Tango is Argentine syncopated dance for two people in 2/4 or 4/4 time in which the bodies of the dancing couple are pressed closely against each other, and the steps are marked by glides and sudden pauses. It is an erotically charged, late nineteenth century ballroom dance that was performed by men with men in Buenos Aires and Uruguay in houses of prostitution and on the streets. It is also a musical genre for this dance. With its origins as an erotic male-on-male folk dance, tango can be considered an LGBTQ folkway with rural gaucho and urban African Argentine roots.
The source language for the word “tango” is disputed, but many sources trace it to one or more African languages. In Buenos Aires in the early sixteenth century, “tango” meant the houses where Blacks carried out their dances. Some documents of the nineteenth century used the word tambo (drum) instead of tango.
The tango was influenced by the cultural contributions of Creole and European immigrants on African Argentine dance culture in the area of the Rio de la Plata. Tango was created at the end of nineteenth century in Buenos Aires by African Argentines and urbanized gauchos, cattle herders from the vast rural area of the Pampas, a treeless grassland from the lower Paraná River to south-central Argentina. Gauchos came to Buenos Aires to sell cattle, and would gather to dance to guitar music in cheap snack bars in southern suburbs of the city.
Gauchos’ adaptation to city life was difficult. They frequently lived on margins and led criminal lives. Those that came to the cities were called compadres. Because of their lifestyle and appearance, compadres were imitated by young toughs, who in turn were called compadritos (“little compadres”). The relationship between the compadritos and the African Argentine population in the Buenos Aires suburbs resulted in the tango as compadritos watched and copied the candombes or African Argentine dances, especially one dance called “tango” that involved quebradas (“breaks” or physically challenging contortions) and cortes (“cuts” or dramatic pauses) done by an individual dancer. Compadritos combined quebradas and cortes with couple dancing. The new choreography was taken to the brothels by the compadritos before tango music really existed as such. Eventually, music was created to fit this dance. There were further adaptations to the new dance, bringing together the rural milonga of the gauchos, the habanera of the European immigrants, and candombes in Buenos Aires.
Nineteenth-Century Social Conditions
Nineteenth-century Buenos Aires had more men than women because immigrants who had left their families in their countries of origin were overwhelmingly male. The city possessed a large network for prostitution. Creoles, immigrant workmen, and people from the underground gathered to hear small ensembles playing tango music with flute, guitar and violin (accordion was added later). Lyrics, in the form of short songs, were usually humorous and vulgar.
The original tango, repeatedly described by the historians of Argentine music as a simulation or a choreographic representation of sexual intercourse between men and women, was a cultural expression that began in the brothels and public meeting places for female and male prostitutes seeking money for sex, and men seeking romance with men. Movements of the dance, although admirably adaptable to heterosexual erotic expression, started out as homoerotic as well as heteroerotic.
At the end of nineteenth century, it was not unusual to see male couples dancing in the dark corners of the streets, ostensibly “rehearsing” for later encounters with women. The places where tango was danced, and the positions of the bodies as couples intimately moved together, shocked people from high society and became a forbidden form of entertainment for them.
Portrayal of the tango in sainete proteño (burlesque theatrical productions with compadrito themes) increased the popularity of the tango in Argentine society. As it spread out from the houses of prostitution (and outside of the nascent Gay male community), men danced with women, mostly in the lower class coffeehouses. Their interpretation of the dance became the Argentine tango.
International tango is a highly disciplined and distinctively structured form, which is accepted worldwide as the format for sport-dance events. The dancers, known as tangers, remain in traditional closed position. Good dancers keep their feet close to the floor as they walk, the ankles and knees brushing as one leg passes the other.
The milonga, which precedes the tango in history, was a solo song cultivated during the nineteenth century by the gauchos in the Pampas. In milongas of that time, two singers (payadores) played the guitar. “Milonga” (singular mulonga) is an Angolan-Brazilian term that means “words,” that is, the lyrics of the payadores. Milonga dance is understood to be a version of tango.
In the first period, milonga was the dance of men-with-men and prostitutes of both sexes, like the tango. “Milonga” is also the name given to tango dance parties. People who dance at milongas are known as milongueros.
Tango Nuevo and a Return to Gay Roots
While Argentine tango has historically been danced to traditional tango music, a younger generation of tango dancers in the 1990s began dancing to alternative electronic and experimental rock tango music or music from other genres, thus creating tango nuevo (new tango).
The increasingly visible Gay community in Buenos Aires is reclaiming the tango. It is not unusual today to see same-sex couples of men and women dance the tango in the city from which it came. Gay tango is also a tourist draw to attract Gay tourists to Argentina. In 2007, the first Queer Tango Festival was hosted in Buenos Aires.
Romano, Camilla. Argentinian Tango: A History. Buenos Aires: AC, 2005.
Knowles, Mark A. Wicked Waltz and Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couples Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.
Celeste, Fraser Delgado and José, Esteban Muñoz (eds.). Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America. Duke University, 1997.