festival in
Italy, and in London, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, Toronto,
Montreal, Boston, and Philadelphia.
This internationally acclaimed dance spectacle
arrived at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre on June 16, 1997. On
April 15, 1998, Forever Tango moved to the larger Marquis Theatre at
Broadway and 46th. Due to its box-office success the show has
been extended indefinitely as an open-ended run. Forever Tango
is now the longest-running tango production in Broadway history.
Styles vary in Tango: Argentine, French, Gaucho
and International. Still, Tango has become one of our American
'Standards' regardless of its origin. The Americanized version
is a combination of the best parts of each. The principals
involved are the same for any good dancing. First, the dance
must fit the music. Second, it must contain the basic
characteristic that sets it apart from other dances. Third, it
must be comfortable and pleasing to do.
Phrasing is an important part of Tango.
Most Tango music phrased to 16 or 32 beats of music. Tango music
is like a story. It contains paragraphs (Major phrases);
sentences (Minor phrases); and the period at the end of the sentence
is the Tango close.
For exhibition dancing, a Tango dancer must
develop a strong connection with the music, the dance and the audience.
The audience can only feel this connection if the performer feels and
projects this feeling. So it is when dancing for your own
pleasure -- and your partner's!
"The Tango is the easiest dance. If
you make a mistake and get tangled up, you just Tango on." (Al
Pacino in "The Scent of a Woman.") Movies that featured
Tango dancing include "The Scent of a Woman", Madonna's
"Evita" and "True Lies" starring Arnold
Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis.
A LITTLE LEXICON OF TANGO:
ARRABAL: Outskirts, suburb
BARRIO: Neighbourhood or district
COMPADRE: A person living in the suburb, haughty,
proud and brave
COMPADRITO: Typical character of the suburb, a
bully and a braggart
CONVENTILLO: Edifice with multiple rooms and no
basic comfort where the immigrants of different origins live: workers,
FUEYE: the Bandoneon
GUAPO: Nickname for a man who practises the cult
LUNFARDO: Slang of Buenos Aires
MILONGA: Popular music of the pampa and the Rio
PORTENIO: Term for the residents of Buenos Aires