History of Tango

 

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THE TANGO: 

A 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 partners. 

During 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 the USA. 

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, failed craftsmen.

FUEYE: the Bandoneon

GUAPO: Nickname for a man who practises the cult of courage

LUNFARDO: Slang of Buenos Aires

MILONGA: Popular music of the pampa and the Rio del Plata

PORTENIO: Term for the residents of Buenos Aires (port)

(from http://www.showgate.com)