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Music and Dance

The Tango
Early 1900s

In the last two decades of the 19th century, the dance known as the tango emerges out of the immigrant culture of Argentina's dockside slums. The tango fuses New World, African, and European dance styles and is accompanied first by violin and harp and later by an accordion-like German import, the bandoneon. It takes hold in the brothels of Buenos Aires, where it is sometimes danced by pairs of men, sometimes by prostitutes and their companions. The steps are sexual and aggressive, the music permeated with longing and despair, as the dancers act out the ritualistic relationship of prostitute and pimp.

Proper Buenos Aires society considers tango an indecent entertainment associated with violence, illicit sex, and the lower classes. Clubs where the tango is danced are raided and closed by police. They deplore the dance's popularity and its progression from the brothels to downtown cafes and dance halls. In 1912, passage of universal suffrage laws brings the Argentinean lower classes more legitimacy, and their rise in status lends greater respectability to the tango.

More importantly, the dance has migrated to France, England, and North America, where popular dances of all sorts are now the craze. The European version smooths off tango's rough edges -- dancers wear evening dress and patent leather shoes, and while the steps are simplified, their sensual quality diminishes only a little. In pre-20s America, some women dance the tango wearing special bumpers on their dresses to prevent intimate contact with their partners' bodies.

European approval renders the tango acceptable to all Argentineans, and by the '20s it evolves into a national folk treasure. Baritone Carlos Gardel rises to fame as the greatest singer of the form, a cultural hero with more than 800 records and a legion of admirers. In 1935, Gardel dies in a plane crash at age 45, and tens of thousands of mourners crowd the streets of Buenos Aires.

By the 1940s, the tango reaches its peak of popularity, danced and performed in Buenos Aires cabarets, dance salons, social and sports clubs, and restaurants, some holding three shows a day. Maria Nieves, one of the stars of the 1980s show Forever Tango, says of tango's golden age: "We were swept away by our love for tango. We just loved to go dancing. We didn't go out looking for sex...we didn't care what the man looked like. It was a nice, beautiful, pure group of girls, interested only in the tango."

The tango's sensual nature appalled society in early 20th century Argentina. See an image?


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