Description of the Tango
Oh what a fiery and dramatic dance! American Style Tango evolved as a ballroom dance from the sultry Argentine Tango danced by gauchos and prostitutes in the brothels of Buenos Aires.
American Style Tango features sharp movements, head snaps, and a cat-like and stealthy foot action. The music is in 4/4 time and has a marching rhythm.
Characteristics of the Tango
Tango is characterized by a close hold, a low center of gravity and an emphasis on Contra Body movement. Movement is stealthy, almost cat-like and has an unmistakable staccato feel and major dramatic attitude. The Leader’s right arm is further around and lower on the Follower’s back than in the other Smooth dances. The Leader’s left arm is bent at 90 degree angle with left hand held closed in toward the Leader’s body and face. The follower’s left hand is placed behind and below the Leader’s upper right arm.
Phrasing is an important part of Tango. Most Tango music is phrased to 16 or 32 beats of music. Tango music is like a story. It contains paragraphs (Major phrases); sentences (Minor phrases); and the period at the end of the sentence is the Tango close.
Time signature: 4/4 or 2/4
Tempo: 30-32 measures per minute in 4/4 time
Timing: SSQQS and QQS QQS plus others
Beat value: 2-2-1-1, 1-1-2 1-1-2
Tango (the dance with the stop “Baille Con Carte”) originated in Spain or Morocco. The Tango was introduced to the New World by the Spanish settlers, eventually coming back to Spain with Black and Creole influences. In the early 19th century, the Tango was a solo dance performed by the woman. The Andalusian Tango was later done by one or two couples walking together using castanets. The dance was soon considered immoral with its flirting music!
The first piece of tango music called “Toma maté, ché” was written in Argentina in 1857 but probably referred to Tango Andaluz (Andalucian Tango), a style of music from the area of Spain which is the home of Flamenco. Flamenco music was very popular in Buenos Aires in the middle of the 19th century. Tango in Argentina became something completely different from the Spanish music from which it borrowed its name.
Tango is only the third dance in history danced with the man and woman facing each other, the man holding the woman’s right hand in his left, and with his right arm around her. Tango however, was radically different from the other couple dances because it introduced the concept of improvisation for the first time, and was a huge influence on all couple dancing in the 20th century.
Ballroom tango was born in the slums of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century. There is uncertainty as to how the dance came about. Argentine gauchos and migrating blacks were socializing in the infamous Bario de las Ranas, trading cultural rhythms and dance steps in and around the areas of well-known brothels. From this melting pot emerged a highly passionate dance, one that the respectable classes of society shunned. Legend has it that the gauchos of Argentina wore chaps that had hardened from the foam and sweat of the horse’s body causing the gauchos to walk with knees flexed. They would go to the crowded night clubs and ask the local girls to dance. Since the gaucho hadn’t showered, the lady would dance in the crook of the man’s right arm, holding her head back. Her right hand was held low on his left hip, close to his pocket, looking for a payment for dancing with him. The man danced in a curving fashion because the floor was small with round tables, so he danced around and between them.
Another story talks about the terrible shortage of women in Buenos Aires due to the massive migration of workers (men) from Europe And Africa. A man wanting to get close to a woman, had to visit a prostitute or dance. With so much competition from other men on the dance floor, the women would only dance with good dancers – defined by whether the woman felt good when she danced with him, and not by the number of fancy steps, or if other men thought he was a good dancer. Therefore it was necessary for the men to practice together to work on their leading/connection skills so they can make a woman feel good dancing. This was a time before recorded music and live music was not easily available. So when a group of men heard music playing they would jump at the chance to dance to it.
Prostitution was a thriving industry and there would be queues in the brothels as men waited for the women to become available. Brothel owners would employ Tango musicians to entertain the men while waiting. These musicians were playing the music of the poor, and brothels were amongst the very few places in that section of society that could pay professional musicians so the most important early musicians often spent time working in brothels before becoming successful to a wider audience. So where there was music, the waiting men would use opportunity to practice their dancing together.
It was the potential wives and sweethearts that lived in the tenement blocks – conventillos – that they were hoping for a chance to dance with. A prostitute took money from a man in return for her favors, to win a sweetheart in the real world took something more, and being a good dancer helped a lot.
Therefore, it was not in the brothels that Tango was born, but in the courtyards of the tenement blocks where the poor lived. With so many people living together in one building, they would get together to play the popular tunes of the time. And other people in the building would take the opportunity to dance, to have a moment of joy in what might be a terribly hard and lonely life.
The music and dance became a common language that united people from many different cultures. It was here that the different music and dance styles brought by immigrants from different countries, and by the people already in Argentina, blended together, and what emerged slowly became Tango.
The men practicing together, looking for the best ways to please a woman when they danced with her, preparing for that rare moment when they actually did have a woman in their arms, were the people who created the Tango as a dance. It evolved and became Tango, unique and glorious, under these very special and unusual circumstances.
Tango spread throughout Europe in the 1900’s taking Paris by storm in 1912. The popularity of Tango in Europe, and especially in Paris, made it an interesting couple dance to the upper classes in Buenos Aires, and the Tango was re-imported for their benefit. As time elapsed and the music became more subdued, the dance was finally considered respectable even in Argentina.
Tango was popularized in New York in the winter of 1910 – 1911 becoming all the rage right before the First World War. Vernon and Irene Castle made their fortune from Tango, becoming America’s sweethearts of the dance. There was a flurry of Tango dance hall openings and tango teas became popular in big hotels. Couples even danced between courses at the finer restaurants. Rudolph Valentino made Tango a hit in 1921, performing a sensual Tango in the silent film “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. The dance varied greatly from performer to performer and was eventually standardized in the 1920’s by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. There are several Tango styles: Argentine, French, Gaucho and International. Tango has become one of our American ‘Standards’ regardless of its origin. The Americanized version is a combination of the best parts of each.