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Tango - What Is It?

posted Sep 15, 2014, 10:38 PM by Joreth InnKeeper   [ updated Oct 17, 2015, 11:51 AM ]
The tango has a complex history and has very many different variations, which can broadly be grouped into 2 general categories - Argentine Tango or "authentic" tango with several sub-categories, and Ballroom Tango or just tango, which is further divided into American Tango and International Tango, with more divisions from there.  The important visual distinctions between the two main categories are that the Argentine or "authentic" tango styles are danced in a closed hold (called "embrace" or abrazo in tango) that connects chest-to-chest and the Ballroom styles are danced in a closed hold with the connection between the hips and upper thighs, although most styles also have steps in open hold as well.  Tango is also noted for its distinctive head snaps, which Argentine Tango does not have.  Whereas Argentine Tango is noted for steps that hook the feet of one partner around the feet, legs, and body of the other partner while Ballroom Tango keeps the feet on the floor and sticks with heel leads.  Ballroom Tango was given a "basic" step of slow, slow, quick quick, slow that all the other patterns are based on, but Argentine Tango has no basic pattern at all and is completely improvisational.

What separates the American and the International styles from each other is that American is much more informal and improvisational (somewhat like Argentine) while International is extremely formal and codified.  All the other sub-styles are identified by their local influences, such as whether the region danced the tango in crowded nightclubs giving rise to small, staccato steps or in ballrooms or on stage with open holds and complex step patterns.

Tango got its start in the regions around Buenos Aires, Argentina, hence the name Argentine Tango for the "authentic" or more traditional styles, in the late 1800s.  It was considered a lower class dance, having originated in the brothels and low cafes of the barrios with rancheros, factory workers, and dockhands.  However, it was originally a dance for a solo man or between two men, doing a sort of West Side Story combative dance-off type thing that often ended in actual combat.  In the Victorian era, many immigrants from Eastern and Northern Europe found their way to the Americas, including Argentina, as working-class men who had left their womenfolk behind so dancing was primarily a male activity in the bars and brothels after work to let off steam and either lament their sorrows or express their rage and frustration.  

Eventually, women joined their port-side towns, often as prostitutes, and turned the tango into a more erotic dance between a man and woman.  Because women, including so-called "working women", were in short supply, many brothels turned to other entertainments to keep their clientele occupied while awaiting an available lady, including hiring musicians, selling alcohol, and dancing.  Since these were lower class men, it is believed that they lacked dance training so they started off by doing a simple walking-step sort of dance that involved a lot of rubbing their bodies together with their prostitute dance partners.  To this day, the basic tango step is a walking step and the formal rules require a lot of body contact.  One theory, however, suggests that because of the shortage of women, the men actually danced with each other while waiting for a prostitute to become available, and that they possibly learned to dance, not for the purpose of dancing with prostitutes but in hopes of impressing a "marriageable girl" who, due to supply and demand, could afford to choose only the "best" suitor and so hoped that his dance skills would put him at the top of the list for his desired mate.

This was only the third dance in Western history to have dance partners facing each other, the first being the Viennese Waltz in the 1830s, and the second being the polka a decade later, so this was pretty racy for the time period all by itself.  It was also the first dance to introduce improvisation into partner dancing.  Everything before the waltz had choreographed steps, and the waltz and polka, while not choreographed, nevertheless had a suite of known patterns that the dancers could choose from spontaneously.  But the tango had no established patterns at all, not even a basic step, although the formal ballrooms took care of that when they got a hold of the dance, for ease of teaching and to establish baselines for competition.

It was a time for escapism, using the companionship of ladies-for-hire, alcohol, and music to retreat from a reality of hard labor and poverty.  This formed a tango culture that predates the tango dance.  Soon, the tango culture of working class immigrants and Argentine peasants incorporated the Afro-Caribbean slave rhythms into a local folk dance of the Argentine prairie and combined it with the aforementioned culture of walking-dancing, alcohol, and eroticism, and morphed all of it into what eventually became known as the tango beginning about the 1880s.

During the turn of the century with the introduction of the railroad, Argentina developed very quickly and began attracting much wealthier inhabitants from Europe, who often returned to their homelands once a year or so, bringing with them the local cultural influences, including the tango.  Paris, in particular, became very quickly enraptured with the "indecent" new dance and adopted it as its own, influencing it with its own French style and even changing French fashions to accommodate the close embrace and fancy footwork of the dance by flattening out the full skirts and introducing lighter fabrics.  From there, all the major metropolitan cities jumped on the bandwagon, including London, Rome, Berlin, and even New York.  By introducing it to the international nobility, the tango took on a level of respectability, and soon it was no longer a seedy, lower-class dance but a classic ballroom dance by about 1913 - 1920.  This is also when the music of the tango became popular and an entire orchestral industry sprang up, introducing tango composers and musicians as well-respected celebrities.

Once the tango reached New York, the American and English dancers did what they usually do when they find interesting indigenous dances - they formalized it, codified it, and turned it into a competition.  That's where we find the split between "authentic" or Argentine Tango and other forms, with each region creating its own variations of the tango much like a language's dialects.  The tango has remained popular around the world, experiencing periods of waxing and waning but never dying off completely.

This video is a rare film from the silent era of movies, so there's no music.  But it's a rare opportunity to see the Argentine Tango as danced in the early days and see how it has evolved over the decades.

Here's an excellent demonstration of an Argentine Tango.  You can clearly see the contact between the dancers' chests, head, and upper bodies while they maintain space between their hips and legs to accommodate the complex steps.  Also highlighted are the distinctive "hook" steps, where the dancers hook their feet around the feet, legs, and body of their partner.  This video also shows the foot-lift steps where the dancers use the momentum of their previous step or the pressure of their partner's foot to kick their own foot high in the air, about waist-height.  These things distinguish the Argentine Tango from the Ballroom Tangos.

This video shows a modern day professional demonstration that includes lifts.  Lifts were probably not part of the authentic or original versions of the Argentine Tango but have become very popular with show and stage versions of Argentine these days, as dancers try to compete and out-shine each other with a dance that has been danced for about a hundred and fifty years by adding new, flashier moves.

In this Ballroom Tango demonstration, the differences between Ballroom and Argentine Tango are striking.  Here, the couple has the most body contact at the hips, pelvis, and thighs while the chest and head are wide apart.  You also see the sharp head snaps that are completely absent from the Argentine, and there are no hook steps.  The music seems to end abruptly, but the dancing appears to stop at a natural place.

Tango is one of the most popular dances to show in movies, especially in movies that are not about dancing.  Tango is a great story-telling device for modern movies because the dance involves tension and eroticism - one of the most popular plot lines in Western movies.  It's almost always an Argentine Tango.  Here is a playlist of many of the tango scenes in popular movies.  You can hit the play button and it should auto-play all the videos on the playlist for you.  Or you can click on the icon at the top-left that looks like a bulleted list where it says "playlist" or on the icon at the bottom-right that looks like 3 lines representing a list (next to an icon of a clock), and that will show you the list where you can select specific videos to play:

To watch a YouTube playlist, all you have to do is click on the "play" button or anywhere in the middle of the player window and the first song will start playing.  It will automatically play the next song after the current song is over.  If you would like to skip ahead to another song, look for the icon in the top-left of the window that looks like a list with horizontal bars.  Click on that icon and the playlist should appear over the video window.  In that playlist, you can scroll down to see the list of songs and then click on the video you want to see.

If you have a favorite Halloween dance song that you don't see here, email!