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Tango: The Soul of Argentina

Love, eroticism, passion, melancholy, hate; the Tango represents everytangothing that makes up the relationship between a man and a woman. That’s why it never goes out of fashion. No other dance has started a similar triumphal procession around the world than the Tango as it came to Paris from Buenos Aires around 1910. Find out why the Tango has continuously fascinated people for more than 100 years.

A Detailed History of  the Tango

As the Tango came to the Seine in Paris from the Rio Plata in Buenos Aires around 1910, it instantly infected the whole city with its erotic charm.  Shortly thereafter this included all of Europe and then the whole globe. The Tango was danced with the same fervor in Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Helsinki and Tokyo. Even the Pope let himself be personally introduced to the new dance in the Vatican.

Emperor Wilhelm II., on the other hand, prohibited his officers to dance the Tango in uniform. But against this widespread worldwide Tango virus not even a decree from the Emperor could do anything.  After the Fist World War the Tango hysteria lessened somewhat, only to lead to an even bigger second Tango wave in the 20s and especially in the 30s.

Those were the golden days for the dance halls in Berlin. The people came in masses to the “Delphi“, to the “El Dorado“ and to the “Moka Efti“ first and foremost to dance the Tango, with its incredibly exciting breaks. However, the roots of the Tango were not very presentable. Where and how it really started has not been cleared up until now. One thing is clear, though; it comes from the crazy brothel area in the suburban areas Arrabal and Suburbio around  Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

By the way: the capital of Uruguay can count itself as the home of the Tango with the same right as can Buenos Aires. Both cities are situated opposite each other on the great mouth of the Rio Plata and enjoy a close cultural exchange. Arrabal and Suburbio refer less to the geographical location than to the social origin of both cities. Arrabal was always the place where the outlaws lived.  The high society and the intellectuals therefore condemned the Tango. To them, this dance was a disgrace and only for the “simple people”.

At the beginning of the 20th century Argentina was a melting pot for immigrants from all kinds of countries. In the backyards of the overcrowded tenements the musical traditions from first and foremost Italy, Eastern Europe and Arabia mixed. Added to these “exotic” influences were the Cuban Habernas, the Creole Milongas and Andalusian dances. All of them contributed something to the emergence of the Tango. At first, it was improvised from a maximum of three cords. The accordion, the flute, the clarinet and the guitar made up the rest of the instruments.

At the turn of the century fixed repertoires soon developed from this, today known as Guardia Vieja“ (the old guard). Many poor musicians finally found a livelihood through this. The most famous Tango musician of his time was Angel Gregorio Villoldo, who composed many classics such as “El Choclo“ and “La Morocha“. Professional ensembles developed out of the improvised sessions. The bandonion, the piano, the violin and the viola replaced the original instruments.

In this form the Tango came to Paris in 1910 and conquered everybody’s heart. Around 1917 the era of the “Guardia Nueva“ (the new guard) started. The Tango became more complex. The typical three cords and the simple phrases were replaced with complicated harmonies and performances. The Argentinean upper class soon became proud of “their” national dance after this worldwide fame. And that’s how the Tango, long after Paris, Berlin and London, finally also conquered the fine salons of Buenos Aires.

At the big conference for English dance teachers in London in 1921 the Tango was standardized. Here the Tango-Milonga was introduced. This European form was easier to dance and was somewhat closer to the English form and sense of movement. The Tango was in this way adapted to the English Travelling-Dance-Style. Then at the famous congress in London in 1929, the English dance teachers finally declared the Tango with 30 to 32 beats per minute as a standard dance.

That’s why the Tango today is attributed to the English style. The names “standard dances” and “Latin dances” have established themselves, even though these names do not always correspond to their actual origins. True, the Tango came from Argentina and is therefore a Latin American dance, but is also integrated in the standard discipline because of its closed dancing posture.

The Bandonion, the Soul of the Tango

The inventor Heinrich Band from Krefeld never could have dreamed of it, when around 1854 he designed and constructed the bandonion for church music. With his partners it was built in the Erz mountains and exported to the whole world.  The name Bandonion or Bandoneon developed from his company “Band Union“.  How the bandonion finally came to Buenos Aires to embark on its triumphal procession around the world is not known.

Supposedly, a German sailor sold his instrument in a harbor dive because of money problems. In such a way, the instrument must have found its way to one of the many Tango ensembles – in order to conquer the world as the soul of the Tango with its special sound from there on. By the way, the production of bandonions in the Erz mountains was started again after the German unification.

Carlos Gradel, Enrique Santos Discépolo, Astor Piazzolla

The Tango is more defined through its composers, singers and instruments than through its dancers. That’s how the bandonion dominates the instruments of the Tango and Carlos Gardel its voice. Together with Evita Peron and Diego Armando Maradonna, Carlos Gardel makes up the  immortal triptych of modern Argentina. Since his death in a plane crash in 1935 he has become a legend. In 1917 he recorded the Tango “Mi noche triste“ and thereby made the first step on his way to become a world star of Tango. In his black tuxedo Gardel embodied the “Argentinean” dream: from a destitute immigrant child into the collective memory of Argentina.

When professors of literature occupy themselves with Tango texts, however, it’s the name Enrique Santos Discépolo that inevitably comes up. He is considered the most melancholic composer and Tango poet. He was not an intellectual, but instead close to the people and popular.  His first piece in 1926,  “Qué Vachaché“ (what can you do) was a flop; the text was to serious – but with the coming worldwide economic crisis, which also hit Argentina badly, Dicépolo more and more became the speaker for the lack of values and orientation in his time.

As a contrast, Astor Piazzolla is considered the renovator of the Tango. He was the embodiment of the Tango reaching into the nineties. With a Tango stamped by Jazz, Rock and modern classical music, he was a thorn in the eye for many conservatives. Like the Tango itself, he had to become famous in Europe before he could receive his rightful fame also in Argentina.  Piazzolla is considered one of the most productive composers overall in the 20th century. After his death in Paris in 1992 he left more than 800 compositions.


2/4 beat, also 4/8 or 4/4 beat is possible, with syncopated accompanying rhythm, mostly all eight notes are equally accentuated

Pace: 30-40 beats/minute,

Contest pace: 33 beats/minute


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