Mesmerizing, sensual and intimate are just a few words you might use to describe the Tango. A dance of romance and passion, it is among the most famous genres of dance in the world and is currently enjoying a massive renaissance throughout much of Europe, South America and the USA.
In Argentina, its spiritual home, the tango is a way of life and considered as important to as the samba is to Brazil or bangra dancing is to India.
But what exactly is the song and dance about with the tango?
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide of everything that you need to know about the dance, its fascinating history, different styles and places around the world where you can attempt a pasadoble of your own!
History & Origins of Tango
The Tango originated in the lower-class districts of Buenos Aires in Argentina, taking its inspiration from a number of influences from Spanish and African culture.
Dances from the candombe ceremonies of former slave peoples heavily influenced the early forms of tango, which has was always been accompanied by music drawn from a number of European sources.
To begin with, tango was just one of several dances and a far cry from the international phenomenon that it has now become. However, it grew quickly in popularity and status, acquiring the name Tango during the 1890s.
It then started to spread rapidly through the working-class slums in and around Buenos Aires, before, in the early years of the twentieth century, dancers and orchestras from Buenos Aires decided to take the tango to Europe.
The Tango shows took Europe’s major capitals by storm, capturing the hearts and minds of fashionable Parisians, Londoners and Berliners alike. The Tango ‘craze’ soon spread throughout Europe before making its way back across the Atlantic to New York and the rest of the USA by 1913.
Tango’s Fluctuating Popularity
Tango’s current popularity has by no means been constant. It has fallen in and out of fashion over the years and has endured a turbulent history. The onset of the Great depression in 1929 and the restrictions imposed after the overthrow of the Hipólito Yrigoyen government in 1930 caused tango to decline rapidly in Argentina at the start of the 1930s. It was not until the government of Juan Perón that tango became widely fashionable again in the mid-1940s.
Tango suffered another serious decline during the 1950s after a series of military dictatorships banned public gatherings in Argentina and Rock and Roll emerged in the United States and much of Europe.
The dance did not die out completely with the arrival of Rock and Roll, living on in smaller venues in Buenos Aires and several cities across Europe, but it was not in the public mainstream again until its revival in 1983 following the opening in Paris of the show Tango Argentino created by Claudio Segovia & Hector Orezzoli.
The show was a massive success putting tango back in the spotlight and prompting people the world over to start taking up tango lessons. The Tango was ‘in’ again.
In 1990, a pair of Argentine dancers, Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs, founded the Tango X 2 Company, creating a style that re-established the traditional tango of the milongas as fashionable. The shows captivated the youth of the day and significantly boosted the number of younger people dancing the tango.
Tango is currently going through a similar resurgence thanks in large part to the publicity generated by dancing shows like Strictly Come Dancing. Its new found popularity was consolidated last year when the tango was declared as part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO.
Tango was born out of a mix cultures and is all about freedom of movement and improvisation. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are several variations on the Tango from Tango Argentino to Ballroom Tango.
Influences on the different styles are numerous from the pace and style of music that accompanies the dance, to the space available in the venue that it’s being danced in. Even the clothing and fashion trends in particular areas have an influence!
Nearly all the styles are danced in either the open embrace position where the ‘lead’ (the male) and ‘follow’ have space between their bodies or in the close embrace where the lead and follow connect chest-to-chest, as is the case in Argentina, or thigh to hip, as is practiced in American and International Tango.
The traditional Argentine Tango has a number of different styles such as Tango Canyengue and Milonguero. However, for all their nuances, nearly all the Argentine styles stay true to the fundamental elements that make up the traditional Argentine Tango such as the dancers sharing one axis and dancing in a closed embrace as opposed to in an open position.
Ballroom tango is divided into International (English) and European styles and is an adaptation of the Argentine Tango to suit the preferences of the conventional ballroom dancers.
Ballroom tangos are completely different to Argentine Tangos and are fiercely competitive affairs. English Tango follows strict rules and couples take the competitions very, very seriously.
The main differences between ballroom Tango and Argentine tango is the music used and the staccato movements associated with Ballroom Tango. Ballroom Tango’s ‘head snaps’, for example, are completely alien to Argentine Tango.
In recent years a newer style has emerged called the Tango Nuevo, inspired by the Tango X 2 Company and the interest it generated amongst the younger generation during the early 1990s.
In the Tango Nuevo, the embrace is often quite open and very elastic, permitting the leader to lead a large variety of very complex figures. It concentrates on fluid movements and is inspired by the fusion of tango music with electronica, jazz and techno. Tango Nuevo is frowned upon in traditional circles but is a lot of fun and all about expressing yourself and having fun.
Argentina, more specifically Buenos Aires, is Tango’s spiritual home and is the place to go to take in a tango show at one of the several tango-houses.
Tango shows in Buenos Aires are fantastic spectacles and a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of the tango being performed by people who actually know what they are doing. You don’t have to be able to dance the tango or have the first clue about the rules to attend, and there is no pressure for you to have to dance.
Tickets for many of the night shows come with dinner included. Dinner tango is a great way to get a taste of this passionate and mesmerizing sport. Shows can last up to 4 hours.
Places to try the Tango
You don’t have to go to a dinner tango show in Buenos Aires in order to experience the tango. There are plenty of more informal venues to observe the tango in action and even take part yourself if you’re feeling brave in Buenos Aires.
Las Glorietas is an outdoor milonga held on Saturday afternoons in a gazebo in a park in Belgrano, where you can watch for free. It always attracts lots of onlookers and also offers lessons on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays if you want to give it a go as a beginner.
La Catedral is another great place to experience the tango and is based in the extremely informal setting of a scruffy warehouse. The atmosphere is fantastic and it often features some of the best performers of the Nuevo Tango style on the circuit. If you do plan to dance yourself at La Catedral, don’t wear new shoes as the wooden floor is pretty torn up.
Tango Shows and clubs are not exclusive to Argentina. Clubs are prominent throughout South America, especially Uruguay, and there are shows available all over the world from New York and London to Berlin and Paris.
One of the more unusual places you can go to experience the tango is Finland. The Finns are crazy about their tango and have developed their own version of the dance. Each year the Tangomarkkinat, or tango festival, draws over 100,000 aficionados to the town of Seinäjoki, where there’s also a museum dedicated to the dance.
If you want to see the best of the best, then the World Championships of Tango are the place to go. The Championships were held in Buenos Aires last year, and saw a major upset as a Japanese couple won the competition ahead of the Argentine entrants. This was a source of much embarrassment for the Argentines, who have dominated the Championships over the years. The upset and the growing popularity of Tango will ensure that this year’s competition will be fiercer and more popular than ever.
We have a number of Buenos Aires hostels where you can get some well earned rest after dancing the Tango into the early hours available on our website, including the Art Factory and the Puerto Limon Hostel.
A guide to the best milongas and places to dance the tango in Buenos Aires is also available on the HostelBookers blog.