Photo: Aldo Sessa
Tango has been defined by Enrique Santos Discepolo - one of it's greatest poets - as "a sad thought that is danced".
No one can really tell for sure how tango started out. It is said that the word tango was originated in Argentina and Uruguay by the African slaves that arrived in the beginning of the 1800's. It is very likely that it is was the result of mixing a Portuguese word meaning "tambo" (drumming) with an Argentinian word.
The slaves lived by the river (Rio de la Plata), in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, in very rudimentary and basic housing called "conventillos". These consisted of a house with various rooms in which many families lived. One family per room. In Spanish, the word "conventillo" also means "crowded" or "mess". There is a very popular expression: "Esto es un conventillo" meaning "this is a mess".
At first, tango was a dance meant only for the slaves. They met and danced to forget the hardships they went through and to have a good time. Tango was created in the beginning as a dance. There was no music. That came later, musicians improvised trying to adapt their music to the choreographies they saw in a 2 x 4 music compass.
Tango started to sprout in dance houses, in "conventillos" in the southern area of Bs. As., in dating houses, and dance academies with the use of a particular language and very tight codes. In the 1880's it was brought to theaters. Actors began including the dance in their performances.
Slowly, tango started shifting from the outskirts of the city and moving into it. Men began dancing in the streets and hiring women to dance with them in dance academies.
Tango was considered an unacceptable dance by the Argentinian middle and higher classes. In the issue of the magazine "Club de tango" dating from 1922 there is an article called "What do you think about tango", where there is a testimony: "My boyfriend is a good man and never lies. He has said to me that I shouldn't dance tango because in doing it one risks it's own purity and dignity. When he says "I love you", I believe him, now I must believe him as well, that is why I don't like that dance."
It's interesting to see and understand why through time, tango went from being a low street dance repelled by the majority of middle and high class "porteños" (people from Buenos Aires) to a very prestigious and internationally recognized dance.
Tango was introduced in Paris in the early years of the 20th century, when dancers and orchestras from Buenos Aires, travelled to Europe. Tango became very popular in France, where it began to shine around the time of the First World War. The dance later became popular in Berlin and London. It was a hit. In France a new era was born for tango: intellectuals, orchestras and musicians very much embraced tango and contributed to the improvement of the music and the lyrics. It was after this European love for tango that Argentina opened it's arms to it. The thought that prevailed at the time was: "Tango is embraced with passion in Europe, we're missing something."
But, why does tango continue to attract so many people? I don't know if you have ever tried it. It takes some practice and coordination and requires a partner. But once you have it all down and are in the dance floor with your partner, there is a mystic to it you simply can not stop wanting more of. You feel sensual and feminine. It helps if you understand the lyrics of the songs. They are so incredibly sad.
They are mostly about frustrated love relationships, but also about horse racing, drinking, prostitution, cheating, growing up in Buenos Aires, the nostalgia one feels when one is away from Bs. As., etc.
Many talk about loss. They are very melancholic. I have translated one of my
favorites for you and included a link were you can hear it.
by Jesus Fernandez Blanco (1926)
Translation: Valeria Mendez Cañas
"I burr has stuck on me. Inside of my heart, I have sorrow,
Why did you leave home so ungratefully? Why did you make my
peaceful life, painful?
I will never be able to take off my chest that painful burr.
My soul is agonizing, I'm faithless,
I have lost my home and my love
because of all the sorrow you've caused me.
I don't know why you went away from me
If I adored you with such intense passion
I don't know why you were keeping something from me
without letting your lack of interest show....
Your love made me a very happy man,
I never thought your passion would turn
into a dagger that would cause my
heart such a wound.
I want you to know that I am moving sadly and alone
along the paths of life. The memories I keep have grown on
me like burrs in a pasture land...
I hope we stumble into each other some day
so that I can see if you have finally found everything
you have unconsciously dreamed of.
And maybe then the two of us can start again!
Here is the music and lyrics
In the early nineties a lot of young people started to learn tango, along with many
foreigners and people in-the-know. Before, it was considered a marginal or an old people's dance. It was danced in middle to low class neighborhood clubs called "milongas" (a milonga is a variety of tango).
Imagine the environment: an indoor court, cheap lighting, cheap drinks, tango music. Back in the old days, in the 1950's tango orchestras played live, that is how: Gardel, Goyeneche, Sosa, Pugliese, Piazolla and Salgan, to name a very recognized few, became famous.
Some things have changed, but the spirit is the same.
If you would like to learn more about tango, see a tango show or dance at a milonga, feel free to ask us for information.
Co-post: Vale and Mich