If you’ve watched any movie with a sultry, passionate, dimly lit dance scene in it, the chances are high that it was an Argentine tango. Argentine tango has inspired dancers and audiences for over a century, and its history is riddled with myth and a range of theories as to its origins that make the dance all the more enticingly mysterious.
Starting in the mid-1800s, mass immigration to Argentina brought African slaves and an increasing number of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, and British settlers. Over the following 50 years, the population of Buenos Aires grew exponentially to about 1.5 million before World War I. African rhythms and habanera from Cuba mixed with European waltzes and polkas, all infusing themselves with Argentine folk music and dance.
The most common theory sets the origin of tango in African-Argentine dance venues. A majority of the immigrants in Argentina in the mid- to late-1800’s were poor, single men looking to make their fortunes and return to Europe. The unbalanced ratio of men to women was such that the underground scene of brothels and bars in Buenos Aires was heavily frequented. As such, the tango was born in the ill-reputed barrios of Buenos Aires where African rhythms married the Argentine fast-paced polka music known as the milonga, to which new steps and techniques were created and rapidly popularized. After all, with 100,000 more men than women in Argentina as late as 1914, dancing well was a compelling alternative to payment for a woman’s company.
While the upper echelons of Argentine society frowned upon this form of dance and music, the sons of the wealthy were nonetheless frequent participants of the underground dance scene, helping it gain traction. Tango spread to provincial towns around Buenos Aires, even crossing the River Plate to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, to establish itself as a key ingredient of the urban culture there too.
The tango was introduced on the international stage as the sons of Argentine elite traveled to Paris in the early 1900s and presented a new avenue for elegant impropriety with which to occupy the desires of the Parisian société. As the “tango craze” spread from Paris and swept Europe and the United States prior to World War I, with hundreds of tango establishments appearing on both continents, the Argentine elite came to covet the sensuous and formerly rejected art form with great national pride. The tango’s success was in fact so great, that a heavily censured version of the dance found its way into European and American dance academies, where ‘Ballroom Tango’ is now a fundamental pillar of ballroom events and competitions worldwide.
Beginning in the 1930’s and lasting through the 1940’s, Argentina came to be among the 10 richest countries in the world. The “Golden Age” of tango was directly linked to the success of its birth-country; art and culture flourished alongside the economy, and tango musicians were booked every night of the year for dancing parties that lasted until 3 or 4 every morning.
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The Golden Age of Argentine tango lasted through the 1950’s. Yet in the face of post-World War II repressive military dictatorships in Argentina, song lyrics that reflected political sentiments of the people were banned for being subversive. Curfews and restrictions on public gatherings pushed the tango music and dance scene into a decline, and most of the regular venues or milongas closed down. While the political reality was in large part a reason for this shift, the influence and popularity of rock and roll was also a noteworthy contributor to the declining popularity of tango.
Following the Falklands War of 1982-83, the social liberalization and return of democracy in Argentina engendered an interest within a younger generation of Argentine society to learn and reclaim their tango heritage. The simultaneous launch of the immensely successful stage show Tango Argentino that opened in Paris and toured internationally re-introduced tango to the worldwide spotlight. The new generation of tango dancers, teachers, and singers have found audiences all around the world eager to witness an unforgettable show or partake in the thrill of the brief, yet passionate, few minutes of a unique social tango dancing encounter.
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