Although it seems now to be the only possible hold for couple dancing, Tango is only the third dance in history done with the man and woman facing each other, with the man holding the woman's right hand in his left, and with his right arm around her.
The first dance done in this hold was the Viennese Waltz, which was a craze across Europe in the 1830s. Couple dancing before the Viennese Waltz was formal, with couples performing choreographed steps, and generally with no more physical contact than holding hands - if that (although some Renaissance dances like la volta could involve surprising levels of intimacy).
The second couple dance to use this hold was the Polka, which became the fashion in the 1840s.
The third dance, Tango, was radically different from anything that came before it because it introduced the concept of improvisation for the first time, and was a huge influence on all couple dancing in the Twentieth Century.
Immigrants into Argentina would have brought the fashionable new dances, with their shocking new hold. Exactly how and when the Tango began to evolve from these dances we can never now. The reason for this is that Tango was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars - the poor, the underprivileged. Often we have to pick our way through comments made by people who were not part of their culture, who knew little or nothing about Tango. However, there are a few facts that we can rely on.
The first piece of music written and published in Argentina describing itself as a tango appeared in 1857. It was called "Toma maté, ché". The word Tango at that time probably referred to what is now known as Tango Andaluz, Andalucian Tango, a style of music from the area of Spain which is also the home of Flamenco, which was one of the most popular kinds of music in Buenos Aires in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.
There are a number of theories about the origin of the word "Tango" in Argentina. One of the more popular in recent years has been that it came from the community of people of African descent, who mixed the name of their god of the drum with the Spanish word for drum (tambor), and came up with the word "Tango". There is some evidence that the African community did use the word. It seems to me, though, that if the word "Tango" was already in common use in Spanish to describe a style of music at the time when Tango was first being born, then that surely is the most likely root of the word, even though Tango in Argentina became something completely different from the Spanish music from which it borrowed its name. In any case, there is no traditional African dance done in couple hold, so important to the development of Tango. Couple dancing as we think of it certainly seems to have begun in Europe. Members of the African community in Buenos Aires certainly joined in and influenced the development of the dance and music, just as members all the other communities in Buenos Aires did. However, there does not seem to be any real evidence that the dance originated in the African community. Nor does there seem to be any remaining influence of African dance on it - so obvious even today in Salsa and Swing dance, for example.
It is my belief that the most important group in the development of Tango was one of the most neglected and ignored: poor, undereducated, underprivileged, straight white men – the people whose only mark on history was usually when they died in huge numbers in wars. That, of course, is only my opinion. So little evidence remains from this period that no one can be sure of anything.
We have evidence of the Tango being sung in theatres throughout the second half of the Nineteenth Century, and of a couple dancing Tango on stage in Buenos Aires in the 1890s, so certainly the dance was established before the end of the Nineteenth Century.
In the next article we will look at Tango's origins
- how and where Tango evolved.
© 2003 Christine Denniston
Get Tango information from history-of-tango.com