Tango: A Feeling That is Danced

“Abrazo”: the author, photographed by Bill Hayward
“Abrazo”: the author, photographed by Bill Hayward

When you think of Tango, what comes to mind first? Passion? Drama? Violence? Romance? Sex? Whatever it is, it is usually emotional in nature, primal and stirring of your senses. Tango never elicits a ho-hum response, because there is nothing mundane or humdrum about it – it is a living and breathing feeling à deux that is danced. Tango invites you into an embrace whose arms you never want to leave. It is a dance of intertwined bodies engaged in a dialogue of limbs, which caress the floor and each other, creating a moving seduction. Tango is language evolved.

Tango, the music and the dance, has a complex history, the details of which vary depending on who you read or listen to. Its development parallels the social and economic growth of Argentina and Uruguay, in particular the area of Rio de la Plata and its triangle of Buenos Aires, Rosario and Montevideo. Its roots seem to date back to the 1870’s when a version of it was danced by Black slaves to the fused rhythms of Habanera (Cuban) and Candombe (Afro-Uruguayan) music. At that time, Tango was raw and sexual in its danced form, borrowing its style from the stance of the compadritos and their deft use of the knife and the gaucho of the pampa, as well as the entanglement of limbs representing the sexual encounter. The dance itself started between men and then moved to brothels, where women danced it to attract customers. It was the dance of the poor, the underprivileged and the marginalized, danced in the periphery of the cities, and not accepted in high society. The European immigration wave to Argentina in the 1880’s and the generation they spawned changed Tango into a dance that was smoother, retaining its sensuality and adding a nostalgic sensibility. The immigrants were mostly men who had come to seek their fortune alone and without family. They came from Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland and Greece, and settled in the orillas or outskirts of Buenos Aires. Many of the early songs reflect their nostalgia – speaking of love, loneliness, hardship and unfulfilled dreams. The music was based on the movable instruments brought by them – guitar, violin, harp and flute – and the later incorporation of the piano and the Argentine bandoneon when the musical genre becomes known as La Guardia Vieja.

Despite its increased popularity, Tango remained controversial among Argentine society, where it continued to be viewed as the prohibited dance. It was the young men of the upper classes visiting houses of ill repute and learning to dance Tango there who exported it to Paris, along with some of the South American artists and musicians of the time. In Paris, Tango caused a furor among the elite and was immediately assimilated, undergoing yet another transformation, and returning to Argentina, around 1910, as a legitimate genre and a stylish and polished dance. The music of tango changed with La Guardia Nueva, incorporating a poetic sensibility, and ushering in a new sound – Tango Triste – which spoke of unrequited love.

In its heyday, Tango became the principal way of socializing and getting together with the opposite sex, a form of social entertainment that often led to people coupling up. Argentina was thriving economically and industrially, and this was evident in the mood of the country. People wanted to dance. Orchestras and milongas, or dances, sprung up throughout the city and its outskirts. Two styles of Tango emerged from this period: The downtown, or milonguero style, which evolved within the rich culture of Buenos Aires (La Reina de la Plata), where people danced nightly and with different partners, adapting to the small spaces by tightening and closing the embrace, focusing on musicality and bodily communication; and the salon style, which was danced in the periphery of the city, and was a weekend affair – danced in larger spaces, and attended by couples that danced mostly with each other and focused on choreography. Some have called this period of time “the big love affair” to signify the encounter of the sexes through Tango, and a celebration of the prosperity in Argentina.

Yet due to the numerous military coups that are part of Argentina’s political history, that atmosphere changed. This, coupled with the popularity of rock and roll which reached the Argentine youth and distanced them from the Tango of their parents and grandparents, dealt Tango a near fatal blow. Tango all but disappeared in the early 1980’s, as an entire generation lost contact with its roots and history. Orchestras disbanded and became octets or quintets, and many milongas closed down. It was the music of Tango, particularly as revolutionized through the works of Astor Piazzola, which became known at an international level and re-ignited an interest in the dance, keeping it alive (despite the fact that Piazzola’s music was not meant to be danced to). In the early 1990’s, various staged productions, i.e., Tango Argentino, Tango Mania, re-established Tango to its previous glory, gaining international attention through their dramatic shows and choreography. Today a new group of artists continue to attract worldwide interest in Tango, through a complex and highly stylized choreography that focuses on musicality and the elaboration of individual phrases and notes. Both the music and the dance of Tango have evolved and created yet another, alternative style – Tango Nuevo – which speaks to a new aesthetic and unfolding of technique while retaining a respect for history and tradition. [i]

But there is truly only one Tango – that dance of entwined limbs in conversation. Its magic lies in its ability to convey universal emotions in both its music and its dance. Tango seems to regenerate itself through time by adapting itself to the city, country and people that dance it, speaking an emotional language that is basic to all of us yet reflects the sensibilities and aesthetics of each generation. So while Tango is deeply Argentinian at its core, it is danced seriously all over the world. It unites all of us at the level of emotion and physicality.

At its most elemental, Tango is a walking embrace. It is a corporeal dialogue that is intimate and sensual, danced to nostalgic music. Born from foreigners who could not return to their homeland, they compensated for this with an embrace that communicated longing and sensuality through its walked movement. In fact, it was Tango that originated the close embrace in dance. Prior to this the only social dances that involved an embrace were the Austro-Hungarian Waltz (1830’s) and the Polka (1840’s). Theirs was an open embrace where bodies did not commingle or touch, where the dancers remained at a fair distance despite their hold on each other. Tango closes the embrace and makes it tight and snug, becoming a dance that is led with the torso, and I would say led from the heart. Tango is a complex art form which involves a sustained, emotional dialogue with another, communicated through the embrace and embodied in a choreographed walk which can be accented with leg entwinements, kicks, turns and rapid footwork. Hmm. No wonder it is called the 3-minute romance. But it is so much more.

Tango is deeply relational and social at its very core: it was born from the need to make contact with the other, to communicate emotionally and physically, to improvise together and move in unison within an intimate dialogue. It is all about the relationship, even if it only lasts one tanda (usually three or four songs of the same genre and rhythm, which is technically more like 10 minutes rather than 3). Tango invites you to become the protagonist of an ongoing story, which is danced with another through a mutual improvisation that depends on a deep, body-to-body communication, an entwinement of the spirit and the limbs. When you dance it, if you want to dance it well, you immediately understand that it is perhaps the only dance that requires the equal participation of both dancers in order to be fluid. Thus its difficulty, complexity and sensuality.

Tango anyone?

In Tango there is always a leader and a follower, roles that traditionally have been assigned to the man and the woman respectively. But remember that Tango was initially danced between men who alternated roles, so it really is about masculine and feminine energies in an embodied communication – no matter the actual sexed reality of the dancers. The leader has to initiate the dance, choreograph the steps, stay alert in the line of dance so as not to run into anyone else, and most importantly, communicate, through his embrace, an invitation to the follower to move with him. It is all in the embrace. Of course the leader also has to know what the step looks like backwards, so that he can make room for his partner to move. Being a good leader is very difficult – he is always a little ahead of the beat so that he can move his partner onto her feet with the beat, and then follow her movement into the next step. A good leader has a light touch but a strong presence. And so it is for the follower. Since the man initiates the movement, the woman (the follower) has to be receptive to his invitation. She moves only when he moves, and does not set her foot down in a step until the man has moved her there. This requires physical awareness and sensitivity, a subtle exchange of mutual understanding through the embrace that literally moves the center of balance from two separate individuals to one – the couple. In Tango, the center of weight is between the dancers so that they may become one. This requires trust, as both partners are constantly counter-balancing each other and sharing the other’s weight. This connection creates security and confidence in the partnership. Ask yourself, is this not what happens in relationships? In Tango, as in life, it is all about the communication of deep emotions and feelings and the receptivity of both partners to those communications. The movement that ensues from this corporeal communication and dialogue can be sweet, passionate, fluid, silky or…not. Tango, like any relationship one is serious about, requires commitment – to the dance, to self-improvement and to one’s partner. And the level of commitment affects the quality of the experience.

Yes, moving as one requires two people who are present and negotiate constantly, physically and emotionally. From the body and the heart. The leader leads and follows. The follower follows and leads. Fluidity of movement requires negotiation not just between leader and follower or between the masculine and feminine energies of both partners, but between their physicality and their emotions. Individually and together. Movement that is based on this kind of reciprocity creates a fluid, interactive loop of communication, of dialogue, of connection. Language evolved – such is the dance of Tango. Such is the interplay of sexuality and emotions in life – a subtle negotiation between self and other and the possibilities in between.

El Tango te espera. Tango awaits you. It waits for the moment when its passion awakens you and you are forever held in its embrace in an ongoing love affair. And while there is a universal language in this dance, a melancholic sensuality that evokes and stirs us, a sadness that acknowledges the passing of time and the pleasure of embracing another and of feeling alive, Tango is not for everyone. It is an emotion that is danced, and as such it requires that we be open to experiencing it, and open to sharing and elaborating it with another. It requires that we be open to the intricacies of an intimate dialogue. Tango is a dance of the heart as much as of the body. Much like the stuff that good relationships are made of – it takes two.

[1] For a beautiful example of Tango Nuevo please take time to view the following videos, danced by Chicho Frumboli and Juana Sepulveda to the music of Piazzola, Bajofundo and a traditional milonga by Miguel Calo & you will be enticed:





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