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Why the Tango Is Not a Latin Dance

by Veronica Ann McClure 

Most Americans do not realize that there was a great deal of immigration to SOUTH America as well North America in the 19th century, especially by Germans, Spaniards, and Italians. According to a fact book on Argentina, this immigration reduced the native population by as much as 90% (sound familiar?). By contrast, the immigrants and natives in Brazil did far more co-mingling. Thus the tango from Argentina is European in origin while the samba from Brazil is "latin" (which actually means "Afro-Latin" in ballroom dancing) and, in this case, Brazilian. (This is the short answer -- you can stop reading now.)

The tango originated in the 19th century. As with any dance form that lasts so long, it has evolved in several different ways, some being rather distant from each other on the family tree. I see four main sub-families today: Ragtime, American, International, and "Argentine." No one knows for sure what the pre-1900 dance looked like as it was danced by European immigrants whose dreams of streets paved with gold faded into dust. They lived in poor, rough neighborhoods called barrios, and their music and dance reflects disappointment, anger, longing, and other such feelings. They did not write manuals on how to dance the tango.

Ragtime tango -- 1900 - 1920

The wealthy of Europe, North, and South America traveled a triangle that in tango terms was composed of Buenos Aires, Paris, and New York. Apparently some Parisians went slumming in Buenos Aires and attempted to bring the exotic and risqué tango back home to impress their friends. All agreed it wouldn't make it in a polite ballroom, but of course nothing guarantees success so much as to be banned. The public's curiosity was whetted. I doubt if these voyeuristic Parisians could dance an Argentine tango with its original pathos/bathos anyway, so their version would have been immediately different from the original.

In 1912 a much revised version of the Parisian tango was set for a musical which gained much popularity and furthered public interest in the tango as danced in this show. The general atmosphere in social dance at that time included a bigger-than-usual generational rejection (i.e., teens wanting nothing to do with what their stodgy and impossibly stupid parents or grandparents danced) which was aided and abetted by the lightweight, easy-to-move-in dresses of the time, in contrast to the heavier, corseted (but still lovely and very feminine, Veronica's personal opinion) clothing of the late 19th century. Also, those corsets were sliding down to become mere girdles, and sometimes young women would leave home with them on and take them off when they got to the dance -- horrors!!

Other dances of the time included the "animal dances" -- brief patterns that encouraged the dancers to kick their feet, wave their arms, and move their torsos in ways the earlier generations would never, ever think of. The syncopation of ragtime music was another big break / new direction for the social ballroom. In America, anyone could declare himself to be a dance teacher, and there was no standardization of steps or names of steps.

Thus the ragtime tango was a dance form taken from the stage and liberally adapted to the masses who thought they were just so cool to be doing this naughty dance from far away Argentina and/or Paris. Exhibition dancers competed with each other in showing specialty steps and poses in ways that somewhat remind me of the street kids dancing to rap music today. It is from this era that the stereotypical semi-closed and cheek-to-cheek position with the ramrod extended arm comes. Ordinary people attempted the extreme dips and acrobatics of the exhibition dancers, and -- like tennis elbow today -- tango knees and elbows were common injuries. Today's vintage dancers often treat the ragtime tango as a fun dance, hardly serious, and often rather campy. I think their attitude is probably accurate. Left-Footers’ One-Step segment SCP/LOD walk 3, turn and point; RSCP/RLOD walk 3, turn and point; is a classic ragtime tango figure.

World War I put an end to all this.


Rudolf Valentino's movie tango was considered a throwback by at least 10 years. His gaucho costume added greatly to its exotic appeal.

In an attempt to keep the tango on the ballroom floor, orchestras were sometimes instructed to start with a foxtrot, and when people were up and dancing, subtly shift to a tango in hopes that they too would shift to a tango rather than sit down while the music was still playing. Tango and foxtrot steps of the time were similar (as are today’s English/international tango and foxtrot), so this switcheroo wasn't a crazy idea at all.

The English, while thanking the Americans for introducing the ragtime dances to them, set about modifying, taming, gentling, and standardizing them for their teacher organizations and their students. Ballroom teachers were simply another branch in the English world of dance teachers.

The English also began organized, standardized dance classes, exhibitions, and contests. "The Royal Empress Tango," now a standard fixture in today's folk dance world, is said to be a routine for a tango competition at this time. To round dancers, it feels like a phase II two-step to a funny sort of tango. I firmly believe that round dancers should either present it as is or leave the music alone.

International Tango -- 1930s and 1940s

The tango languished in North America and England. Lindy, jitterbug, swing, et al. took over the popular dance floor. What we consider ballroom dancing became a specialty form of dance rather than a dance of the people. Some exhibition dancers helped keep some public attention on the ballroom forms, and travel to South America (Flying Down to Rio) kept some interest in those dances alive.

The standardized ballroom dancing of the English began to spread in Europe and there was a lively and friendly competitive spirit between the English and the Germans in particular. The tango was still included in the competitions even though it was not danced very much outside of competition. In 1933 (I may be off one year), the English were surprised at the new tango the Germans brought to their competition. Together with a much more staccato music, they danced in a much sharper, angular way. I get eerie connections between rising militarism and goose-stepping soldiers in Germany at this time. All the European competitors took to this new style of tango. Thus the International/English/Phase IV-VI tango is not so South American in origin, but continental German.

American tango --1950s and 1960s

Recovering from World War II and with the servicemen back home and the emphasis on families, dancing took off in new directions. This was the beginning of the heyday of American Square Dancing, as it was so evocative of "American," "home," "the West," "apple pie," etc -- the life probably very few people ever had but most thought they wanted. It was also a time of rediscovering latin music and dances -- rumba, samba, cha-cha, and tango were all introduced or revitalized, and all went through a tremendous simplification and Americanization -- and Americanization at that time was still definitely European in origin. Tango was treated as "latin" because of its South American origins in a geographic rather than ethnic way. However, association with something successful may allow sharing some of that success.

Popular dance manuals of the time show the steps in Tango Mannita quite clearly. "Tango Draw" was a definitive step. Manning and Nita Smith, round dance leaders in Texas, decided to capitalize on this new tango by creating a round dance tango and named it after themselves -- Man(ning) and Nita became Mannita. There was some uproar in round dance circles as many liked this new dance while others decried it, saying "round dancers don't tango." But the dance stayed, and to this day it is a perfect encapsulation of the style.

Current Argentine Tango

Current Argentine tango comes more directly from Argentina than any of the other three styles, but again, any dance form this old will have evolved. If it doesn't, it will die or be treated as a not-mainstream relic. While I am not deeply involved in Argentine tango, it only takes a couple of sessions, especially with a visiting teacher from Argentina, to hear stories of how it used to be, and how different it is with different teachers. In the New England, Argentine dance community, that old constant, standardization, is in effect, making it possible for large numbers of people to have a common denominator step pattern with which to start. Argentine tango musicians also are quite clear about differences in the music over time.


In ballroom terms, "latin" dancing usually means there will be a separation of movement in the upper body from the lower body, while "modern" dancing has the "unibody construction" that a car ad from the mid-20th century bragged about. All of these four forms of tango are unibody. In both technique and in terms of who introduced these forms of tango, all are "modern" and European.

Thus tango is European, rather than South American, in origin and grouped with waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep rather than rumba, cha-cha, and the other latin dances.

Originally written 26 April 2005; revised 6 January 2011; published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, April 2011.


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