What is Argentine Tango?

Argentine tango is an improvised social dance that emerged in Buenos Aires and Montevideo at the turn of the 20th century. Often hailed as sensual, passionate, dramatic and dangerous, the true beauty of Argentine tango lies in its accessibility. In essence little more than walking in someone else’s arms, the dance offers something for practitioners of all ages and physical abilities. Indeed, tango communities the world over are notable for their intergenerational character. At the same time, the practice of tango affords infinite room for growth, complexity and refinement. Utterly simple and endlessly challenging, Argentine tango is a social activity that can be a lifelong one.

A Little History
Tango is the product of displaced populations who came together in turn-of-the-century Río de la Plata society. Argentina, in particular, experienced unparalleled economic growth in the late 1800s, encouraging a wave of immigration much like that to the U.S. In the port city of Buenos Aires, newly arrived European immigrants, gauchos (cowboys) migrating from the interior, and freed African slaves mixed in the city’s impoverished barrios. It was here, on the fringes of porteño “society” – on the streets, in tenement house patios, in the brothels – that these people who shared neither a language nor a culture created a music and dance that continues to fascinate audiences worldwide.

Tango dance originally developed largely through male-male practice, due to its scandalous profile and the city’s gender imbalance. It remained a practice of the lower classes until it was exported abroad to the dance salons and academies of Paris, London and New York in the early 1900s. Legitimized by the international elite, it returned home and enjoyed a 30-year “Golden Age,” during which dance halls and cabarets spread throughout Buenos Aires, tango orchestras flourished and the most enduring musical recordings were made. A period of decline (mid-1950s-1980s) came to an end with a few key events: Argentina’s return to democracy, post-dictatorship support for cultural programs in Buenos Aires, and the wild success of the international stage show Tango Argentino. Since TA first wowed Parisian audiences in 1983, a global tango renaissance has grown without stop.

This global imprint has been there from the start. Tango music and dance have roots in European, Cuban, African and Argentine traditions, and it was the introduction of a German instrument – the bandoneon – that gave the music its signature melancholy sound. The poetry of tango likewise transcends local culture. Though situated in a decidedly porteño landscape, the lyrics resonate beyond those borders in the entirely human themes of love, loss, nostalgia and displacement.

Recommended Reading/ Resources

www.todotango.com - Spanish/ English site with information on tango history, composers and musicians, lyrics and more

For the best tango shoes, you’ll need to go to Argentina, or at least to a tango festival.  In a pinch, you can find respectable dance shoes at these Philly stores:

Thank you to Carolyn Merritt, PhD, for the above text.