La Historia Del Tango

The tango originated in society’s underbelly — the brothels of turn-of-the-century Argentina. As immigrants from Europe, Africa, and ports unknown streamed into the outskirts of Buenos Aires during the 1880’s, many gravitated toward the port city’s houses of ill repute. In these establishments, the portenos, (as they were called,) could drown their troubles in a few drinks and find some companionship. They looked desperately for a distraction to ease their sense of rootlessness and disfranchisement as “strangers in a strange land.”

Ironically, as these lonely immigrants and societal outcasts sought to escape from their feelings, they instead developed a music and dance that epitomized them. The wail of the tango, it is said, speaks of more than frustrated love. It speaks of fatality, of destinies engulfed in pain. It is the dance of sorrow.

These tango songs and dances had no lyrics, were often highly improvised, and were generally regarded as obscene. The wailing melancholy of the bandoneon (an accordion-like instrument imported to Argentina from German in 1886) became a mainstay of tango music.

With the advent of the universal suffrage law–passed in Argentina in 1912–the lower classes were allowed to vote, which served to legitimize many of its cultural mainstays, including the tango. As it became absorbed into the larger society, the tango lost some of it abrasiveness.

During the first two decades of the new century, the tango took Paris by storm. In 1918, lyric writing for the tango become the latest trend, bringing forth the birth of a star who is still celebrated five decades after his death — singer Carlos Gardel.

Today Tango is a serious dance. In Argentina, there are radio channels dedicated to nothing but tango music. Tango is very popular in Argentina these days. It is common to see performances in the street all over Argentina. I don’t recall seeing any other dance associated with this kind of passion.


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1984 Computer portrait from State Fair

January 2009
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