Tango~ A Historical Overview

Early African Influences–1800s
Like many other artistic expressions, Tango’s beginnings are mired in myth and mystery. Historical records are scarce.

It is widely accepted, however, that the large influx of African slaves in Argentina in the mid-1800s deeply influenced the culture and possibly even introduced the word Tango. During this time the place where African slaves and free blacks gather to celebrate and dance is commonly known as a “Tango.”

Humble Beginnings in the Barrios–1880s
Immigrants pour into Argentina and Uruguay, swelling the population of the port cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo with a mix of African, Spanish, Italian, British, Polish, Russian and native-born people. Most immigrants are poor, single men hoping to make their fortunes and return home.

This rich cultural mix in the neighborhoods where they live (barrios) promotes sharing traditional music and dances. These include polkas, waltzes, mazurkas, and the Cuban habanera and African candombe. Around this time, German immigrants introduce the bandoneon, a concertina-like musical instrument that is considered to be the “soul” of Tango music.

Tango Starts to Take Hold–1880s
This diversity produces a wealth of innovative and distinctive social dance steps that show up in the city dance halls, bars and brothels frequented by the immigrants and native poor.

It is not uncommon for men to dance with men to practice and show off their steps. It becomes a competition to attract women dance partners. Gradually, the emerging Tango music and improvisational dance takes hold among the popular culture.

Tango Spreads Worldwide – Early 1900s
Wealthy young Argentines travel to Paris and introduce this passionate, sensual partner dance to high society. Paris catches Tango fever and the dance craze quickly spreads to London and New York. By 1913 it captivates an international following and is danced worldwide throughout the 1920s and 30s.

In 1917, the already acclaimed folksinger Carlos Gardel sings lyrics to the tango Mi Noche Triste. Gardel quickly becomes the most famous singer in Argentina. In the late 1920s and early 30s Gardel travels to Spain and Paris to sing Tangos and appears in numerous films. He soon gains an international reputation as Tango’s prime singer and epitomizes its spirit until his untimely death in a plane crash in 1935. Gardel is still revered worldwide today.

Golden Age of Tango – 1940s
Tango is accepted as the fundamental expression of Argentine culture and is a source of national pride. It is an extremely creative time for tango musicians, poets and dancers in Argentina. More orchestras, composers and dancers are creating more Tango music and steps than ever.

Tango Goes Underground – 1950s
Political repression in Argentina causes some Tango lyrics to be banned as subversive; many popular dance venues close and citizens are restricted from gathering in large groups in public.

Tango survives in the hearts and minds of the masses. It continues to be danced in homes and at small, unpublicized dance parties.

Stage Show Sparks Tango Revival – 1980s
The Tango Argentino stage show opens in Paris and is credited with igniting a worldwide Tango revival. It features the best dancers from Argentina and tours the world, including a six-month run on Broadway. This theatrical production seduces more people to learn to dance Tango. As a result, classes sprout up internationally.

Tango Continues to Evolve – Present
Today, musicians and dancers around the world continue to express themselves and their emotions through the Tango. This mesmerizing, improvised partner dance with its distinctive musical forms still attracts new audiences, composers and dancers worldwide. In turn, they each contribute to the evolution of this living art form called Argentine Tango.