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Guest Article: Tango in Buenos Aires   

by Randy Lisle
(Randy is a well-traveled American currently living in Buenos Aires)

Tango (both dance and music) is probably the most well known and important art form Buenos Aires and Argentina have given the world. The origins of Tango are obscured by  history, but have been traced back to about 1880 when the thriving port city of Buenos Aires served as a melting pot of cultures, languages, music, and dances of the world. 

In addition to the sailors and dock workers characteristic of any port, the city was populated by recent immigrants from Italy and Spain, as well as gauchos forced off the land by  changing social and economic  conditions, all of whom arrived at the growing city looking for work  ... and for women. It was in the prostibulos and the conventillos where this incongruous mix of European, African, and Indigenous cultures, and their underworld of violence, crime and prostitution, gave birth to an indiscreet music and dance that reflected and placated the loneliness of their lives.  The music and expression of Tango is yet infused with the mournful sounds of loneliness and despair, violence and betrayal that  characterized the lives of those who created it.

The port and its surrounding barrios set the stage for the cacophony of cultures that would give rise to the Tango:  the sailors brought with them the African-infused rhythms of Brazil and Cuba; the immigrants brought the  sounds and musical instruments of southern Europe; the gauchos brought the rhythms of the campo, and the culture of the puñal (the dagger).  From this cultural mix appeared the "compadritos" (small-time hoods) who reflected in their music, their letters, and their dance the typical cuchilleros (knife fighters) duel that characterized their social ambient. The dance emerged as an entertainment among men as they waited their turn with the prostitutes, and these early tangos rather than representing the sexual choreography that later emerged, illustrated a duel, a man-to-man combat between challengers for the favors of a woman, that usually ended in the symbolic death of an opponent. 

As the dance evolved, sailors brought steps borrowed from the African populations of Brazil, Cuba and Uruguay. Some theorize that the name Tango itself was borrowed from these African-Americans. The dance during this time became more characteristically sexual and reflected an "acting out" of the relationship between the prostitute and her pimp. 

Despite its lowly origins, in the 1920’s Tango left the brothels and the underworld districts of Buenos Aires to reach the high-class ballrooms of the city, but to do so it had had to travel to Paris and return triumphant. Tango became at last a complete cultural expression, a gathering of myths, values, traditions, and aspirations. 

Beyond the historical and cultural symbolism of the dance, the Tango exists today as a social connection among dancers.  It has been described as the  most sensual  dance in the world, or more bluntly, and more in keeping with it’s humble beginnings, as making love for three minutes on the dance floor.  This passion of the dance can be witnessed and enjoyed in the many dance halls populating the city, from the classic dance halls such as Cafe Tortoni (www.cafetortoni.com.ar) and Confeteria Ideal to the young clubs such as La Viruta. 

There you’ll find a blend of tourists and  natives, young and old, dancing to the sensual bandoneon-infused rhythms of the golden age as well as to the beats of tango electronico, such as Gotan Project and Bajo Fondo Tango Club. 

Although Tango is perhaps the  biggest tourist draw of  Buenos Aires, Argentina bringing dancers and spectators from throughout the world, Tango is not merely a tourist attraction, nor is it a nostalgic glance to a glorified past.  Rather, Tango is crystallized in the very cultural breath of the city.  From the classic dance halls decaying from  their golden age glory, to the tango world championships held in August of each year, to the new tango clubs  popping up all over the city, tango exists today as a creative expression of the cultural vibrancy of the city. And the passion and sensuality that infuse the Tango can be witnessed on the streets of Buenos Aires, from the raw sensuality of its women to the lingering kisses of couples on the streets, passionate kisses that bespeak the timeless inspiration of artists from Klimt and Rodin  to  the greatest  composers of Tango.

A good way of penetrating the spirit of Tango and to enjoy its sensuous  magnetism is to visit one of the many restaurants that offer Tango dinner shows.   Among the best are the Piazzolla Center (www.piazzollatango.com), and La Esquina  de Carlos Gardel (www.esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar).  Tango exhibitions are available throughout the  city, from La Boca to Palermo, and are well advertised. For more information regarding Tango happenings, visit www.tangodata.com.ar.

For those who feel caught in the spirit, and want to try a class, there are literally hundreds of  options to choose from.  Some of the venues that offer classes for beginners as well as for more advanced  students are Escuela Argentina de Tango (www.eatango.com) and Centro Cultural  Konex (www.centroculturalkonex.org).

For those of you  who already  know a few steps, there exist dance venues throughout the city.  La Viruta  in Palermo, La Catedral, Villa Malcom, Club Gricel (www.clubgricel.com), Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso (www.tangotasso.com), among countless others.

 

 

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