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by Carol Middleton

(first published in Honda:The Magazine Autumn 2000)


The music is sad, passionate, uplifting. The dance is intricate, subtle, creative. The mood is intense, aloof, sexy. This is tango.

Tango came out of the melting pot of cultures that converged on Buenos Aires at the end of the 1800s. The music and the dance of tango capture the earthiness of Africa, the elegance of Paris and the music of Latin America and Europe. Learning to dance the tango is learning to dance from the heart - with sensuality and with style. Tango is tuning in to the music of a culture steeped in nostalgia and longing, expressing all the sadness of immigrants uprooted from their native countries.

"Circle your partner's neck with your left arm, lean against him, and find that spot by his right ear where you can place your head comfortably." I follow the instructions of Kristina, my Argentinian dance teacher, searching for the T spot that will turn me into a true Tango dancer. Luckily, I am tall and my partner is even taller: 1.9 metres. Teaming up with a partner whose T spot is a lot higher or lower than yours could land you in all sorts of trouble.

Intimacy is just one of the attractions of Tango. After decades of dancing solo in discos and raves, romance is on the upswing and partner dancing is making a comeback. Ballroom dancing is as popular as ever, salsa, merengue and lambada have had their day, but nothing has captured the imagination like the Argentine Tango.

Tango is a nocturnal creature and suits the urban lifestyle. The colours of the tango are black and red. The men may on occasion adopt the traditional tango gear: slouch hats, braces, waistcoats or scarves. Young women, who wear chunky shoes and long skirts or trousers to work, change into the short or split skirt, stiletto heels and fine stockings of the tanguera at night.

It is not only younger people who are taking up tango. This is a dance for all ages. Older dancers are inspired by the sight of ageing tangueros on the dancefloor. These are the most respected dancers in Argentina, who keep the tango tradition alive and who capture that essential partnership which is the key to tango dancing. Even though younger couples can dazzle with their athletic displays of foot-flicking and fancy lifts and flips, there is nothing more moving than the sight of an older couple, who have been dancing together for eternity, moving gracefully as one.

To learn to move as one, I shut my eyes and follow the movements of my partner as he guides me with his upper body. The pace can be fast, and then slow, in response to the twists and turns of the tango music. Within the structure of the music, there is space to play with the timing, to drag out the pace or to intertwine the legs, embellishing a step with ganchos and enlazados. The love triangle is between the man, the woman and the music.

"It takes two to tango," they say. Yet tango was not always a partner dance. It started life as a man's dance, as a macho display. El Cachafáz (Barefaced Cheek) was the first tango dancer to go down in history. Born in 1879 and reputed to be the best tango dancer ever, El Cachafáz started his dancing career in the street and ended it in a tango salon at the age of sixty-three. He dropped dead, between dances, in his partner's arms.

The tango was born in the tough and violent world of the compadres or semi-urban cowboys who, when Buenos Aires became a thriving port at the turn of the century, replaced the real cowboys or gauchos from the Pampa. The tango of the compadres was a duel: two men locked in mortal combat. After the compadres came the urban compadritos, who copied their style, adopting the wide brimmed hat, the white silk lengue or neckerchief, the short jacket and tight trousers.

It was only later, in the brothels and clandestinos, that women became drawn into the tango, which then evolved as a conversation in dance between the prostitute and her pimp. This story still underlies the tango today, although the relationship between the man and the woman has become rather more romantic over time.

The tango's origins are lost in the tangle of influences that collided in Buenos Aires when a huge migration from Italy, Spain and France spilled into the burgeoning port. The tango has its roots in the local milonga, the rhythms of African slaves and the European polkas and mazurkas.

Tango was born in the bars and on the street corners of Buenos Aires during the latter years of the 1800s; raised to respectability in Paris; adopted by ballroom dancing; and now reborn in Argentina with a hundred bastard versions springing up around the world.

The move to Paris took place in 1912, and by 1913 tango fever had taken hold of the fashion capital of the world. People talked of little else. When, in 1921, Rudolph Valentino danced the tango in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", there was no turning back. Tango singers and orchestras had been coming to Paris since 1907 to make use of the superior recording facilities. With the approval of Paris and the availability of tango records, tango spread to dancefloors across the world and embarked on a golden age that lasted from 1920 to 1950.

In the last ten years or so, tango has made a comeback. Al Pacino danced it in "Scent of A Woman"; Madonna revived it in "Evita"; several tango shows, Tango Argentina, Forever Tango, Tango Pasion and Tango Por Dos, have been international successes. More recently, Julio Iglesias' album Tango  and the movies The Tango Lesson and Tango have added fuel to the fire.

In Australia the fire is spreading. In Melbourne in particular, the Argentinian population is enjoying the milongas and tango salons that are springing up, sharing their passion with newer aficionados of the tango. Argentinian dance teachers, who were until recently focussing mainly on the salsa and merengue, are now trying to cope with the overwhelming demand for tango.

An increasing number of Australian tango students travel to Buenos Aires, to tap into the source of tango, to dance in the tango salons and learn from the masters of tango. The sudden boom in tango tourism has produced a number of entrepreneurs who are cashing in on the fashion. It is becoming increasingly hard to find the genuine tanguero. The word coming back from Argentina is that the Australians are admired for developing a tango style of their own, with its own grace and personality.

Fair-haired, fair-skinned and of Anglo-Saxon origin I may be, but it seems there’s still a chance that one day I will find myself in Buenos Aires dancing with an elderly, tall tanguero who will whisper in my right ear, "I love your Australian style," as I lean against him, searching for that elusive T spot.


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© copyright 2003

Carol Middleton