"The last decade has seen a worldwide explosion of interest in the
Argentinean tango. Tango clubs are springing up in the most unlikely places. In London you
can tango every night of the week; in tiny towns in Holland, Germany, even Finland, tango
aficionados gather together night after night. Japan has its own tango sub-culture. Tango
shows play to packed houses on Broadway, in Paris, London, Berlin and Tokyo. Why?
Social dance forms arise out of a profound physical need to create a
language in which people can speak to each other without words. But since the sixties,
most social dancing in Western culture has been essentially a solo activity. People did
their own thing, unencumbered by the needs of another body, unencumbered by rules and
conventions. But during the last decade, there has been a huge revival of interest in
ballroom dancing: the waltz, the quickstep, the Latin dances such as the salsa and rumba,
and various forms of jive.
But the Argentinean tango holds a unique place in couple dancing. The
body is closer, more intimate than in any other dance form. And yet the 2 legs move faster
and with more deadly accuracy than in any other comparable dance. It is this combination
of sensual, meditative, relaxed contact in the upper body and swift, almost martial
arts-like repartee in the lower body that gives the tango its unique identity.
Add to this vibrant mix the music - melancholy, ecstatic, growling,
predatory, soaring, seeking, heartbreakingly beautiful (especially compared to the insipid
kitsch that most ballroom dancing music has become) - and you have the ingredients for
something more than a craze. You have a genuine participatory art form, which can express
the most profound and complex longings that people can have about their lives, about each
other, about the nature of existence itself.
"The tango is a direct expression of something that poets have
often tried to state in words: the belief that a fight may be a celebration. " -
Jorge Luis Borges.
Controversy surrounds the origins of the tango. However, most
researchers agree that the earliest tangos were danced in the streets, bars and brothels
of Buenos Aires around the 1800s. The vocabulary of the dance and rhythms of the music
that accompanied it echoed the ethnic origins of its proponents. In fact, one of the
earliest meanings of the word "tango" is "a place where black people gather
African slaves in Argentina had brought with them the rhythmic patterns
of the candombe and later black Cubans brought the habanera to Buenos Aires. A new dance
evolved based on the steps of the candombe, the habanera, together with the polka and the
mazurka and became known at the time as a milonga. (Milonga is now a term used to describe
both a variant of the tango and also, somewhat confusingly, a dance hall.)
Before long, this new dance had been taken up by the new European
immigrants, and the tango, as we now know it, was born. If you add kicks and flicks of the
legs (that resemble some of the footwork of African dance) to the simple walks and turns
of European folk dance and a close embrace that may have originated in the brothels, you
have the basic vocabulary of the tango. Small improvising bands, usually guitar, violin
and flute, accompanied the early tangos. Around 1910, the bandoneon (a larger, more
expressive version of the accordion, probably brought to Argentina by the earliest
immigrants from Germany) became the key instrument and identifiable sound of the tango.
At the turn of the century it was common for the sons of wealthy
European immigrants to frequent the bars and brothels of the barrios (districts) of Buenos
Aires. Here, they learned to dance. Their wealth enabled them to travel outside Argentina,
and they took the tango with them, introducing this dance to "polite" society in
Europe and America. After its initial scandalous reception in about 1913 the first wave of
tango fever swept the world.
In the twenties, in Buenos Aires, classically trained musicians, such
as Julio de Caro, who formed one of the earliest tango sextets, started to take the tango
into new areas of subtlety and complexity. The improvising abilities of individual
musicians were now held within a more formal musical framework. Meanwhile the tango
cancion (song) started to become a subculture of the tango world in its own right. Carlos
Gardel, arguably the greatest singer of them all, became the beloved voice and adored icon
of the people.
In the thirties (in effect, the "swing era" of tango) came
the first big band sounds. Juan D'Arienzo (the "King of Rhythm") and Anibal
Troilo created full orchestrated versions of such tunes as "La Cumparsita" that
became internationally recognizable tangos.
In the aftermath of World War II, under the Peronist government,
Argentina started to become politically isolated from the rest of the world. Several
decades followed in which the tango developed under a series of political crises. Osvaldo
Pugliese, one of the great bandleaders of this period, was one of many who were
blacklisted or imprisoned for their beliefs.
By the sixties, rock 'n' roll had eclipsed all other popular music
worldwide, and then Argentina fell to a military dictatorship. But despite laws forbidding
groups of more than three to gather together, the tango did not die. And by the eighties
(partly under the influence of the great dance teachers, Antonio Todaro and Pepito
Avellaneda), the tango had been revived as a form for the stage. Audiences around the
world (through such shows as "Tango Argentino") started to become familiar with
the musical vocabulary of the tango, and with a theatricalised version of the dance. To
dance tango on stage the couple moved further apart, and the moves became more athletic,
balletic, and spectacular. A split developed between the stage style (imitated, poorly,
around the world by tango novices) and the milonguero close-hold style danced in the clubs
and dance halls of Buenos Aires by people for whom tango was a way of life.
A healthy debate began to rage in the tango world about what was the
"real" tango. Meanwhile, a parallel argument about what constituted
"real" tango music had been sparked by the emergence of "modern"
tango, spearheaded by Astor Piazzola, whose tango compositions were reaching concert hall
audiences around the world.
As a new millennium approaches, the tango is evidently, once again, a
living art form, with Buenos Aires the epicenter of a cultural phenomenon. The tango
remains essentially a popular musical form, rooted in the visceral sense of its dance;
combining melodic, lyrical beauty with its unmistakable rhythmic drive. Heady and
passionate, sensual and meditative, melancholic and joyful, it is identifiably Argentinean
and yet, clearly, is universally accessible. The tango is as complex as its own roots and
as simple as the primal impulse for two human beings to move as one.
"The soul is not really united unless all the bodily energies, all
the limbs of the body, are united. " - Martin Buber."
The above article is from Sally Potter's"The Tango Lesson" movie's audio tracks CD booklet.
SALLY POTTER is the creator of "THE TANGO LESSON", a joint
British-French-Argentine production, which was awarded the best film of the year award at
the 1997 Mar Del Plata (Argentina) International Film Festival.
Click here to see a clip from the movie - The Tango Lesson.
Sally Potter started making films when she was a teenager. After
training as a dancer and choreographer in the 1970s and making several short films, Sally
went on to become an award-winning performance artist and theatre director with a
reputation for work that managed to be both challenging and entertaining, with shows such
as "Mounting, Death and the Maiden", and "Berlin" (with Rose English).
In addition, she worked as a lyricist and singer, performing widely in various improvised
music bands and collaborating with composer Lindsay Cooper on the song cycle "Oh
Sally's short film "Thriller"(1979), based on Puccini's opera
"La Boheme", was a cult hit on the international festival circuit. This was
followed by her first feature film, "The Gold Diggers" (1983), starring Julie
Christie; then "The London Story" (1986); a documentary series for Channel 4,
"Tears, Laughter, Fears and Rage" (1986); and a film on women in Soviet cinema,
"I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman" (1988).
Sally then wrote and directed the internationally acclaimed
"Orlando" (1992), based on Virginia Woolf's classic novel and starring Tilda
Swinton. Sally co-composed the score for "Orlando" with David Motion. In
addition to two Academy Award nominations, "Orlando" has won more than 25
international awards, including the " Felix" awarded by the European Film
Academy for the best Young European Film.