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, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a people and species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, 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 connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

June 23, 2012

Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts

Buenos Aires is one of the largest metropolises in the world. One thirds of Argentina’s 41 million people live in Buenos Aires. But until the beginning of the 19th century Buenos Aires was only a small town with a mixed population of Spanish colonists, native Americans and black slaves from Africa. In 1810, influenced by the French Revolution, the Argentine people overthrew the Spanish Governor and declared independence. During the second half of the 19th century the Argentine government made a conscious decision to change the racial structure of the 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. Although we can trace tango to its African roots, the main inventors of the dance were the European immigrants of the late 19th century and early 20th century who built 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, 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 close embrace in which the two partners intimately lean into each other, chest against chest and cheek touches cheek. Through such intimate bodily contact they communicate their feelings stirred by music. Like the dance itself, tango music is created to express deep, nostalgic sentiments. Its rhythm is robust, sharp, forceful and steady, but its melody is supple, emotional, sentimental and moody. Every note or phrase is played with a “masculine” effect or a “feminine” effect. 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 mid 1930s and mid 1950s. This period is known as tango’s Golden Age. That was followed by 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 had actively supported tango. The dancers aligned with him were suspicious to the anti-Peronist juntas, who created a climate that discouraged tango. (See The Styles of Tango.) As a result, people stopped dancing socially, and musicians stopped playing for the dancers. The music produced in the Dark Age is largely for listening and not dancing. The revival of tango started after the restoration of democracy in Argentina in 1983. 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 remarked, “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 the two sexes. But Argentine tango represents a different view, or culture, that recognizes and sanctions innocent intimacy. The Argentinians are an intimate people due to their immigrant history and a mainly Spanish and Italian background, and tango is a historical 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 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 the 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 close embrace with considerable bodily contact between the partners. Its steps are simple and compact, allowing the dancers to concentrate on the emotions stirred by the music, the sensation and comfort of the embrace, the communication of feelings through bodily contact between the partners, 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 stage performance. It is a highbrow dance involving difficult steps and techniques not suited to common 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 steps and showy figures to impress 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.

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 homesick and nostalgic immigrant population crowding together in one big city. They do not have a severe shortage of women. (See The Chivalry of the Milongueros.) Their dance floors are not crowded. Their cultures do not sanction innocent intimacy. The open-embrace style meets their taste. On top of that, their teachers are the stage performers from Argentina. Before long, tango fantasia becomes a fashion in Europe and North America.

Despite that, the tango fervor abroad rekindled the pride of the Argentinians for their traditional dance. Milongas are reopened. Portenos return to the dance floor. Tango clubs and tango salons are packed again. Tango music, tango fashion and tango tourism flourish. Buenos Aires once over 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 have 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 again. 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 in Europe and North America. (See From Steps to Feelings.) It will still take time for close-embrace tango to settle down and become the dominant style in those societies, 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 fashionable will 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.

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.