Buenos Aires is one of the largest metropolises in the world. Two thirds of Argentina’s 45 million people live in Buenos Aires. The city was built by the European immigrants. At the beginning of the 19th century, Buenos Aires was a small town with a mixed population of Spanish and Native Americans, often intermarried. The Spanish brought in slaves in large number with their music and dance from Africa. During the second half of the 19th century, the Argentine government made a conscious decision to reduce the black population and expand the white population, which led to the massive immigrations from Span, Italy, and other parts of Europe to Argentina. By the end of the 19th century the original population of Buenos Aires has been completely swamped by the European immigrants. We can trace tango to 150 years ago to its African origin from which the primitive form of the dance first appeared, but the main creators of tango were European immigrants of the late 19th century and early 20th century who built the city of Buenos Aires.
The fact that tango was created by the immigrants is significant. Far away from home, disproportional in gender, the immigrants were the most lonely, homesick and nostalgic people. They came to the milonga to dance the loneliness, homesickness, nostalgia and grief in them, to find a shoulder to rely on, to quench their thirst for love, and to touch and be touched by another human being of the opposite sex. Tango is their refuge. The intimate, soulful, sensual, and comforting nature of tango reflects and serves their deep, inward, human needs. That’s why tango is danced in a close embrace in which the two partners intimately lean into each other, chest against chest and cheek touches cheek. They communicate through their bodies their feelings, emotions, sentiments, and interpretations of the music. Like the dance itself, tango music is created to express deep emotions. Its rhythm is crisp, forceful and easy to dance to, but its melody is supple, fluid and sentimental. Every note or phrase is played with a “masculine” effect— strong, sharp and steady, or a “feminine” effect—lingering, submissive and emotional. The two moods intertwine and respond to each other, reflecting the man and woman in the dance.
Tango reached maturity and dominated the culture of Buenos Aires between 1930s and 1950s. This period is known as tango’s Golden Age. That was followed by almost thirty years of the Dark Age during which tango disappeared. In 1955 a military coup ousted Juan Domingo Peron, the democratically elected president. Peron had actively supported tango. The dancers aligned with him were suspicious to the anti-Peronist juntas, who created a climate that discouraged tango. Most people stopped dancing, and musicians stopped playing for the dance floor. The music produced in that period is largely for listeners and not dancers. The renaissance of tango started in the mid 1980s after the restoration of democracy in Argentina. Since then tango has gained worldwide popularity, and is now danced in almost every country in the world and almost every city in Europe and North America.
As one BBC commentator said, “Tango contains a secret about the yearning between men and women.” In many cultures, intimacy between the opposite sexes is deemed sexual, and therefore is repressed voluntarily or involuntarily. Men and women cannot be intimate unless they want to have sex. In other words, such cultures do not approve non-sexual intimacy between men and women. But Argentine tango represents a different view, or culture, that recognizes and sanctions innocent intimacy. The Argentines are a passionate and intimate people. Tango is a product of that culture. The triumph of tango, after all, is the triumph of its idea, which regards nonsexual intimacy as decent, healthy and beautiful.
But, the triumph of that idea does not come without a cost. Many things have changed since the Golden Age. The tradition has been suspended for almost thirty years. The immigrants have settled down. The gender balance has regained. Many old dancers have died. The entire young generation did not know how to dance tango. The only little tango survived the Dark Age was the stage tango. As a result, the revival of tango was led by a group of stage dancers, who brought their show, Tango Argentino, to Europe and North America, where they ignited an enthusiasm for learning their style of tango—Tango Fantasia, which is different from the tango danced in the Golden Age.
The tango danced in the Golden Age is Tango de Salon, or social tango. It is a popular dance suited to the tastes, needs and abilities of ordinary people. It is danced on a crowded dance floor for pleasure and not for show, and is administered by the milonga codes. It is an intimate, feeling-oriented and improvised dance typically danced in a close embrace with considerable body contact between the partners. Its steps are simple and compact, so the dancers may concentrate on the feelings stirred by the music, the comfort and sensation of the embrace, the communication through torso contact between them, and the harmony of movements in unison with the music. Dancing Tango de Salon is an intimate, soulful and personal experience. What matters is how it feels and not how it looks.
Tango Fantasia, or show tango, on the other hand, is designed for performing on the stage. It is a highbrow dance involving difficult steps and techniques not suited to ordinary people, but professionals with expert skills. It is a fancy, movement-oriented and choreographed dance, typically danced in an open embrace for broader movement possibilities. Its steps are wide, flashy, dazzling, often dangerous and requiring a lot of space to do. It is not intended to be an intimate, soulful and personal experience, but an exhibition of showy figures to impress the audience. Safety, comfort and user-friendliness are not its concern. It does not abide by the milonga codes and is not suited to a crowded dance floor. What matters is how it looks and not how it feels.
Without the same historical and cultural background, the Europeans and Americans are more interested in Tango Fantasia than Tango de Salon. They do not have a sudden explosion of immigrant population crowding together in one big city. They do not have a severe shortage of women. Their dance floors are much less crowded. Their cultures do not sanction innocent intimacy. The open-embrace style meets their taste. And, above all, their teachers are the stage dancers from Argentina. Before long, Tango Fantasia becomes a fashion in Europe and North America.
Despite this, the tango fervor abroad rekindled the pride and passion of the Argentineans for their traditional dance. Milongas are reopened. Portenos return to the dance floor. Tango salons are packed again. Tango music, tango fashion and tango tourism flourish. Buenos Aires again becomes the Mecca of tango, where dancers from all over the world come to dance tango with the locals. But foreigners quickly discovered that the tango they learned at home is not the same tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires.
Having tasted the intriguing close-embrace tango of Buenos Aires, most visitors don’t want to go back to the open-embrace style. Some of them decide to stay for good. Others return home to spread the message. Their number increases each year as more and more people come to Buenos Aires to dance tango with the locals. Trend starts to shift from open embrace to close embrace in Europe and North America. It may still take years for the close-embrace tango to settle down and become the dominate style there, but that will inevitably happen, I believe. Tango is created to serve a human need. Its form must meet its purpose. What is external and fashionable may change, but what is internal and essential endures. As more and more people savor the charm of close embrace tango, as milongas become increasingly crowded, people will want to, and have no choice but dance in close embrace. Eventually, what belongs to the stage will separate from what belongs to the dance floor, again.
Here is an example of the tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires.
Here is an example of the tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires.