The Curious Twists and Turns of Tango

Argentinian street dancers, photo at wikipedia

The room is dark, red, smoky. The sound of a violin or bandoleon rises and falls, sinuous and beckoning, or perhaps blunt staccato, like a heartbeat. A couple dances, close enough so that as their bodies bend together, they seem to be one line, two long legs and long arms, or with legs bent at the knees between and against each other. This is tango.

The marvelous show Tango del Cielo came to a nearby local theater last week, and I have been humming “Libertango” ever since. The show is the brainchild of Argentinian Anna Maria Mendieta, harpist for the Sacramento Symphony, who took us through the history and mystery of the dance. The group and staging was spare, only three musicians and only three dancers, but tango doesn’t need much to evoke all of its history and passion, just a pluck of the strings and a stamp of the feet.

Tango Histórico

As tango itself has evolved more than once, even spawning nuevo tango and more than a dozen dance variations, you would think it older than a century and a half. Compared to belly dancing or even opera, it’s a veritable toddler of a musical style. Yet, just as Americans might raise their voices over what constitutes classic rock versus metal versus emo, distinctions barely decades old, it’s not surprising that other people would argue over tango. Nothing starts fiercer fights than disagreements over art. Especially proper art.

Argentinians don’t hesitate to fight over what constitutes a proper tango. They created the music and the dance, so as with any creation, as it changes, there are growing pains. Tango was born in the late nineteenth century, at the border of Argentina and Uruguay, where immigrants and former slaves combined their cultures and music. The two countries have long argued about where it started and who owned it, finally coming together in 2008 to celebrate UNESCO granting the dance its “international cultural heritage.”

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