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Just What Is There About the Argentine Tango?

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Dance history will tell you that the tango originated in Argentina, was discovered by the French in the early 1900s, and from there made its way to England and America. How did it get to Paris? Why it, and not those other rhythms of the New World ports, like Cuba’s rumba, the Dominican Republic’s merengue, the Brazilian samba, or the mambo, salsa, or beguine? Why is the standard tango we know so different?

In a book called Paper Tangos, Julie Taylor, an anthropologist who spent many years in Argentina, has concluded that the tango evolved expressing Argentine suffering, first from economic upheaval, then from political violence that forced many into exile. While many say the Argentine tango sings of lost love, she believes it more tells of human ties destroyed. She notes that by tradition in Argentina, one does not dance when an Argentina tango is sung, to listen to the singer’s nuances that might give new insight about the tragic world they were living.

That melancholy began from a lack of roots, she said. Most Argentines are descended from a post-1880 wave of immigration of Europeans, drawn by dreams of owning land on the vast plains of Argentina. For every native Argentine on the streets at that time, there were three foreign-born, most of whom found it impossible to achieve the dreams they came for. After that came a series of overbearing dictatorships and political persecutions, and the tango became their refuge. The exiles took their music and dance to Europe, where tango became the hit of Paris in 1912. Drawn to the image of the Argentine playboy, hair slicked back, with a mysterious air, the French stylized the dance, and the Americans took it even further, to leave us with the image of Rudolph Valentino, rose in his teeth, in an aggressive stomp across the floor. Tango mania had hit, even though they missed the underlying sadness and connection to the life Argentines were living. Taylor noted that the French imported massive quantities of hair pomade from Argentina in the 1920s and 1930s, to achieve the look, if not the underlying emotion. Use of it even today is considered very Argentine.

The other Latin dances were considered “tropical, less European,” more plebian, she said, explaining why it would be three decades before the “latins” were “discovered” and became part of the ballroom world.

The book was critically acclaimed for its exploration of the parallels between the violence of the political Junta and the play with power inherent in the tango, its expression of aggression and dominance, Man exerting his will on woman (or the world), she resisting, never looking at each other, but in that intimate embrace of bodies oh-so-close. English competitors made something different of the form we call International tango. In America it took on a more playful persona. “Only a gringo would make a clown of himself by taking advantage of a tango for a chat or amusement,” she quotes Ernesto Sabato, author of Tango: Discusion y Clave. And so we have three tangos, one dance with three personalities.


Dan and Sandi host two weekly Carousel Clubs and teach a weekly figure clinic on advanced basics in Southern California. This article comes from their club newsletter, March 2013, and was reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, January 2014.



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