Thursday, 30 August 2012

Journey into Tango (part 2: some history)

Even a cursory glance at the histories of tango (and, let's face it, that's the best I give anything) will reveal a strong rejection of the myth that the tango began life in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Christine Denniston suggests that it was simply the place where the middle-classes first encountered it, and the very thought of prostitutes dancing with potential punters is dispelled by a quick look at the economic situation of nineteenth century Argentina.

She does note that men did dance together, mainly to refine their moves for the time that they did get a woman to dance with them. Again, the cursory glance through the literature provides plenty of "they were not gay, honest" excuses. Apparently, there weren't many women in Argentina, and history provides many examples, like long distance sea journeys or classical Athenian society, were this situation didn't lead to the normalisation of male homosexuality.

Still, it is quite fun to read about an era, only just over a century ago, when origins are still shrouded in myth. Susan August Brown delves back into the 1850s and postulates that the name might come from an African word meaning "reserved ground". It was used to describe the place that Africans gathered to dance by 1853.

After this, the trail goes cold for about fifty years: it is not until a bunch of wealthy Argentinians nip over to Paris and impress the ladies with the dance that tango gets noticed. The usual narrative is that these reserved grounds attracted the men who had immigrated to Argentina in the hope of finding their fortunes, and that their fashions (which included carrying a knife) dictated the look of the dance. These characters adapted the dances, imported them into brothels, and by the time there were wealthy young men ready to impress the European saloons, the style had evolved into something recognisable as "the tango".

Personally, I rather like the myths and legends that surround the origins of tango: even if it was invented by two bored ballet dancers in their back garden, the stories of different cultures blending, street corner duets and bored johns doing the polka while they waited their turn are all stories with meaning, contributing to the allure of the tango and defining it.

It also seems that the analysis of tango's roots rely heavily on written descriptions: I am hoping to find something that looks at the actual moves and traces them backwards. The common assertion that candombe inspired tango leads into a fascinating diversion...

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