Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of connection, love, fellowship, unity, harmony and beauty, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us into individuals, but tango unites us into a team, community and species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through affinity, altruism, cooperation, and accommodation. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

June 23, 2012

Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts

Buenos Aires, one of the largest metropolises in the Western Hemisphere, is home to one-third of Argentina's 45 million people today. But in the early 19th century it was just a small town populated by Spanish colonists, Native Americans and black slaves. In May 1810, inspired by the French Revolution, the Argentine people rebelled against Spanish rule and proclaimed independence. The new government made a conscious decision to change the demographic composition through immigration from Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe. By the end of the 19th century, the original population of Buenos Aires was completely swamped by European immigrants. Although tango has African roots, its main creators were the European immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who participated in the construction of the modern city of Buenos Aires.

The fact that tango was created mainly by the immigrants is significant. Far away from home, disproportional in gender, and facing difficult life, the immigrants were the most 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 close embrace wherein the dancers lean into each other, chest against chest and face touches face. Via such intimate physical contact they communicate through dance the feelings stirred by the music. Like the dance itself, tango music is created to express nostalgic feelings. Its rhythm is masculine - robust, rigid, steady and resolute, but its melody is feminine - soft, sentimental, moody and beauful. The two opposite moods intertwine and respond to each other, reflecting the man and woman in the dance. (See The Characteristics of Classic Tango.)

Tango reached its maturity and dominated the culture of Buenos Aires between 1935 and 1955. This period is known as tango's Golden Age. Following the Golden Age was almost three decades of the Dark Age during which tango disappeared. In 1955 a military coup ousted Juan Domingo Peron, the democratically elected president. Peron and his wife Eva Peron had actively supported tango. The dancers aligned with them were suspicious to the anti-Peronist juntas, who created a climate to discourage tango. Curfews were enforced and pedestrians were stopped by the military police for interrogation. Many were arrested or simply disappeared for supporting the Peronist regime. Consequently, people stopped dancing socially and tango went underground. Tango music produced in the Dark Age was mainly for listeners and not dancers. The revival of tango started after the restoration of democracy in 1983. Since then tango has regained worldwide popularity and is now danced in most countries in the world and most cities in Europe and North America.

As one BBC commentator remarked, “Tango contains a secret about the yearning between men and women.” In many cultures, intimacy between the opposite sexes is considered sexual and therefore taboo. In such cultures men and women are not supposed to have intimate contact unless they want to have sex. But Argentine tango represents a different perspective or culture that endorses innocent intimacy. The Argentinians, due to their immigtant status and a largely Spanish and Italian background, are a closely-knit community, and tango is a product of their cultural heritage. The triumph of tango, after all, is the triumph of its idea, which views non-sexual intimacy as human, decent, healthy, and beautiful.

But, the triumph of that idea did not come without a price. Many things have changed after 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 tango survived the Dark Age was the stage tango. As a result, the revival of tango was led by a group of stage performers, who in 1983-1984 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 on stage for show. It is an intimate, feeling-oriented and improvised dance, typically danced in close embrace with considerable physical contact between the partners. Its steps are simple and compact, allowing the dancers to focus inwardly on the feelings stirred by music and the sensations of the two closely connected bodies moving in sync with music. It is administered by the milonga codes. Dancing tango de salon is a chummy, 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 created for stage performance. It is a dramatized version of tango 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 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 fancy footwork and showy figures to entertain the audience. Safety, comfort and user-friendliness are not its concerns. 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. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)

Without the same cultural background, Europeans and Americans were more interested in tango fantasia than tango de salon. They didn't have a suddenly exploded immigrant population crowding in a new city under construction. They didn't experience a severe gender imbalance. (See The Chivalry of the Milongueros.) They didn’t suffer the hardships, homesickness and nostalgia of the immigrants. Their dance floors were not crowded. Their cultures did not endorse innocent nonsexual intimacy. On top of that, their teachers were the stage performers from Argentina. Before long, tango fantasia became a fashion in Europe and North America.

Despite that, the tango fervor abroad rekindled the pride of the Argentinians for their traditional dance. Milongas were reopened. Portenos returned to the dance floor. Tango clubs and bars were packed again. Tango music, tango fashion and tango tourism flourished. Buenos Aires once over became the Mecca of tango, where dancers from all over the world came to dance tango with the locals. But foreigners quickly discovered that the tango they have learned at home is not the same tango danced in 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 decide to stay for good. Others return home to spread the message. Their number increases every 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. (See From Steps to Feelings.) It may take some time for close-embrace tango to settle down and become the prevailing style in Europe and North America, but that will inevitably happen, I believe. Tango is created to serve a human need. (See Why People Dance Tango.) Its form must meet its purpose. What is external and trendy changes, but what is internal and essential endures. As more and more people savor the charm of close embrace tango, as milonga becomes increasingly popular and 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.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent post, Paul! Thank you for your intelligent and well-written "wrap-up" of what so many people still don't understand.