Films and television have aided in making the tango popular to general public. It’s often depicted as beautiful, powerful, seductive, and – at times – comical. But tango’s history reflect the social and cultural dynamics of the region from which it was born.
Tango developed in the Rio de Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay. Emerging from the region in the late-1800s, elements of the dance and music are much older. The dance itself derives from the Cuban habanera. Tango also has roots in the Uruguayan candombe. The style was popular among Afro-Uruguayanas, where they they organized dances every Sunday and on special holidays.
If the term habanera conjures up Bizet’s fiery Carmen, gypsy living, and toreadors, you’re on the right path. The dance was popular among working-class citizens of the region. Brothels and taverns served as venues for weekly performances and entertainment. These locales were later frequented by European immigrants of the mid-1800s. Adding their own cultural elements and instruments, the genre grew in national popularity. Angel Villoldo is one of tango’s earliest pioneers. He held many jobs, including circus clown and writer. His comical, if not debauched, melodies became popular among the middle-class. In 1902, the first tango ball was at the prominent Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires for the country’s elites.
The 1910s was a great moment for tango, bringing the genre to an international audience. Villoldo traveled to France, where he recorded the first tango album. His album gained popularity among French society and trendsetters. During this decade the bandoneon made its introduction in Argentina via German immigrants. Tango composer Juan “Pacho” Maglio quickly incorporated the instrument into his compositions – making the instrument forever tied with the tango. This decade also involved musicians and dancers making European and American tours. These audiences enjoyed the music, but the high level of body contact was shocking. They later adapted the dance in “ballroom” tango, which resulted in less body contact. Argentine dancers responded by returning to tango’s working-class roots. This involved adding more aggressive and sexual moves.
Tango music flourished in the post-War years. Julio de Caro became the first to form a classically-trained tango orchestra. His Orquesta Tipica made international travels and appearances. They often performed for the rich, influential, and famous. The highlight of their English tour was a performance for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. Meanwhile, French-Argentine Carlos Gardel became an international star. Known as the “King of Tango,” his good looks and baritone voice made him tango’s poster boy. This ushered in a golden age of tango which ran from the 1930s to 50s.
But the global popularity was not felt at home. Tango music declined in Argentina, due to the Great Depression and a military coup. The Perón era of the 1940s and 50s saw highlighted tango music and dance as a source of national pride. But the latter half of the 1950s brought a decline as dictators banned public gatherings. Tango, too, lost its appeal globally as a new wave of music and dances emerged.
The 1980s saw a global revival in tango music and dance. Nuevo tango emerged on the scene, led by Astor Piazzolla, which a new method to the old art form. International films, television, and plays revitalized tango for a new generation. The popularization continues even into the 21st century. Argentina’s tango scene in the early 2000s saw the emergence of tango electrónico. Set to electronica beats, electronic tango’s influences are diverse. Set against tango grooves, they sample other genres and splice in jazz singers. One of the most popular groups to emerge from this style is Gotan Project. You can hear their tracks in popular films and television shows of the ‘Aughts. The list includes Ocean’s Twelve, Chuck, Sex and the City, Shall We Dance?(2004), and Dancing With the Stars. And you may hear them in the background of swanky bars and cocktail lounges.
Born from the taverns of Argentina, tango remains a popular form worldwide. Its sensuous dance moves continue to excite audiences. And the music often makes many sway in their seats. While we won’t suggest getting up and dancing in the aisles, we’re sure you’ll be tapping your feet throughout the night.
Friday, March 15, 8pm
Saturday, March 16, 8pm
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre