The Hidden History of Tango

The history of Tango is fascinating and complex. The evolution of the dance has profound implications for the way we dance today, and Tango music has become one of the great World Music genres.

For the first century of its history, while Tango music struggled for and then achieved respectability, the dance was neglected by historians and academics. The articles on these pages are based on many years of research in areas sometimes not covered by the official histories of Tango. The aim is to get to the heart of the Tango from a dancer’s perspective, but not forgetting the rich history of the music.

We will examine the story of the dance, from its earliest stages, through its worldwide success before and after the First World War, the Golden Age from the mid 1930s until the coup in Argentina in 1955, the dark ages of Tango when the dance was pushed underground and persecuted, and the fabulous Tango renaissance which has spread the dance once again all over the world. An overview of the history of the music will examine its evolution and the influences that formed it, putting the great Tango artists in context.

If you have any questions about the history of Tango not covered in these pages, please e-mail us and we will do our best to answer them.

Although it seems now to be the only possible hold for couple dancing, Tango is only the third dance in history done with the man and woman facing each other, with the man holding the woman’s right hand in his left, and with his right arm around her.

The first dance done in this hold was the Viennese Waltz, which was a craze across Europe in the 1830s. Couple dancing before the Viennese Waltz was formal, with couples performing choreographed steps, and generally with no more physical contact than holding hands – if that (although some Renaissance dances like la volta could involve surprising levels of intimacy).

The second couple dance to use this hold was the Polka, which became the fashion in the 1840s.

The third dance, Tango, was radically different from anything that came before it because it introduced the concept of improvisation for the first time, and was a huge influence on all couple dancing in the Twentieth Century.

Immigrants into Argentina would have brought the fashionable new dances, with their shocking new hold. Exactly how and when the Tango began to evolve from these dances we can never now. The reason for this is that Tango was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars – the poor, the underprivileged. Often we have to pick our way through comments made by people who were not part of their culture, who knew little or nothing about Tango. However, there are a few facts that we can rely on.

The first piece of music written and published in Argentina describing itself as a tango appeared in 1857. It was called « Toma maté, ché ». The word Tango at that time probably referred to what is now known as Tango Andaluz, Andalucian Tango, a style of music from the area of Spain which is also the home of Flamenco, which was one of the most popular kinds of music in Buenos Aires in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

There are a number of theories about the origin of the word « Tango » in Argentina. One of the more popular in recent years has been that it came from the community of people of African descent, who mixed the name of their god of the drum with the Spanish word for drum (tambor), and came up with the word « Tango ». There is some evidence that the African community did use the word. It seems to me, though, that if the word « Tango » was already in common use in Spanish to describe a style of music at the time when Tango was first being born, then that surely is the most likely root of the word, even though Tango in Argentina became something completely different from the Spanish music from which it borrowed its name. In any case, there is no traditional African dance done in couple hold, so important to the development of Tango. Couple dancing as we think of it certainly seems to have begun in Europe. Members of the African community in Buenos Aires certainly joined in and influenced the development of the dance and music, just as members all the other communities in Buenos Aires did. However, there does not seem to be any real evidence that the dance originated in the African community. Nor does there seem to be any remaining influence of African dance on it – so obvious even today in Salsa and Swing dance, for example.

It is my belief that the most important group in the development of Tango was one of the most neglected and ignored: poor, undereducated, underprivileged, straight white men – the people whose only mark on history was usually when they died in huge numbers in wars. That, of course, is only my opinion. So little evidence remains from this period that no one can be sure of anything.

We have evidence of the Tango being sung in theatres throughout the second half of the Nineteenth Century, and of a couple dancing Tango on stage in Buenos Aires in the 1890s, so certainly the dance was established before the end of the Nineteenth Century. In the next article we will look at Tango’s origins – how and where Tango evolved.