Tango: A Short History

Tango is one of the world’s most beautiful dances. It’s charged with energy, elegance and poise. The music that accompanies it is poetic, eccentric and nostalgic. The Tango has become a cultural emblem for Argentina and Uruguay and is danced around the world. In 2009, the UNESCO declared the Tango to be part of the world’s ‘cultural heritage’ and granted it protection.

Tango’s origins are not glitzy. Most reckon that Tango was born in the slums of Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, Argentina was booming; Buenos Aires was a financial centre and a trading hub. Outside the city, the frontier agricultural lands of the Pampas were being rapidly developed drawing in migrants from all over the world. But the country’s wealth distribution was also staggeringly unequal, and migrants and locals alike often ended up in the sprawling slums which enveloped around the Port of Buenos Aires on the River Plata.

Most residents of the slums were employed in the meatpacking industry. New railroads brought cattle from the Pampas to the port area where it was slaughtered, packed and shipped around the world. Much of this industry was run by British firms and financial interests. If you stroll through Buenos Aires, one will still be unexpectedly struck by peculiar remnants of British influence near the port; A village clock here, a train station there.

The slums of Buenos Aires became a melting pot of peoples and cultures. Most migrants came from Italy, Spain and Germany. They brought with them things like violins, cellos, pianos, and, one imagines, a deep sense of nostalgia for their previous homelands. These migrants mixed with Argentine blacks and Gauchos (Argentine Cowboys) who brought a mix of African rhythms, a dance called the candombe and jaunty music known as ‘the milonga’ to the table. At some point, someone threw a Bandoneon into the mix for good measure. From the chaos, Tango was born.

For a while, Tango only existed in the slums of Buenos Aires. It’s widely asserted that most of the dance’s early development took place in bars and brothels. The dance was largely ignored by rich Argentines until the 1920’s when, quite unexpectedly, The Tango made it back to Europe where it became a raging hit. In the end, it was Paris, not Buenos Aires, that popularised the Tango.

Since then, the fortunes of Tango have waxed and waned. Under the government of Juan Peron in the 1930s, Tango became widely fashionable and a major part of Argentina’s national identity. In the 1950s, a string of military dictators with a strong distaste for public gatherings pulled Tango’s numbers down. The advent of Rock and Roll almost killed the dance altogether.

More recently, however, Tango has enjoyed a cultural resurgence. London has become something of a Tango capital – Your writer regularly hears of the debauchery of all night Tango parties which take place in the bars of Soho – Several European cities have similarly emerged to become Tango hubs, and ‘Tango Marathons’, consecutive days of non-stop dancing, regularly take place in cities all over the world. And far away, in the dusty hills on the banks of the River Plata, Portenos of all types also unite together to drink in the nostalgic whines of the Bandoneon and dance.