San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Tango Tangle: Dance’s Origins Spark Debate

It is a “…grotesque combination of ridiculous contortions and repugnant attitudes that seem impossible to be executed or even observed by anyone who values personal decency.”

No, this is not a comment about Elvis Presley or whatever socially unacceptable dance is currently on the scene. This is a description of the tango from a turn-of-thecentury Spanish magazine.

Of course, every generation is convinced that it has the most revolutionary and contentious music and dance ever, but it looks like the tango generation takes the prize. You see, the tango not only engendered controversy and discord in its time, it continues to do so today.

When we dance the tango, we enter the realm of legend and discord. The “experts” disagree so much about every aspect of it that “legend” may be the only word we can use to describe what began in Buenos Aires some 126 years ago.

Even the origin of its name is in dispute. It may be that the word came from “tambo,” an African word for a place where groups of black slaves or freed slaves gathered to dance.

Then again, it may come from the name of the Spanish dances fandango and tanguillo andaluz. There are other theories. Perhaps these very words from the tango “El choclo” are the best introduction to its beginnings:

Con este tango nació un tango, y como un grito, Salió del sórdido barreal buscando el cielo. (With this tango, a tango was born, / and like a cry / It emerged from a sordid mud hole / looking for heaven.)

And so it did emerge. It is generally accepted that the tango was born in the slums and outlying areas of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century. However, the Uruguayans like to claim that it first emerged on their side of the banks of the Río Plata.

In Buenos Aires, street organs spread it throughout other neighborhoods, and theaters began to include it in their performances. It coexisted with various other dances, and little by little it took over the entire city.

At that time, the population of Buenos Aires was 25% black because of close mercantile ties with Cuba, and 50% of the inhabitants of the city were immigrants from a multitude of countries. Furthermore, many gauchos (cowboys of the pampas) were emigrating from the country to the city. As a result, some 70% of the entire population in Buenos Aires were men, most seeking their fortune. The tango was born among this huge but marginal immigrant population.

One area of hot debate is the legend that the tango was born in the houses of prostitution in Buenos Aires. According to the dissenters, very few of the houses of prostitution provided music or dancing. What did exist in profusion were “academias,” dance salons where hired women danced with men. Many of these salons were of poor repute, but they were not houses of prostitution. It may have been in these salons that the tango principally developed.

Since the few women available for dancing were not young ladies from upright families, the tango developed as a provocative, corporal and explicit way of dancing with a lessthan- respectable partner – for the tango was first born as a determined manner of dancing to already existent melodies. As a result of Cuban elements and immigrant and alienated gaucho populations, there was a great range of ethnic music and dance styles floating around the Argentine port: the candombe, the son, the danzón, the habanera, the schottische, the corrido, the polka, the canzonet, the mazurka, the waltz and even Italian opera.

Many think that the tango finds its roots doubly in the popular Spanish habanera, a form rather like a slow tango, and in the rhythm of the African candombe. Both of these date back, at some point, to Cuba, which appears to be the cradle of Latin American music.

Perhaps most important, at least in the opinion of some experts, is the native gaucho music, forms such as la cifra and la milonga, among many others. These are songs about the daily life of the country folk of the plains: ranches, horses, love, poverty, betrayal. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Of these, it seems that the milonga may be the tango’s closest choreographic relative. (My Tico husband, in fact, describes the milonga as “a syncopated tango.”) If you want to watch both the milonga and the tango in action, as well as see an extraordinary movie, rent “The Motorcycle Diaries.” There is even a battle over tango lyrics.

When the tango finally began to transform sheer music into song, the lyrics were reputed to be obscene because, as legend claims, they grew out of houses of prostitution. A couple of early titles seem to confirm their obscenity: “Dos sin sacarla” (“Two without Taking It Out”) and “Siete pulgadas” (“Seven Inches”). Some sources, though, claim that such titles and their lyrics were already existent in the polkas, corridos and many other kinds of songs of the time. Certainly, given the ruggedness of the population, the tango wouldn’t have had a monopoly on “dirty” port songs.

The story goes that, given all these conditions, the tango was not acceptable in respectable society for many years and was even prohibited by the Vatican. Certainly, it was considered scandalous.However, there is no Vatican record that it was ever prohibited, and by 1902 the Teatro Opera was performing tangos, an indication of acceptance in society.

The legend continues that it was the Parisians who changed the fate of the tango. They went wild for it and made it popular worldwide, thus allowing Argentina to claim it as their national pride. It ain’t necessarily so. According to some, the tango did not  even reach Europe until 1912, and by then it was already popular in Argentina.

Whatever its true history, we know that by the early 20th century the turmoil and trouble were over, and tango was triumphant. It was then that the dazzling prewar world discovered the golden troubadour of the tango, the father of the tango-as-song, CarlosGardel.

Next time, we’ll look at the tango-as-song and its lyrics – and, oh, what lyrics!


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