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.”

There is dispute over whether the music began in brothels, or simply evolved there. As Christine Denniston, author of The Meaning of Tango, explained, it wasn’t that men danced the tango with prostitutes. It was rather that brothel owners employed tango musicians and dancers, in the way that American madams employed blues and jazz musicians to play in their own establishments. At the turn of the 19th century, Buenos Aires landowners needed workers, so they paid immigrant men from Europe life-changing cash incentives to come to Argentina. This led to a large imbalance in the ratio of men to women, especially in the lower classes. The men would visit brothels frequently to …er… correct the imbalance, where they saw and heard the tango. Often, they would dance with each other while waiting for the prostitutes to be…available. When they went back out into the streets, they had to use extra charm to attract the scarce, non-prostitute women; tango was the mating dance. Only the best got the girls.

But the wealthy also visited the brothels, and as with many art forms that start in the streets, the upper classes made it socially acceptable. In the early 20th century, the musical style was danced everywhere in Argentina and was spreading to symphonies and ballrooms across Europe. By the Golden Age of Tango, the 1920s, there were already two camps: one preferring a tango de salon, with a more sophisticated symphonic arrangement and genteel syle, and the other rougher, more sensual, and with lyrics that might even include social protest.

Street dancers in Argentina mix ballroom and Argentinian styles, youtube video

In 1946, when Juan Peron assumed power, he extolled the “virtues” of the tango as Argentina’s national dance, as a natural expression of his people. He and Evita danced, and the rest of the country followed suit. So, somehow it seems unsurprising that when Peron was overthrown in 1955, the military junta banned tango. They threatened dancers with blacklisting or imprisonment. Ironically enough, the music that replaced the tango in Argentina? Rock ‘n’ roll, that wholesome, safe, natural expression of the joy of youth.

Piazzolla playing Libertango, at Youtube

How Dare You Include Two Bandoneons!

Tango diverged across classes and across political parties. It also diverged musically, due to a single musician: Astor Piazzolla.

Piazzolla was born in Argentina but moved with his family to New York City and essentially grew up in Greenwich Village, playing on the rough streets, but listening to all sorts of music at home–tango, but also Bach and jazz. He learned to play the bandoneon, a variation of the concertina (or accordion, but don’t say that to an Argentinian). At 11, Piazzolla composed his first tango and by 17, had returned to Buenos Aires and joined one of the great tango orchestras of 1938, under Anibal Troilo.

However, as he improved his composition and orchestration skills, he started including advanced elements from jazz improvisation. He parted ways with Troilo, who didn’t like the innovation. By 30 years old, he was composing for films and orchestras. He entered a composition for a musical award and won a grant to study under famed teacher, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris, who worked with him to develop his counterpoint and push tango even further. Yet even winning the award was controversial.

…for the Fabian Sevitzky Award…the performance took place at the law school in Buenos Aires…At the end of the concert, a fight broke out among members of the audience who were offended by the inclusion of two bandoneons in a traditional symphony orchestra…

Wikipedia entry for Astor Piazzolla

By the time Juan Peron was overthrown, Piazzolla had created nuevo tango in full. Argentina didn’t like it and forced him to seek support elsewhere. He did, and in Europe and North America, they loved him. More prizes followed, more compositions, more film scores, and within another thirty years, nuevo tango had become enshrined as a distinct but equally valid style of tango.

Piazzolla’s style is to tango what Picasso was to painting. It’s obviously modern but obviously music for dancing, staccato at some points and sinuous at others. You might not hear it on Dancing With the Stars, but you would on the streets of Argentina, where dancers still entertain and pass the hat.

Tango Internacional

So tango was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Argentina but didn’t stay there. The Golden Age in Argentina spawned similar ones across Europe and elsewhere. It made it to film, with Valentino dancing with Alice Terry.

Valentino tangoing in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Photo at Pinterest.

In Copenhagen, Jacob Gade composed a piece called “Jalousie Tango” for the symphony. According to harpist Mendieta, the composition didn’t especially catch on and within a decade, the music was sitting in a bargain basement. Arthur Fiedler happened to come across it and decided to record it with the Boston Pops in 1935, and the song’s popularity took off. By the time Frankie Laine recorded it in 1951, “Jalousie Tango” had become a standard. Buenos Aires couldn’t keep tango for itself.

A Tale of Two Cities

There was an even more manic reaction to tango in one place in particular. This was a country where, by 1940, half the entries on popular music charts were tango. Tango was danced in festivals, in the streets, in dance lessons, and it had become a national passion. Morley Safer even covered it in a “60 Minutes” segment. But this was not Buenos Aires. This was Helsinki.

Finnish tango, photo at

…In the forests which cover 90% of the country…tens of thousands will tango together…there are tango halls in the deep, deep woods…

Tango Finlandia, 60 Minutes, July 4, 1999

But the Finns–my people–who are notoriously reticent in public, melancholy, and alcoholic, would seem as opposite to the sexy Latin lovers as could be. Songs in the Finnish style were created only in a minor key. The dance had become sad rather than sensual, and while the dancers stand close, they don’t smolder. The rigidity, the bent knee, and the formal pose have been mastered by the Finns. The passion stays bottled up.

Still, though born among the dark-haired, dark skinned in the streets of Argentina, some of tango’s fiercest supporters became a different people 13,000 miles away, blonde-haired, pale-skinned Lapplanders who drink and dance the Tangotassi away among the trees. The Argentinians would certainly understand the sorrow.

Tango Filosófico

Ultimately, tango isn’t just a dance but an attitude, a personality. There’s a reason that a seven-year-old who has seen the Addams Family can pretend to do the tango, but not the fox trot. It was so distinctive that even Lurch could learn it.

Gomez, tango dancer extraordinaire, demonstrates for Lurch. From Once Upon a Screen.

There is a pride that comes from those who had nothing in their pocket but everything in their heart. There is the movement of one body against another, where muscles move faster than the brain can calculate. Whether the tango is an expression of sexuality or sorrow, whether it is meant to be for the poor or owned by the wealthy, danced on the silver screen or in the streets, it’s easy to recognize and glorious to imitate.

It is pure line and pure expression.

Pure tango.

Showreel on Youtube

Tango del Cielo, which inspired this blog, tours nationally. Their website includes a fascinating show reel and performance dates on

Leave a Reply