What we do know for sure that the tango was born somewhere towards the end of the 19th century in Argentina, probably around 1880. Exact information about the birth of the tango is difficult to obtain, despite the multitude of legends and stories surrounding this dance. The people who first danced the tango are long gone and their history is mixed with fantasy and hearsay.

If there is one other type of music that closely resembles tango in terms of origin, development, social acceptance and its controversial route to world fame, then that music is jazz. Follow for example Ken Burns’ extraordinary documentary ‘Jazz’ and you are certain to find that the history of jazz closely resembles that of the tango. Moreover, it seems to me that the improvisational style and jamming passion of jazz are closely matched by the wild exploratory nature of many tango dancers.

Buenos Aires was, at the end of the 19th century a city that received from Europe and from the rest of the world an endless line of immigrants – French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Jews, and so on all came to this city in search of new promises of a better life. The tango bears traces of the French contredance, the German waltz and even influences of the music of the black-born slaves brought to South America. Each group would bring to Argentina a part of is own culture, including their music and their dancing. The final scene from the movie ‘Tango’ by Carlo Saura is representative: [see image] a metaphor of the cultural mélange of the late 19th century Buenos Aires. The tango emerged magically out of the cultural cauldron mixing the old into a new brew.

The tango originated in the suburbs of Buenos Aires in bars, brothels, etc, where lonely men spent their time drinking, playing cards, dancing or enjoying the services of ‘the oldest profession in the world’. Dancing with a woman was considered obscene – the enveloping arms caused an embrace too close for morality while the intertwined steps made the legs and feet to touch with sinful promise. Therefore, if men wanted to try a new step or to learn how to dance, they had to dance with other men. Tango dancers practiced and danced flamboyantly in order to catch the eyes of the ladies. It was this anonymous, motley and ill-mannered gang that created the tango – through experiments, panache, sheer nerve, and unbound creativity.

Tango was not socially acceptable, and even with its humble origin in the slums the respectable working class disapproved of this dance. Borges quotes a fragment from Evaristo Carriego:
“El tío de la novia, que se ha creído obligado a fijarse si el baile toma buen carácter, afirma, medio ofendido, que no se admiten cortes, ni aun en broma. Que, la modestia a un lado, no se la pega ninguno de esos vivos…seguramente. La casa será pobre, nadie lo niega: todo lo que se quiera, pero decente”

At the wedding described in the fragment, the bride’s uncle believes himself obligated to make sure that the dancing takes on a good character. He states, half-offended, that they will not be allowing cortes here, not even as a joke. All modesty to the side – not that even one of these ‘excellent men’ would get it – this house may be poor—no one would deny that— but, whatever one might say, it is decent.” (Jorge Luis Borges, A History of the Tango, translated by Sean Erwin).

Yet step by step, little by little the lower class of the emerging Buenos Aires began to listen and dance the tango (without the ‘sinful’ moves, such as the cortes and the quebradas…) on Saturdays and Sundays, at weddings, christenings and other popular parties.

And the young men of the upper-classes returning home in the morning after long nights spent roaming the suburbs probably loved to boast about their nocturnal exploits and to show off in front of their sisters or cousins the new dance. Judging from the sales figures of sheet music at the beginning of the XXth century (over 100,000 copies of ‘Yo soy la morocha’), it is safe to assume that the pampered, well-mannered young ladies of the Argentine high society could at least play the tango, when they did not dance it.

Tango was certainly danced differently then and several tango movies have been trying to reproduce the moves and the atmosphere of the old days. There are also undergoing choreography and dance projects that attempt to reconstruct old tango moves (such as the cortez – sic!) using fragments of film and old dance manuals. See