Have you ever seen a couple dance the tango? If not, it’s not surprising, since the tango is a mysterious and intricate dance that only few can master. If yes, you can understand that the history of the dance is complicated and convoluted, as heavy and intertwined as the steps themselves. Despite its passionate and winding history, the tango is as embedded in the Argentine culture as the distinct Argentine accent.
While the origins of the dance are not completely clear or unanimously agreed upon, most experts believe that it is a combination of musics and dances from different cultures that were brought together in Argentina.
Aside from the dance and music, the word “tango” has a complex linguistic history as well. It is generally agreed that the word itself came before either of the other two, and is also a fusion of languages from different countries and cultures and with various meanings. In 1803, the word was incorporated into the dictionary of the Real Academia Español as a derivative of the word “tandango” which is a game played with a stone. Later, in 1889 a second definition of the word was accepted- “festival and dance of the black people and the people of the villages of America.” Then, the word evolved through one hundred years, and a new definition emerged and was more generalized to described a dance between intertwined partners and/or a binary form of music.
The word possibly has African roots which arrived with slaves in Argentina, and just as likely has Portuguese origins. In both languages, there are similar words in both meaning and spelling.
Though nowadays, someone who enjoys and “understands” the tango is more than likely a part of higher class, the tango originated in the underworld of artists and musicians in the nineteenth century. In it its primitive beginnings, it was even considered vulgar by those of a higher society.
In the nineteenth century, Buenos Aires saw an increase in immigration. The immigrants who came to Argentina sought pleasure and entertainment in the brothels and clubs of the city, and there the tango began to develop and gain popularity. In 1880, Argentina had a population of 210,000, but in a short period of time, the immigration from Europe made the population explode to 1,200,000 inhabitants, and it was these newcomers that made the secretive yet alluring dance so popular.
The dance has influences from different forms of dance, as well. It has a bit of the Cuban “Habanera”, the polka, the Mexican “corrido”, the Vienese waltz, the Bohemian “schotis” and a multitude of others. But, when you compare the Tango with any of its precedents, you will notice the disparity. The tango is much more sensual, more poignant.
With an infusion of quick, light steps and slow, slithering stretches, a proper tango keeps you on your toes (pun intended). The pair may seem to be dancing dancing in one direction for an eternity, and then before you know it, they have switched and swiveled in four directions in the blink of an eye.
The dancers at times seem like lovers at the height of their romance, and other times they are on the verge of violence. They might also be strangers playing seductor and prey or playing hard to get with each other. In the tango, the facial expressions are as important as the movement and the steps. One without the other cannot dance alone.
The tango without Argentina would not exist.