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Tango: The History of Argentina’s Dance

In the brothels and slums of nineteenth century Buenos Aires, a fusion of Spanish, Uruguayan, and African dance and music styles created the tango, the famous and sensual dance of Argentina.

It was a social dance, based heavily on improvisation and formed around close, almost intimate interaction; the communication between partners must be impeccable, because the dance has no set patterns and no “basic step” from which to build. However, it was not necessarily a sensual or sexual expression; there were men-only tango clubs.

European immigrant communities in Argentina in the 1890s picked up on the music, which was initially just one of many styles that went by the name “tango.” It swiftly became the fad of the underclass, who danced in crowded halls, leading to a close-contact and casual dance style. The tango music became the most popular in Argentina, comprising more than a third of all the gramophone records and sheet music sold between 1902 and 1920.

By 1912, the music and dance had begun to spread from the barrios to the middle-class and even upper-class dancing establishments and nightclubs across Argentina. From there the craze spread swiftly to Paris, London, and Berlin, where they were danced with less intimate contact between the partners. In Finland, the dance found a new home and expression, played in minor keys and performed in flowing, horizontal patterns, now known as Finnish Tango; it grew to the height of its popularity in the 1950s. In English Tango the dance evolved into a competitive ballroom style, heavily structured and with strict codes that introduce a more staccato movement not seen in Argentina, as well as the head-snap movement often seen in film. New York tango performers modified the dance to a wider embrace as well.

Meanwhile in Argentina, the dance became heavily associated with Carlos Gardel’s Mi Noche Triste, a song of tragic love. The music in the 1920s was taken up by classical musicians who gave it a more complex and elegant flavor, and slowed the tempo. Then it fell out of favor during the 1930s and 1940s, only to revive again along with the nationalist fervor of Argentina’s Per

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