History of Tango

In many Anglo and European cultures, certain myths persist about the origin of tango – that it was created as something for waiting johns to do before partaking of a bordello’s primary service, that tango was danced solely by men – which are matched in patent inaccuracy only by their unfortunate obfuscation of profound human expression and literal historic significance.

The reality is that tango instead evolved from a potpourri of dance styles brought to colonial South America by slave laborers and indentured servants. On holidays, slaves from the Plata River Basin encompassing the areas of present-day Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, Argentina would frequently gather in what would become popularly known as “tambos.” Naturally, such gatherings were frowned upon and summarily quashed by local authorities.

Into the late 19th century and modern nationalism, a handful of dance styles evolved from the days of the tamboes, and the most popular of these was of course the tango. And like so many popular art forms, tango was perfected among the lower classes, i.e. immigrants and those who’d descended from slaves of the previous centuries and who were given little hope of upward mobility.

From the 1850s to the 80s, tango performances became ubiquitous, particularly in those two great cities which were the birthplace of the dance. For a generation, Argentina and Uruguay were held in the grips of a tango craze and each found a source of national pride in the new art form. Subsequent decades saw the tango-enamored expatriated Europeans in South America bring the craze back to their homelands, and soon European nations such as Spain, France, Italy and Portugal were nearly as nuts for tango as the South Americans.

The introduction of tango to New York – and hey, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, right? – can be traced to a performance on Broadway in the autumn of 1913. Soon, Hollywood was in on the act: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) not only launched the career of Rudy Valentino, but also sent tango fever in the U.S. into overdrive.

Ironically, while tango was enjoying the very peak of its popularity worldwide, it was about to run afoul of some bad old dictator-backed censorship back home. In 1930, the international Great Depression led to the overthrow of Argentina’s constitutional government, and General José Félix Uriburu took over the country, along with the typical joyless outlawing of recreational activities such as tango dancing. Likewise, the election of Gabriel Terra to the Uruguayan presidency in 1931 led to the Terra Dictatorship beginning in ’33; Terra’s Uruguay naturally had no tolerance for frivolous pursuits such as tango.

While most outsiders see Juan Domingo Perón as a gnarly dictator, we can also credit him for his tremendous love of tango, which he touted as a source of national pride as in decades past. However, government endorsement of tango – and Perón himself – wouldn’t last long. By 1955, he was ejected and, when Pedro Aramburu ran the country from ’55, tango was explicitly banned as a form of mass demonstration; in those days, the fashion was for dozens of men to practice tango together, perhaps leading to that particular myth about tango.

Even more oddly, the tango ban in Argentina is today linked to the rise in popularity of rock ‘n’ roll music in the country and on the continent thereafter. Oops.

The march of the 20th century eventually somewhat softened the would-be censors of tango and other free expression in Argentina and Uruguay. Once again, the dance is a point of national pride in two countries and, profoundly, has become something of an organ of peace.

In 2009, tango was official recognized as a human treasure: In that year, UNESCO approved a joint proposal from the Argentinian and Uruguayan governments to be added to the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list, along with practices like Indonesian batik, Tibetan opera and the Dragon Boat Festival of China.

The UN designation is more than symbolically meaningful and helps assure a healthy future for tango as an art form. According AP reportage of the official acknowledgement, “he designation may make Argentina and Uruguay … eligible to receive financial assistance from a specialized fund for safeguarding cultural traditions. It will also help both governments justify using public funds to preserve their most famous export…”