Inside the Tango

The music and dance born in brothels endure as the medium of heartbreak and restrained passion

Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2002

Knife fights and lost loves. Prostitutes, playboys and toughs. This is the stuff of tangos. The tango is Argentina's gift to the world. It is a dance and a style of music, born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires early in the last century when the Argentine capital was wealthy and flourishing. The songs are heartfelt, melancholy ballads and the dance is intimate and close, considered risqué in the early days.

The roots of the music go back to the 1850s, to Spanish flamenco and habanera. The style began evolving in Argentina in the late 1890s and was immensely popular there by the 1920s. The instrumentation can be as simple as a guitar or accordion and a singer, or as full as a big band.

Tango spread to Europe and North America in the early 1930s, largely thanks to Carlos Gardel, a handsome, internationally re-nowned nightclub singer and movie star who sang genre-defining classics such as "Mano a Mano" (Hand to Hand) and "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" (My Beloved Buenos Aires). He died at the height of his fame in a plane crash in Colombia in 1935.

"He's still a major figure," said Stuart Cohen, Juneau novelist and businessman. "You know what they say about Carlos Gardel? 'Cada dia canta mejor - Every day he sings better.' And he does. You listen to him and he's still awesome."

Cohen loves tango, and the dance and music are the backdrop of his latest book, "17 Stone Angels," a detective story set in Buenos Aires. The writer, who imports clothing and textiles for his shop, Invisible World Trading Co., has been to Buenos Aires 14 times. He's shared the dance floor with renowned dancers and heard old men singing in the legendary, now decrepit bars, such as Filicudi.

"Tango is very nostalgic," Cohen said. "It often has to do with the old barrio you left behind, lamenting a lost youth in Buenos Aires and usually a girl who dumped you. Or who you left and now wish you could go back to. It's a lot like the blues, but not as raw - more sophisticated and melancholic. The blues are not usually nostalgic, more cries of pain and despair."

The lyrics are often filled with a kind of Buenos Aires slang called lunfardo, which originated in the 1930s and comes largely from gambling and prison slang.

Many of the songs are about corruption and crime, populated with antiheroes, underworld characters and lost souls, unfaithful women and violent men. Amidst this is the honest guy who is beaten down by the corruption around him. The songs are often recounted by this central character, who is sitting in a bar, either smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky or staring into space and dreaming sadly of the past.

"In the lyrics, often the people are putting emotional distance between them and the painful events of the past," Cohen said. "It's about taking it on the chin, about sucking it up and surviving in a corrupt world."

The dance can have that same emotionally distant quality, Cohen said, in spite of its drama and the physical closeness. It depends where the dancing is done and who is dancing.

"Basically you have the flashy, showy international tango and the equally complicated but less flashy tango that people dance in the barrios," Cohen said.

Dance master Richard Powers has spent decades studying social dance and dance history and teaches at Stanford University. He said the international, or British-style tango with the head snaps, bows and sequins is a competition style, one that emphasizes more emotional and upper-body distance than social dance does.

"Distance was the way some people approached it. The sensual or passionate style is real, too, where the emphasis is on your partner, not impressing judges," Powers said. "Everyone finds something different to like about tango. Some like the complexity, some the history, some the music, some the simplicity. It can be a simple walking dance as long as both people want to do it that way."

Although the competition style is standardized, the social dance has developed many variations throughout its century-long history.

"There's a wonderful richness of variety, from individual to individual," Powers said. "Some will say you dance to the lyrics. Others say you dance to the rhythm."

Cohen said the man's part is very different from the woman's but they mesh like clockwork. The man might do two or three slow steps while the woman takes seven or eight steps, but they whirl and revolve together in matching precision.

"It's a very macho dance," Cohen said. "The man always leads but if the women doesn't follow there is no dance. He needs her and depends on her. As they say, 'It takes two to tango.' "

While some dances can be learned by memorizing patterns and sequences and specific steps, tango really depends on lead and follow, Powers said.

"That's a very highly developed part of tango, part of the pleasure and challenge," he added.

Cohen said tango declined in popularity in Buenos Aires in the 1980s and early '90s, but that's changed.

"Young people danced rock 'n' roll and only old fogies did the tango. But in the past six or seven years there's been a resurgence and it's become hip," he said.

Argentine rock musician Daniel Melingo contributed to that resurgence in the late 1990s when he began writing and recording new tango music.

"He's very good," Cohen said. "Daniel Melingo is very cool and tough. He has songs about coke addicts, and I think you feel the same way people did in 1927 when they heard Carlos Gordeo sing 'Mano a Mano.' "

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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