From across the dance floor, the couple’s eyes lock as the bandoneon strikes up: a plaintive, homesick wail. They march right up to each other, clasping hands. Their lips are dangerously close, so close that a single dream seems to tremble behind their rapt, exalted eyelids. Suddenly, their legs are moving—now in flurries of impossible splits and double-jointed sweeps, now in slow, languid interludes in which the tip of the woman’s toe teasingly grazes the black and white tile. When he finally bends her back, they seem on the verge of a consummation that remains, achingly, just out of reach…
Oiled hair and rakish, pin-striped suits. Skirts that reveal scandalous lengths of thigh. Passion, nostalgia, and a deep vein of heartbreak.
Argentina’s tango needs no introduction.
Except that it does. Visitors to Buenos Aires may have seen Forever Tango or heard Astor Piazzolla or even stumbled through a few classes at the neighborhood dance studio, but most likely they don’t know the full story behind Argentina’s national obsession.
It’s a hard, gritty story, born in the alleys and docks of an impoverished port, and today it’s in real danger of being erased forever as memories go blurry and the older generation of porteños, who lived it, dies off. But like all stories that are genuinely of the people, it’s also complex and vital, spanning the whole of Argentina’s turbulent 20th century and laying bare unsuspected depths in the psyche of South America’s largest Spanish-speaking country.
Here, as you practice your cruces and ruedas, are a few episodes from that story.
All the Single Men
If you were a young man in Buenos Aires in the first part of the 20th century, tango was your only hope.
Okay, maybe not your only hope, but certainly the best. The problem was the—for lack of a better term—sexual marketplace of the time, which was heavily stacked against you.
In the late 1800s, Argentina faced the daunting task of building a national railroad network without having anywhere near the national manpower to do so. Desperate, the government hit upon a scheme: it would sponsor worker emigration from Europe, offering ship’s passage and a week’s salary to those intrepid enough to come. Under these auspices, and drawn by the perennial dream of a new life in America, hordes of young, single men from Spain, Italy, even Czechoslovakia and Poland sailed for Buenos Aires, where the lucky ones found work, a living wage, everything they needed.
Everything except women.
The statistics weren’t pretty. In 1895, the total population of Argentina was approximately 57 percent male. In Buenos Aires, the figure was higher, almost 60 percent. This meant lots of newly arrived muchachos were going lonely in the bars and dance halls. Also that competition for señoritas was fierce.
Also, notoriously, that the city’s brothels were very much open for business.
Faced with this double loneliness, that of the immigrant without a homeland and that of the man without women, the young porteños did what all imaginative youth do: they turned it into art. Taking steps from the waltzes and polkas they’d learned in the Old World and mixing them with the Cuban habanera and African candombe rhythms they’d heard in the New World, they created something distinctively Argentine: the tango. It was nostalgic, it was tender, and it expressed their longing and suppressed passion under the iron rule of their demographically enforced celibacy.
It also became, unexpectedly, their ticket out of that celibacy. As the dance caught on, the young ladies of Buenos Aires wanted to dance it too. But not with just anyone. Only the best dancers would receive an audition. And since the population stats were decidedly in the porteñas’ favor, they could afford to be choosy.
This meant that suddenly, the men of the capital were seizing upon every chance they got to practice their tango steps. In saloons, in meeting halls, on street corners, anywhere and everywhere young males congregated, they would dance with each other, assiduously, knowing that their reproductive destiny could well hinge on how smoothly they executed a dip, or on the fluency of their double-timing.
Never has high artistic creativity owed such a debt to the (ahem) lower instincts of the male multitude.
Born in Brothels?
A common cliché holds that the tango was born in Buenos Aires’s brothels. That’s not quite true. “Raised” might be an apter metaphor. Raised and hustled out into the wider world.
As tango grew in popularity, it inevitably spawned its own culture, a culture presided over by compadritos, young, lower-class men dressed in slouch hats, neckerchiefs, and high-heeled boots, with knives tucked into their belts. These young workers took the dance to Corrales Viejos—Buenos Aires’s slaughterhouse district—where it became a fixture of the dance halls and yes, the houses of ill repute.
It was in these low haunts that the dance reached a wider audience. As it happened, among the cathouses’ clients were many upper-class youth, who frequented the institutions for reasons of piquancy as well as discretion. When the slumming aristocrats saw their working-class brethren dancing to the tango orchestra the proprietors had hired to entertain them while they waited, they were intrigued. This new dance—it wasn’t respectable, clearly, but still, you had to give it to these compadritos: they could move. Soon the rich boys too were learning tango, and taking it outside the world of the urban slums.
1913 marked the explosion. That year, mesmerized by the throngs of handsome, upper-class Latin men in Europe who were strutting to this risqué new dance, Paris, London, and New York all got severe cases of tango fever. Suddenly socialites on two continents were attending tango teas, watching tango exhibitions in department stores, and wearing orange, the “official” tango color.
And the boys’ parents, back in Argentina? When they got wind of their sons’ exploits, they were first shocked, then puzzled, and finally, grudgingly, gratified by this new Argentine vogue. Slowly they too began to take up tango, though of course the refined dance performed in their drawing rooms had nothing to do with that vulgar barbarity danced by la gente común…
A Golden Age
Soon the roaring ´20s hit, and tango went from being a subculture to a genuine mass phenomenon. A boom in meat and wheat made Argentina one of the ten richest countries in the world. The people of Buenos Aires responded by gleefully hurling themselves into the orgy of pleasure-seeking besotting the West at the time.
This orgy stepped to a tango beat. Tango cabarets, tango films, tango orchestras, tango singers—a whole vast industry sprang up. The dance created by meat packers and dock workers had become big money.
Big money, but also big-time controversy. For now Argentina’s social strata began to battle for the dance’s soul. Upper-class porteños favored the more genteel style known as “tango de salón,” with its sophisticated orchestral arrangements and sentimental warblings about love. The masses, meanwhile, opted for straightforward dance rhythms and lyrics protesting social discrimination. Before long, every hall in Buenos Aires had its own characteristic style, aimed at gratifying the class allegiances of its clientele.
The friction between the two camps intensified in 1946, when Juan Perón assumed power. Unabashedly populist in his political maneuverings, Argentina’s supreme jefe promoted tango as an authentic expression of the people, in the process milking it for its street cred. The result: the dance soared to new heights, entering its Golden Age.
This epoca de oro obviously had its hustlers and its impresarios and its big names on the marquees. But it was also something more. The post-war years spawned one of tango’s most amazing traditions, as the courtship rituals of earlier decades morphed into a society-wide, grass-roots system aimed at mentoring young men in the art of charm.
It worked something like this. At age 12 or 13, flush with his first hormones, a young boy would drop hints that a chica in his class had caught his eye. Duly apprised, his father or uncle would take the lad to a práctica, a kind of tango dojo run by experienced male dancers. There, surrounded by senior lotharios, he’d painstakingly acquire the moves to conquer said chica. Nine months to learn the woman’s part was typical, followed by another nine months leading. When his mentor decided he’d advanced sufficiently, he’d tell his charge to put on a suit: they were going to a milonga. There he’d arrange for a girl he knew to dance with the boy—as a favor, of course: no self-respecting porteña would want to be seen with a partner of unproven skills. If all went well, soon Romeo would be burning up the floor.
And the girl he was crushing on? Hey, the kid had to do something for himself, didn’t he?
Repression and Revival
Then came 1955, and everything changed. An anti-Perón military junta seized power, and its leaders—military cadets from Argentina’s upper crust—sought to reverse the populism of the previous decade. One of their strategies: crack down on tango.
This made sense, given their aims. Perón had fostered left-wing content in the tango lyrics of his day, and the junta was naturally suspicious of any meeting where large numbers of men came together. But the net effect of the repression was to damage Argentina’s popular culture immeasurably. Tango singers were imprisoned or blacklisted. Curfews and strict enforcement of minors laws prevented attendance at milongas. Most disastrously, the whole mentor system that had taken decades to erect was dismantled overnight. If you were 18 in 1955, you probably learned to dance tango well. If you were 13, not at all.
None of this caused tango to disappear, clearly. But it did force the dance underground for nearly 30 years. Only after the Falklands war of 1983, when the junta fell and Argentina reverted to democracy, did the old tangueros slowly emerge from the woodwork to reclaim their heritage.
Today tango is undergoing a renaissance. A series of Broadway reviews and hit films has generated a resurgence of interest in all things Argentine, and visitors to Buenos Aires typically make the rounds of the tango shows, milongas, and art-house films to get their fix of the dance. But tango is much more than prepackaged nostalgia for foreigners. A bevy of musicians and avant-garde dancers continues to twist and desconstruct and re-forge this quintessentially open genre into something new as well as old. Something of the moment, yet that retains the mystery of those violent, lonely compadritos of so long ago.
Jorge Luis Borges said it best: “The tango can be debated, but it will always enclose—like everything truthful—a secret.”