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She closes her eyes and instantly the crowd fades away and her perceptions are heightened, her senses intensified. She hears his breathing close by her ear, her nose is full of the man-smell of him. His hand at her waist, almost imperceptibly pressing into her flesh, incites her to even greater abandon. The world itself has become the encompassing circle of his arms and her heart beating in time with the music. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to please him.
He deftly sidesteps and avoids collision with a less experienced couple. He stops-corte-and whirls her around him-giro-as he guides her counterclockwise over the floor. Tonight her movements are so fluid, like water in his embrace; guiding her is a delight. Had she challenged him, or fought him, or even tried to anticipate his lead, he knows that this timeless moment would have been impossible. She conquered him by surrendering herself entirely, and he is entirely at her service, a slave to this thing of beauty in his arms. She smiles and he feels, literally, a pang in the area of his heart as her trust moves him, inspires him to care for her even more, and each step they take transports them into another realm, where music and man and woman are one.
No, this is not an excerpt from Danielle Steele’s latest novel. This is an apt description of what happens every single night at the various milongas in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. This is tango, and it rightly deserves its reputation for sensuality. The reported effects of tango are as heady as any drug, as deep as any meditation, and as earth-shattering as orgasm. If yin and yang dance – they dance tango.
What is it that makes tango so distinctive, so appealing?
A Brief History
The origins of tango can be found during the second half of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries in Buenos Aires. The city at that time was a mixture of elegance and cosmopolitanism blended with poverty and misery, where the arrabales, or outskirts, of the city was a concentrated blend of immigrants, freed slaves, displaced guachos and native indigenous peoples, most of them poor. Unlike the immigrants who went to the US and settled in ghettos, those disembarking in Buenos Aires were more often than not forced to live under the same roof in conventillos, manors abandoned by the rich and built along a traditional Spanish colonial style with a central patio, which facilitated the exchange and sharing of cultural practices amongst the different peoples that settled here. Like all marginalised sectors of society, those living in the arrabales had different social codes than the economically privileged. Between the activity of the ports and slaughterhouses, the city received a constant influx of newcomers and rose to the challenge to meet their needs. Bars, music halls, eateries, whorehouses all thrived in the slums of Buenos Aires, as well as the human vices and violence that usually accompany them.
From this melting pot of cultures, languages and traditions, the tango was born. The underprivileged, having no wealth or possessions with which to distract themselves, had to subsume their misery in other activities. It comes as no surprise that they should seek solace in the most ancient of rituals: dance. An article in Critica in September, 1913, describes how men living in the conventillos would make fun of the Afro-Argentine candombes from the Mondongo district by dancing in this style to the music of the milonga, a folk music typical to the pampas. The combination of exiles, displaced peoples, sailors, migrant workers, white slaves – all with their own histories – was perfect for creating the crowded yet intimate scene which today is associated by the whole world with tango.
What is tango?
Tango is first and foremost a musical style, with distinctive instrumentation, usually a sextet with violins, piano, bass, and bandoneon, with great emphasis on base rhythm, usually 2/4 time. The bandoneon, whose name is a corruption of this glorified concertina’s patent, Band-Union, is one of elements which lends tango its characteristic sound. Some say there is a predominance of minor keys used in tango, which no doubt lends to its melancholy air, representative of the lost hopes and dreams, or faraway loves of those who developed the genre. There are distinct periods to the history of tango as music, but these are perhaps best savoured as they are expressed by Astor Piazzola, reluctant tango genius, in his Suite ‘History of Tango in 4 movements’: (Brothel 1900, Café 1930, Nightclub 1960, Concert d’Aujourd’hui).
Secondly, tangoes are songs, often of a nostalgic, reflexive nature. Enrique Santos Discepulo, one of the main lyricists/composers of tango (see Cambalache) during its Golden Age in the 20th century said: “Tango is a sad thought that you dance to.” While many tango lyrics are full of sexual innuendo, or double entendre, there is an element of melancholy that seems to mirror the lament of the bandoneon. The glory of days past, lost loves and opportunities, forgotten playthings or sunsets, and sad farewells are all grist to the tango mill. Arguably, the dramatic tone of tango lyrics reflects the lives of those who, unseen and unheard – except for the tango – made Buenos Aires what it is today. Tango became the mouthpiece of the masses, the way of expressing their sorrow at leaving their homes and their families, soothing their fear over the uncertainty of their futures in this new land, verbalizing their anger and criticism over the injustices that abounded at the time, and yes, crooning about their loves, both new and old. All these people had had to leave behind some aspect of their identity before arriving in Buenos Aires; tango was the voice of their new identity, and Carlos Gardel was and is their undisputed hero.
Last, but far from least, tango is a type of dance, at present either salon style or staged dancing. As refers to salon dancing, tango was and is danced in crowded rooms; there is a theory which claims that its complicated moves and counterclockwise lanes result from this reality of the milongas (tango dance hall) of Buenos Aires. The true innovation of tango in the area of dancing is that tightly closed embrace allows the hips and legs to be entirely free, giving rise to one European noble’s question: “Is it supposed to be danced standing up?” Dances such as the waltz, or polka, are sequence-based, that is, the same steps are followed at the same time. Tango allows for improvisation: the man must lead (especially if he doesn’t want to run into another couple) and the woman must follow – and never anticipate what the man’s next move might be. As one self-described tango maniac claims: “It is the male partner who makes it possible to be at one with the music.”
The Tao of Tango
Many Argentines will decline an invitation to attend a tango concert or competition, claiming the following to just name a few: a) I don’t like tango because it’s so male-oriented, so machista; or b) To dance tango you need a mysoginist and a defeatist:; or c) Women like tango because it fulfills their need for rape fantasy that otherwise they would get from romance novels. In reality, tango allows both dancers to fulfill the archetypal roles of male and female in equilibrium. Human rhythmic arts (i.e. dancing) are, according to Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthals, “rooted in courtship ritual”. Leave to the Argentines to get to the heart of the matter; tango is, without a doubt, courtship ritual taken to an aesthetic extreme. The balanced union of male and female each gracefully moving within the sphere of the other is a perfect embodiment of the yin-yang symbol, where male and female create the One, the Tao.
Nevertheless, the generations born after the 1955 coup d’etat which ousted Peron grew up in a world where tango was censored and banned. Curfews made dancing at milongas practically impossible (although they seem not to be enforced in places that played imported music, such as rock-n-roll). Time and time again, the Argentine government in turn expressed distrust and fear before local expressions and favored foreign influences in all areas of society: agriculture, construction, engineering, economics, music, film and television among others. As a result many Argentines today never learned to dance tango or enjoy their most famous heritage—or have they? Argentines themselves have tango so incorporated into their daily lives, that the music and dancing oftentimes become superfluous. Tango could be described as a meta-culture, a culture that underlies the strata of the porteño’s mind. In other words, an Argentine lives and breathes tango; he/she doesn’t have to think it. Tango is a part of who Argentines are: their identity. This is why it is so important to delve into the world of tango to understand the local mentality; Argentines move to 2/4 time; they improvise; they sail through crowded streets and venues like nothing. In other words, all Argentines tango, whether they dance it or not.
UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
In October, 2009, the tango was declared world heritage by the UNESCO. Thanks to this induction, Argentina (and Uruguay) receive an annuity for “the promulgation, preservation, and education of this intangible cultural heritage”. Already there are efforts to foment new compositions, teach lyric writing and in general renovate the faltering genre. Milongas flourish, and more and more young people are showing interest in playing the bandoneon. As is fitting for a New World phenomena, tango is one of the youngest inductees into the UNESCO registry. Approximately one hundred years old, tango has penetrated modern man’s psyche unlike any other recent form. Although the joke is on the UNESCO: there is nothing intangible about the tango; it’s all hands-on.
It really does take two
The relief described by both men and women upon dancing tango appears to be related to this surrendering of unhealthy or irritating roles in daily life. Women seeking release from competitive, “masculizing’ roles professionally, or men who seek to assert their masculinity gracefully – these are some of the people who are attracted to the milongas. It would seem that each is able to carry out the archetypal part assigned to them: for the space of three minutes, the man encompasses and protects his prized partner; he is knight, prince, and hero all rolled into one. The woman becomes the centre of his universe, the end-all and be-all of his existence, his muse and goddess, cosseted and secure, while she yields to the subtle directions that he sends through his hands, totally given over to the experience. Tango practised thus fulfills all of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – from the physiological to self-actualization during one tanda (set of four tango dances). No wonder tango dancing has been described as a parallel universe, the effects similar to deep meditation and overflowing joy.
A Word of Warning
Tango is not for the faint of heart, nor is frequenting milongas. If you are in Buenos Aires (or Montevideo) and are determined to explore this side of life, please take a few tango classes where the codes which rule the game will be explained to you, and thus save you any uncomfortable misunderstandings once seated at your table. If you only want to listen to tango music, try the Centro Cultural Torcuato Tasso.
For a list of places to take tango classes, click here.
For a list of milongas to watch, or join in, click here.
Many thanks to the Biblioteca Nacional del Tango and my patient partner.