Latin American Dance: The History of Tango
Tango is one of the world’s most popular dances. You may know that it originated in Argentina, or that it takes two to tango, or that it’s also a musical genre. But do you know how to tango? Do you know its steps and history? If you want to improve your Spanish and dance moves, this article is for you! It might even change your musical taste and expand your playlists. So, tap your Spotify app, search for a Carlos Gardel playlist, and brace for some tango lessons and a trip from Africa to Mar de Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
First, learn this pattern: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2.
Now, feet together, toes apart. Let’s begin.
Table of Contents:
- What is Tango?
- The History and Origin of Tango
- How to Tango
- The Music of Tango
- Traditional Tango Costumes
- Modern Tango Songs
- First You Take Buenos Aires, Then You Take The World
What is Tango?
Tango is both a dance and a musical genre. It’s most famously practiced in Argentina and Uruguay. This highly-collaborative dance is based on vibrant, passionate, and intense movements and rich expressions and improvisation.
It takes two people to dance tango. One is the leader and the other the follower. The leader “argues,” and the follower “responds.” Many people consider tango a ballroom dance, but more and more dancers perform on the street.
Tango dancers tend to dress exquisitely. They usually wear flashy and elegant garments: bright and colorful dresses, tight suits, long skirts, feathers, even. Women, additionally, wear high heels. There are different styles of tango: Argentine Tango, Tango Nuevo, Maxixe or Brazilian Tango, and so on.
Although some documents trace tango back to as early as the 1820s, its roots date back centuries back, as we’ll see later on.
As we mentioned, tango is also a musical genre; while you can listen to tango without dancing, you can’t dance tango without the music. Some of its most famous singers and composers are Carlos Gardel, Carlos Acuña, and Ástor Piazzolla.
The History and Origin of Tango
Have you wondered where did tango originate? The origins of tango can be traced back to ancient Africa. Both the dance and its steps or movements and the rhythm pattern (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2) come from African music, culture, and traditions.
When enslavers brought African people to America, eventually, their culture got mixed with the culture and traditional dances of native and indigenous people. For example, the candombe is a folk dance Uruguayans and Argentines of African ancestry perform, and it’s one of tango’s forefathers. In addition, the word “tango” was used to describe gatherings of slaves.
Eventually, tango found its way to theaters, social gatherings, and the streets, becoming more popular and socially acceptable.
In the early 1900s, the first tango composers such as Juan Maglio and Enrique Cadícamo began recording and releasing their music. Soon tango spread across the world. Tango dancers and musicians traveled to Europe and the US.
Paris and New York soon embraced tango. In 1917, Carlos Gardel, arguably the most famous tango singer in history, recorded his first song titled Mi Noche Triste, My Sad Night.
The rest of the 20th Century was a rollercoaster ride for tango. First, in 1930 tango declined in Argentina due to the Great Depression. Then, in the 1940s, tango saw a resurgence; many consider this decade as the “golden age of tango.”
It, however, declined again in the 1950s, when the military dictatorships banned public gatherings. Then modern composers such as Ástor Piazzolla breathed a new life into the genre and dance.
Then in the 1980s, theater directors Claudio Segovia and Héctor Orezzoli premiered Tango Argentino, a musical based on the history of tango that even made it to Broadway as Forever Tango.
In 2009 UNESCO included Tango in its prestigious Intangible Cultural Heritage List, alongside Chinese calligraphy and Spain’s whistled language, Silbo Gomero.
How to Tango
If you really want to become a tango fanatic, you must learn its steps. First, let’s go back to that rhythm pattern: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2. All tango songs share this pattern; it’ll be easier for you to dance with fluidity if you’re familiar with it.
Basic tango requires eight steps, both for leader and follower, and you can practice on your own. First, you must keep your back straight.
Recommended: 80+ Dance Vocabulary Words in Spanish
The Music of Tango
Much like the dance, tango is a passionate and energetic musical genre. Tango songs often don’t need more than a violin and a vocalist. However, the genre has evolved to such an extent that today there are many tango orchestras, and throughout history, we can find notable and talented tango singers, instrumentalists, composers, and bandleaders.
Some of its most famous composers or singers are Ángel Villoldo, Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro, Carlos Gardel, Aníbal Troilo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Ástor Piazzolla, and Tanghetto.
Even modern artists like Jorge Drexler and Shakira have experimented with the genre and its close brother, the milonga.
Instrument Vocabulary in Spanish
To help you expand your vocabulary, here are some of the instruments used in tango and their translation into Spanish:
|piano||el piano / el piano de cola|
|double bass||el contrabajo|
If you want to hear some of these artists and more, here’s a Spotify playlist with over four hours of music, ranging from classic tango to European tango and neo tango.
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Traditional Tango Costumes
Sure, you can practice wearing your everyday clothes. But professional tango dances dress accordingly. They become a type of superheroes when they take the stage or the street. The garments tango dancers wear are based on elegance and seduction.
Men wear a suit, a button shirt, and tie or bowtie. Don’t forget the belt or suspenders, and dress shoes. Some men also wear vests.
|button shirt||la camisa formal / la camisa de botones|
|belt||el cinturón / el cincho|
|suspenders||los tirantes / los tiradores|
|dress shoes||los zapatos de vestir|
Women typically wear a dress, or a blouse and a skirt. Some wear pantyhose, too. High heels are also a must since some steps require women to stomp loudly.
|high heels||los tacones|
Recommended: The Ultimate Guide to Clothes in Spanish
Modern Tango Songs
Tango has evolved. Composers today mix classic tango with modern and contemporary sounds and genres such as rock, electronic music, jazz, avant-garde, and hip hop, and it’s not limited to Argentina or Uruguay. Here are five of the best modern tango songs:
Tango Místico by Tanghetto (Argentina)
Perfume by Bajofondo Tango Club (Argentina and Uruguay)
Gorni di Marzo by Nuevo Tango Ensamble (Italy)
Diferente by Gotan Project (Argentina and France)
El Tango del Gringo by Electrocutango (Norway)
First You Take Buenos Aires, Then You Take The World
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