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For an outsider coming to Buenos Aires, the local music is one thing that makes an instant impression, and it’s also no secret that many thousands of people travel there each year for one thing, and one thing alone: Tango. Even though it is practised less by native Argentines, who nowadays prefer Salsa and streetdance, tango remains the activity that Buenos Aires is primarily associated with (together with Futbol, of course). Far from being a clichéd dance style, Tango has a depth of character and innovation that will draw you stepping and spinning into its soulful world. In 2009, the tango was declared cultural heritage by inscribing it on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
The direct origins of Tango are now lost in the mists of time, but certainly several influences have come together to create the style of music and dance that is seen today. Several waves of European immigrants (many male) brought the Waltz and Polka over with them, and this mixed with Habanera from Cuba, Candombe from Spain, South American Milonga and African rhythms brought over by the slaves. Tango in its early days belonged to the poorer classes, the uneducated and neglected ones, but while information is sparse, there is evidence the Tango was being sung and danced in the second half of the 19th century.
With a shortage of women in Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century, men would practice dancing so they could attract a female. And with so few women, men would often dance with other men to live music or while waiting in line at the under-staffed brothels. With themes deeply entrenched in depression, narcotics, sex and underworld behaviour while being danced by morally wayward characters from the bordellos to the dockyards, it’s no surprise the Tango was shunned by the ruling class.
Argentina in the decade before the First World War was one of the richest countries in the world. The Tango during this time found its way into Europe through Argentine sailors and the rich sons of the Buenos Aires upper-class (well-versed in the Tango from brothel visits). Soon after they began dancing with the local girls in France, it was taking the well-heeled in Paris and the rest of Europe by storm, but at home it continued to be completely unacceptable.
As Tango became popular around the world, and began to migrate to cafes and dance halls around Buenos Aires, Argentines needed a hero to help them embrace the dance, and one came - Carlos Gardel. Within twenty years, Tango was entering its Golden Age, an era where Tango was embraced by the majority of the population. When left-wing Perón was in power during the 1950’s, the Tango was defined as the dance of the people.
When the military seized power in 1955, the culture of Tango was seen as a threat. Local artists were often blacklisted or arrested, while the emerging sensation of Rock and Roll, in contrast with the rest of the world, was encouraged. There were periods of curfews and bans on meetings of more than three people, and it was during this time that Show Tango was invented for European audiences as a way for Argentine dancers and musicians to earn a living.
When the dictatorship fell in 1983 after the Falkland’s War, people began to embrace the Tango in Argentina again. From there, the style exploded and diversified and now enjoys huge popularity again not only in its birthplace, but around the globe.
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La Boca, the city’s old port is often where tourists will have their first encounter with Tango. On the streets of this colourful neighbourhood, Tango seems to emanate from every café, live orquestas play out front of the restaurants while fishnet-stockinged dancers will pose with a tourist on the corner for a fee. San Telmo, just south of the city centre is the place to be on a Sunday afternoon, where a huge market fills the streets. Along the way one can find several orquestas típicas, Tango art and even Tango mannequin performances. Plaza Dorrego heats up at night after 8:00pm when the dancing community go to cut loose.
The Microcentro of Buenos Aires contains most of the Tango Show Salons, such as Café Tortoni. With dramatic choreographed dance, live singing and music, the performances often draw gasps from the tourist crowds. Palermo is where the majority of the Tango Salons, also called Milongas, lie. A usual night at a Milonga will start with a dance lesson, then couples will dance together for an hour or two, before a live performance comes on around or (often) after midnight. Late-night stamina really is a must in Buenos Aires with often plenty more dancing to be had once the band finishes.
Tangodata tries to keep a list of all milongas, classes and shows. They do a pretty good job, but it is always good to check in advance when you think you found something interesting, as the scene is shapeshifting continuously. Especially for milongas it is recommended to reserve a table, lest you will be put in a back room far from the floor and close to the toilets.
There are two kinds of tango that travelers can see: that which is danced by normal people (in milongas), and tango escenario or choreographed tango shows with professional dancers, musicians ,etc. Most venues combine the show with a dinner.
The most popular shows and largest venues are:
If you want to see normal people dance tango, or if you want to practice some steps yourself, visit a dance evening known as Milonga. The list below gives some suggestions of nice venues; be aware that milongas themselves often have a name that differs from their venue, and that certain milongas change venues under the same name. Also, the atmosphere at the same venue can be very different depending on the milonga. A good web resource for milongas and their locations is Buenos Aires Milongas
Some of them include:
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Group classes often precede milongas. They typically last about an hour, are dedicated to a particular technique or series of steps, and cost around AR$10 (including entrance to the ensuing milonga). Depending on the venue, they will be taught in Spanish or in both Spanish and English. It is customary to bring a partner, although there are usually some helpers around of both sexes so as to accommodate individual tourists. Most classes come with an indication like nivel básico, nivel intermedio or nivel avanzado. Unless you are a highly experienced dancer (+5 years of frequent practice), nivel básico will usually be enough of a challenge as the general level of dancing in Argentina is not comparable to that elsewhere.
Unless you have very specific things that you want to work on, private classes are not really worth the investment. It is pretty expensive, with rock bottom prices at AR$50 per couple per hour (but it's easily twice or thrice that amount), and especially if you don't know the scene well it is easy to fall into the greedy clutches of a private teacher with excellent English language skills but little added value in the way of dancing.
For ads of private teachers, consult el Tangauta (below), or the many flyers you will find at milongas. Also, the desk at Centro Cultural San Martín has a list of private teachers, as does the Academia Nacional de Tango.
Tango’s global emergence from the Rio de la Plata region helped re-ignite it more than once during its history back in Buenos Aires, and also helped to spawn different variants elsewhere on the planet. Tango in both Finland, Japan and France exploded in popularity, each creating new styles of music. In competition, fixed-step Ballroom Tango is an element of DanceSport and Tango remains a popular style in Figure Skating. Maxixe, also known as Brazilian Tango developed parallel to Tango in Rio de Janeiro and is one of the precursors to Samba.
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Argentine Tango has no set routine to it although there are hundreds of moves and pattern to learn. Tango, as danced in the Milongas is improvised and acted completely out in the moment. Tango became the first improvised couple dance in the world. Only Show Tango is choreographed for added effect, and includes moves impossible to ‘lead’ into in a normal situation.
In Argentine Tango, the dancers’ chests are closer to each other than their hips, while in the close embrace, they should be dancing with sternums together while cheek to cheek. It is a walking dance, and feet should always be close to the ground, and with shoes and knees brushing during the step. On the floor of a Milonga, couples always move in an anti-clockwise direction.
Before the 1920’s, the style in fashion was Canyengue, danced with small steps at the faster 2/4 tempo which was standard at that time. In the Golden Age, Tango de Salon, a much slower and measured dance was in fashion. During Tango’s repression, the Milonguero style developed, and this became the style most popular in Buenos Aires. The Nuevo Tango style of dancing is far more complex and inventive, and was only born relatively recently. This style uses a slightly more open embrace and many complicated patterns.
The classic figures from the early days of Tango were the Compadritos. These men, often criminals would dress in imitation of the honourable Compadres from the working class. They typically would wear slouch hats, loosely tied neck ties, high heeled boots and knives tucked into their belts. During the Golden Age the dress in Europe was sophisticated, with orange being one of the predominant colours worn by women, while Fedora-style hats and pinstripe suits were worn by the men. Nowadays, there is no strict dress code, especially amongst the Nuevo Tango crowd, but often men will wear black slacks and a button-up shirt. Females may wear dresses or skirts with high slits and heels up to 3.5 inches high.
Traditionally, dancing Argentine tango was surrounded by a host of peculiar customs. This section lists the few that have survived, so that you won't make a fool out of yourself by anything but your dancing. Bear in mind that, even though the enormous influx of non-Argentine dancers has relaxed the situation somewhat, violating these customs will mercilessly expose you for the tourist you are.
The customs obviously presume men dancing with women. However, they equally apply to same-sex milongas. In fact, the cabeceo is very important here because it determines who is the leader and who the follower.
Irrespective of what young Argentinians may say, Argentine culture used to be and to a large extent still is, very macho. Of course, the very worst thing that could possibly happen to a man in a macho society is to be rejected by a woman; for that reason, the cabeceo (lit. 'nod') was invented.
The cabeceo is a sneaky exchange of glances between potential partners, which culminates in the woman accepting the man's advances by making a subtle gesture with her head. Once the man has thus secured his own pride, he goes up to the woman to escort her to the floor.
If you are just at a milonga to watch, or if you have no intention to dance with strangers, be careful who you look at. For men, it is considered very rude not to act on a cabeceo; for women, rejecting a man that thought it safe to come up to you because you seemed to respond to his glance is the best guarantee not to be asked again for the evening.
Tango is meant as a decent way to make carnal love to perfect strangers, but making love takes some practice. For that reason, you stick to a partner for a full affair of three to four dances, referred to as a tanda (lit. 'round'). A tanda typically consists of tangos by the same orquesta or from the same period, but different in style. Frequently, you get a neutral tango for starters, then a very slow and dramatic one and finally one that is quicker and livelier.
Although you can step in at the second dance, starting at the third is considered a rude thing to do. Of course, quitting before the end of the tanda is absolutely out of the question; that would be a clear hint to your partner that s/he is either emitting terrible bodily odours, or is a dancer so awful that you rather undergo the shame of 'breaking up' in public than be a man and carry it to an end.
To signal the end of a tanda, the dj will play something clearly distinguishable for a short while (Elvis is notably frequent; so are Guns 'n' Roses). This pause music is the cortina (lit. 'curtain'), during which you escort your lady back to her table and try for another cabeceo.
If you enter a milonga as a couple, a special rule applies: the man has to 'free up' his companion by first dancing a tanda with her, and then make cabeceo with another woman. Only after that will other men start asking the woman of the couple. Also, no woman will respond to the man's cabeceo before he danced with his own partner. If you don't want all this, simply enter separately.
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This section only discusses the three major genres of tango music. For more on music and famous performers, see the links in the 'resources' section.
The most common way Argentine musicians play Tango is as part of Orquestas Típicas. These typically consist of a string section of Violins, a Double Bass and/or Cello, a Piano, and a few Bandoneóns. Vocalists are used, but not essential.
Possibly the instrument most important to the sound of Argentine Tango is the Bandoneón, a free-reed instrument based on the Koncertina, invented in Germany. As its popularity increased, so did its complexity, and soon incorporated 71 dual-tone buttons, each playing a different note whether the bellows is opened or closed.
With its roots in Milonga, the Tango was originally defined by a 2/4 rhythm, characterised by the Canyengue style. During the 1920’s the slower and squarer 4/8 rhythm became common and this is the tempo still used today. Nuevo Tango was born in the 1950’s with the experimentations of Ástor Piazzolla, but because of the unpopularity of his style within Argentina, the boundaries of the genre were not pushed again until the 1990’s, with the renaissance of Tango. This time it took off, and soon groups began experimenting with different instruments. Nowadays there are several prominent Nuevo Tango outfits, using guitars, drums or various electronic elements, and the style is being pushed further all the time.
Notable orquestas típicas of the present include
Tango lyrics are known for their drama, and singing them not only takes a good voice but also a lot of persona. Together with famous dancers los cantantes, whether male or female, occupy a prominent spot in the Bonairese tango scene. The list of notable singers of both past and present is endless, but includes the following people.
Cross-overs between electronic music and tango are so widespread that they warrant a heading of their own. The genre is very young, and the French group Gotan Project and Argentine Bajofondo rival for being the inventors of it around 2000. Nowadays, the genre consists of two major bloodgroups. The one makes dance music inspired by tango, and includes among others Gotan, Bajofondo, DeBayres and Otros Aires; the other makes tango music inspired by other electronic genres. Its most succesful proponents are Tanghetto and Tango Crash. Neither genre is particularly popular in Buenos Aires, where the musical taste still is rather conservative.
The man known affectionately as Carlitos came to Buenos Aires early in life. Like the music which made him a star, his exact origins are disputed, though it’s likely he was born in Toulouse, France. He spent the early part of his career singing in bars and when he made it big with Mi Noche Triste, Argentina started to take notice. He was the embodiment of the Guardia Nuevo (New Guard) of Tango, bringing it out of the places of disrepute and into the limelight. At the peak of his career, Gardel died in an airplane crash in 1935 in Medellin, Colombia. His death cemented the style’s popularity around the world and especially in its birthplace, ushering in the Golden Age of Tango.
Spending most of his childhood in New York, Piazzolla returned to his homeland already an accomplished Bandoneón player. He spent the early part of his career playing in orchestras including that of Anibal Troilo in the early 1940’s before starting his own. After a stint composing classical music, and later career guidance from famous French teacher Nadia Boulanger, he returned to compose new Tangos with revolutionary elements. This ‘Nuevo Tango’ generated a fair amount of hatred in Argentina, but he continued his work outside the country, and slowly but surely became a huge hit world-wide. Eventually he is able to win popularity back in his homeland, and by his death in 1992 the stage had been set for Nuevo Tango to take off.
Pugliese aka Don Osvaldo reached instant fame with la Yumba which today still is his best-known tango. The master pianist is known for his rhythmic orchestral arrangements, that were much less static (and therefore, much more challenging to dancers) than those of his contemporaries. Pugliese reached the status of deity during the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s, of which he was one of the leading critics. Presently, his former fanclub petitions to have a Subte station renamed after him.
Part of Piazzolla's fame as a bandoneon virtuoso must be attributed to his teacher, Anibal Troilo, who is widely recognised as the most gifted bandoneonista who ever lived. Troilo called the shots during the Golden Age of tango in the 1950s and 1960s, when he headed the most popular orchestra of those days.
The following are terms you will hear frequently when taking classes. For a more complete overview, look here.
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