The Argentine Tango

The world of the Argentine Tango, to a non-dancer, is an enigma. Why would perfect strangers come together in a close embrace to dance together for 10 minutes, only to break away and do the same again with someone else? Why do two people, who scarcely know each other's name, allow themselves to be so vulnerable to the dance, their partner, and the music?

Tango in the streets of San Telmo
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For those that take the time to understand it, like a good partner, the dance itself gives as much back as one gives to it.

For me personally, it is a form of relaxation, of almost meditation. As a follower, I do not have to take any of the decisions, but have to focus on one thing and one thing only: the steps that the leader invites me to take. This simultaneous relinquishment of control, while maintaining specific focus on the lead, forces me to clear my head of anything else going on in work or life.
It is also an international community of people that share similar interests. I can travel anywhere in the world, and simply by going to a tango dance, can meet new friends. This has enabled me to have a much richer traveling experience and has made moving to new cities much easier.

It isn't always amazing. It takes hours of training and study to get the movement into your body. endless commutes listening only to tango songs in order to better understand the rhythms of the music. Pilgrimages to Buenos Aires to study with masters, to immerse oneself in the culture, language, and history of the dance.

It requires taking the risk with someone new, not knowing how they dance, or if they had garlic for dinner!

But when it works, it is thrilling. It is pure joy to be immersed in the music and movement, so much so that when the song ends you don't want to let each other go, don't want to risk dispelling the magic.

The Dance

Tango is danced at various levels and in various ways around the world.
Of course, as the birthplace of tango, Buenos Aires is the place to dance tango and see it performed. It is often performed on the street, in cafes, and in shows:

Argentine tango de rue Buenos-Aires: 4:20 min:

Tango show
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There are also many great venues to dance tango around Buenos Aires every night. Similar to other Argentine night life, the party doesn't get started until after midnight, and doesn't end until the sun comes up the next morning.

Tango is also performed regularly around the world professionally. Often visiting tango teachers will perform midway through a tango dance, to provide entertainment, but also to showcase their style and attract students who might want to learn from them. Unlike the stage tango you see on TV, these performances are almost entirely improvisational. The couple dances as the music inspires them, not with scripted steps.


Miriam Larici and Leonardo Barrionuevo in Tango Adamor: 3:57 min:


But tango is mostly danced by normal people, doing normal steps. In some ways, typical tango looks a bit like slow ice skating! Below is a quick video of a normal tango dance, one from a recent evening at a tango dance in London, where I live.

Milonga: 0:26 min:


The Music

The dance and the music that reflects the culture of the area. There is a sadness in the music, a yearning for a better life or a lost love. Below is an example of the lyrics to a very famous tango song, Mi Buenos Aires Querido, in both Spanish and the translation in English. You can listen to it here:


Mi Buenos Aires querido,  
cuando yo te vuelva a ver,  
no habra mas penas ni olvido.  
El farolito de la calle en que naci  
fue el centinela de mis promesas de amor,  
bajo su inquieta lucecita yo la vi  
a mi pebeta luminosa como un sol.  
Hoy que la suerte quiere que te vuelva a ver, 
ciudad porteña de mi unico querer,  
y oigo la queja  
de un bandoneón,  
dentro del pecho pide rienda el corazón. 
Mi Buenos Aires  
tierra florida  
donde mi vida terminaré.  
Bajo tu amparo  
no hay desengaños,  
vuelan los años  
se olvida el dolor.  
En caravana  
los recuerdos pasan  
como una estela  
dulce de emoción,  
quiero que sepas  
que al evocarte  
se van las penas  
del corazon.

Las ventanitas de mis calles de arrabal,  
donde sonrie una muchachita en flor;  
quiero de nuevo yo volver a contemplar  
aquellos ojos que acarician al mirar.  
En la cortada mas maleva una canción,  
dice su ruego de coraje y de pasion;  
una promesa  
y un suspirar  
borro una lagrima de pena aquel cantar.

Mi Buenos Aires querido...  
cuando yo te vuelva a ver...  
no habra mas penas ni olvido...

My beloved Buenos Aires,  
the day I see you again,  
there will be no more sorrow or forgetfulness  
The lamp of the street where I was born  
was witness to my promises of love,  
It was under its dim light that I saw her  
I saw my pebeta as bright as a sun.  
Today luck wants me to see you again,  
you my beloved city porteña,  
and I hear the lament  
of a bandoneón,  
asking for his heart to be set free. 
My Buenos Aires,  
land of flowers  
where I will spend my last days.  
Under your protection  
there are no delusions,  
years fly by,  
pain is forgotten.  
In caravan  
memories go by  
like a trail  
sweet of emotion,  
I want you to know  
that when I call you  
sorrow leaves  
my heart.

The tiny windows of my streets of arrabal,  
where a young girl gives a smile;  
I want to stare once again  
at those eyes that touch with a look.  
In the toughest back alley, a song  
says its prayer of courage and of passion;  
a promise  
and a sigh  
wiped away a tear of sadness, that singing.

My beloved Buenos Aires,  
the day I see you again,  
there will be no more sorrow or forgetfulness


The History

Argentine tango has a colorful history, one in which it has evolved from humble beginnings to the international cultural icon it is today.

The exact origins of tango—both the dance and the word itself—are lost in myth and an unrecorded history. The generally accepted theory is that in the mid-1800s, the African slaves who had been brought to Argentina or their descendants began to influence the local culture.

During the later part of the 1800s and early 1900s, Argentina was undergoing a massive immigration. In 1869, Buenos Aires had a population of 180,000. By 1914, its population was 1.5 million. The intermixing of African, Spanish, Italian, British, Polish, Russian and native-born Argentines resulted in a melting pot of cultures, and each borrowed dance and music from one another. Traditional polkas, waltzes and mazurkas were mixed with the popular habanera from Cuba and the candombe rhythms from Africa.

Most immigrants were single men hoping to earn their fortunes in this newly expanding country. They were typically poor and desperate, hoping to make enough money to return to Europe or bring their families to Argentina. The evolution of tango reflects their profound sense of loss and longing for the people and places they left behind. Exactly when and where the various forms of dance and music combined to create what became widely understood as tango is unclear. What is clear was that tango was considered a dance from the poor barrios.

Although high society looked down upon the activities in the barrios, well-heeled sons of the porteño oligarchy were not averse to slumming. Eventually, everyone found out about the tango and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the tango as both a dance and as an embryonic form of popular music had established a firm foothold in the fast-expanding city of its birth. It soon spread to provincial towns of Argentina and across the River Plate to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, where it became as much a part of the urban culture as in Buenos Aires.

Tango dance on patio, 1915
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The worldwide spread of the tango came in the early 1900s when wealthy sons of Argentine society families made their way to Paris and introduced the tango into a society eager for innovation and not entirely averse to the risqué nature of the dance or dancing with young, wealthy Latin men. Tango was the first couple dance ever seen in Europe that involved improvisation. Before the arrival of Tango, couple dance was sequence based, with every couple on the floor dancing the same steps at the same time. By 1913, the tango had become an international phenomenon in Paris, London and New York. There were tango teas, tango train excursions and even tango colors—most notably orange. The Argentine elite who had shunned the tango were now forced into accepting it with national pride.

The tango spread worldwide throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The dance appeared in movies and tango singers traveled the world. By the 1930s, the Golden Age of Argentina was beginning. The country became one of the ten richest nations in the world and music, poetry and culture flourished. The tango came to be a fundamental expression of Argentine culture, and the Golden Age lasted through the 1940s and 1950s.

Tango's fortunes have always been tied to economic conditions and this was very true in the 1950s. During this time, as political repression developed, lyrics reflected political feelings until they started to be banned as subversive. The dance and its music went underground as large dance venues were closed and large gatherings in general were prohibited. The tango survived in smaller, unpublicized venues and in the hearts of the people.

The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 began a spectacular Tango Renaissance in Buenos Aires. Suddenly everyone wanted to move. It was as though a physical weight had been lifted from them. Yoga classes were full. Martial arts classes were full. Dance classes of all kinds were full. And suddenly people wanted to learn to dance Tango, the ultimate symbol of Argentina to the rest of the world, because suddenly it felt all right to be proud to be Argentine again.


Tango and Rotary

It takes two to tango …
One of the six focus areas in Rotary is Peace and Conflict resolution. Dance is an incredibly powerful tool that brings people together. It works across cultures and languages.

Tango is a great analogy for describing the conflict resolution journey. Please read this great blog posthere from, one of the leading global politics blogs and regularly contributed to by professors who teach at the Rotary Peace Centre at Bradford University.


Questions for You

Please comment in the comments section.
1. Have you had experience dancing social dances such as the tango, salsa, swing dance, etc? if so, what has it contributed to your life?
2. What were your preconceptions of the tango? Has this week's meeting deepened your understanding of tango or changed your opinion? If so, how? 
3. Conflict Resolution,  like the Tango, is an improvised dance that is built around the quality of the embrace and the willingness of each party to share with the other. What is your impression of the article from, and what do you think can be learned from the comparison?

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