Just to hear the title of the movie ‘Scent of a Woman’ makes one automatically think of the dance scene with Al Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar. Even blind, Pacino’s character brought out the lusty qualities of the dance. Tango is to dancing what musk is to fragrances. It is earthy, sensual and has a most interesting history.
Present day tango is inextricably connected to Buenos Aires, Argentina where is it believed to have developed in the working class neighborhoods of the city. Tango is everywhere in the city. Taxis play tango music on their radios, and billboard advertising promotes choreographed tango shows.
The word itself – tango – is shrouded in mystery about its origins and explained in many different theories. One of those theories is that the word developed from an African dialect. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘tango’ is American Spanish, possibly of Niger-Congo origin; related to Ibibio ‘tamgu’, meaning ‘to dance’.
Although present forms developed in Argentina beginning around the mid 19th century, there are earlier mentions of tango dances in Cuba and Spain before catching on in early 20th century Paris. The dance later migrated into parts of Uruguay. There are literally hundreds of ‘milongas’ (exclusively tango dance halls) throughout the Buenos Aires, most of which do not wake-up until midnight.
Tango is a dance that is based on elegant walking and close interpretation of the music. The movements of tango dancers are ever-so subtle in the way in which they weave effortlessly through small spaces and crowded dance floors, and the subtle way they accomplish the seductive invitation to dance.
The initial move in a tango is at the moment that two people first stand face to face and wait expectantly for the first few notes of the music, before advancing to the embrace and beginning to dance.
There is Spanish saying that captures the importance of the initial embrace in tango, “El abrazo es mas importante que el paso” (The embrace is more important than the step).
Tango was especially important in Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 1900′s when immigrants, mostly men without partners, were looking for a constructive pastime. The men would practice together to perfect their steps and as a side benefit, impress the women.
Tango is an intricate dance that can take many years to master. But a skillful teacher can have you performing the most simple moves in a short time. Some milongas will even provide lessons right before the public dance begins.
Traditionally men will signal silently to a woman for a dance, even across a crowded room with no more than a nod of their head, a wink, or other subtle sign. Men and women never sit together and the most traditional milongas seat men on one side of the room and women on the other.
Tango is not only a dance but also a unique style of music written in a distinctive four beat timing. When the bandoneon, a type of concertina, first migrated to Argentina from Germany, it became an integral part of the sound of tango music.
Juan Felix Maglio was a most popular tango musician in 1912 with his musical renditions of tango featuring the bandoneon accompanied by flute, violin and guitar.
Another hugely popular bandleader of the day, Roberto Firpo, developed the arrangements for a standard tango sextet which included two bandoneons, two violins, piano and double bass.
In 1917, legendary baritone singer Carlos Gardel recorded his first hit tango song Mi Noche Triste, which ever after associated tango with the feeling of unrequited love. Gardel lived his whole life in the market area of Abasto in the Balvanera neighborhood. There you can see lingering indications of the strong influence of the man on buildings and even in the museum that was his home.
Classically-trained musicians were not affiliated with tango music until the formation of violinist Julio De Caro’s 1920′s era orchestra. De Caro transformed tango into a more elegant and refined format, and in doing so slowed the tempo. Pedro Laurenz was featured on the bandenoen in the group which remained famous for over a decade.
Tango enjoyed a resurgence in popularity following the 1980′s opening in Paris of the show Tango Argentino, then later the Broadway musical Forever Tango, and Tango Pasión.