One of the most influential and famous dances of modern history, tango originated in the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay in the late 19th century. So important is this passionate Argentina dance, in 2009, the tango was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
To get under the skin of this passionate national art form, we spoke to Argentinian Travel Director Nicolas, himself a tango dancer and this week’s Insightful Destination Expert.
“When you step into a tango salon you see so many beautiful things in just one minute,” he tells us. “Visitors have told me it is like a Fellini movie, with his dreamy, fantasy world. It’s quite amazing.”
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Argentinian Nicolas has worked as a Travel Director and local Tour Guide since 2001 and leads tours across Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Patagonia and Uruguay. A passionate dancer, like many Argentinians, tango has played a huge role in his life.
“I started with my first tango lessons when I was round 16 years old,” Nicolas tells us. “We used to dance in a small neighborhood garage. Tango has this thing with us – sometimes you leave the tango, but you always come back. And for the last couple of years now, I’m dancing again, at least two or three times a week.
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FEELS LIKE FLYING
“When the tango gets inside you, it’s something that you start to need in a certain way.,” says Nicolas of the Argentina dance. “To dance the tango is such a beautiful experience. When you get that feeling, it is similar to flying.
“You get to have this amazing contact with people, often people you don’t know, and it is a very special connection. And when the music starts, the rhythm and the dancing, it is a truly unique experience.”
To take you on a journey through tango’s fascinating history, here are eight facts you might not know about this exciting Argentina dance.
1. TANGO SALONS ARE KNOWN AS MILONGAS
“Tango is a big thing here, and the places that we go to downtown we call ‘milongas’. The milonga is the tango salon where we go to dance,” Nicolas says.
With so many milongas in Buenos Aires alone, it is recommended to try as many as you can. In fact, the Argentines invented the verb ‘milonguear’ (‘touring milongas’). Every milonga is different, each with its own unique scene.
“The Argentine tango has evolved along with society,” Nicolas explains, “so the milongas are quite different to back then when I first started to dance.”
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2. TRADITIONS ARE CHANGING
“Nowadays in many milongas you can dance with whoever you want to dance with,” says Nicolas. “Generally, no one minds if it is two men or two women.
“In this Argentina dance, traditionally the man was always the leader and the woman the follower, but lessons nowadays are often more open. They don’t identify the roles with a gender. They just ask who wants to learn how to lead and who wants to learn to follow.
“20 years ago, you would’ve had to ask permission to dance with someone of the same sex in a milonga. Though some are still very traditional, in general if you want to dance with someone you just get on and dance.”
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3. THE WORD TANGO CAME FROM SLAVES
“The world tango comes from the Afro-Argentine and Afro-Uruguayan community. It is important to know that throughout the Rio de La Plata region there were slaves,” Nicolas explains.
The Rio de La Plata region includes southeastern Bolivia, southern and central Brazil, the entire country of Paraguay, most of Uruguay, and northern Argentina.
“The word tango comes from the places where these afro communities used to dance. But the name at that time was Tambo.”
4. TANGO IS A MUSIC AND DANCE, AND WAS FIRST IMPROVISED
“The first tango music recorded was in the 1880s,” Nicolas tells us. “It started here in Argentina with the immigrants – at first it was a popular music for immigrants and the poor communities.
“In Argentina and Uruguay, the biggest wave of immigrants was from southern Italy and southern Spain. But people from all over also came to live here. So when they met to make music, there was one from Spain maybe with a guitar, another from Italy also with the guitar but playing differently. It was Eastern Europe that introduced the violin and also the accordion, one of the core instruments of tango music.
“So, the tango was at first an improvised music, as was the dance. It was later on that it became more orchestrated.”
5. TANGO WAS ACCEPTED INTO HIGH SOCIETY THANKS TO THE FRENCH
“In the 1880s Argentina was a big metropolis and it was home to some very rich families. And their children went out to the tango salons to dance; it was very popular at that time,” says Nicolas. “But the rich families didn’t like that their children were going out to dance tango.
“It was common for the wealthy to live six months in Buenos Aires and six months in Europe. And the children took the records to Europe when they were travelling. This resulted in the tango becoming extremely popular in France for the 1890s. When the tango was accepted in France, Argentinian high society saw it as a celebrated Argentina dance and started to dance the tango as well.
“Buenos Aires high society at the time was always reflecting Europe. You see it in the architecture and the way that people dress. So, if the tango was successful in Europe, they danced it here.
That’s how the tango became accepted by high society in Argentina and started The Golden Age of Tango in the 1930s.
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6. CARLOS GARDEL, THE SINGER, TOOK TANGO AROUND THE WORLD
“The Golden Age of Tango is regarded as from the mid 30s to the late 50s. At that time in Buenos Aires, every salon was playing tango,” Nicolas tells us. “One of the greatest singers was Carlos Gardel. He stared in a lot of movies in America and became famous worldwide and that’s also how the tango started to travel around the world.”
Gardel was the first singer to adopt the tango as a form of popular song, previously it had been entirely instrumental dance music. Born in Toulouse, France to a poor and unmarried mother, Carlos Gardel was tango’s first superstar. He is still considered one of its most enduring performers and is revered as an icon in Argentina ever since his tragic death in a plane crash at the age of 45.
7. ROCK AND ROLL ALMOST KILLED TANGO
“In the 1960s there were musical influences that almost killed tango,” says Nicolas. “First it was the clerical music of Argentina, another popular rhythm from our country. And then foreign music from the UK and the US, such as rock ‘n’ roll.
“Argentinian rock was also rising up, so young people almost stopped dancing tango. And the milongas started to lose customers.
“Then, in the 1980s, there was a famous show that went to the United States called ‘Tango Argentino’. They went to perform in New York for two weeks and stayed for two years.
“The tango started to rise again and new musicians emerged. One of the greatest masters was Ástor Piazzolla who was very successful outside of Argentina and became a great tango hero here.
“Then since the 1990s, the tango exploded again and nowadays you have milonga full of people every day of the week. “
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8. ANYONE CAN DENJOY THIS ARGENTINA DANCE
“One of the things that I always like to say to the people is, ‘don’t be scared of tango’”, Nicolas says with a big smile. “It’s just a dance. It’s not open-heart surgery! And it is for no one else, this Argentina dance is just for you. So just enjoy it.
“Tango is a dance for all ages, you can see people in their 70s dancing with 20-year-olds. The tango salons are often small with around 20 couples. So, you’re not only dancing with your partner, you’re dancing with everyone there. It’s just amazing and very welcoming.
“When you start to learn the first steps of tango, you are just walking to the rhythm of the music. It’s not what you see when you watch ‘Performance Tango -that what we call the tango of the stage. I dance ‘Social Tango’.
“People from all over the world come here to Buenos Aires to dance tango. I have danced with people from Japan for example. We’ve never met, we don’t speak the same language but it’s like we have known each other forever.
“That is the magic of tango, and I believe that it’s a very great experience. Any visitor should go to one of these salons, at least for one hour.”
To witness the magic of Argentine tango for yourself and enjoy the best tango show in Buenos Aires take a look at Argentina, Uruguay & Brazil Discovery. Enjoy a private demonstration and performance by professional tango dancers and musicians in the Tin La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
You can also test your travel knowledge against Nicolas and other Insightful destination experts. Each week, our Insightful Trivia Game will introduce you to the world’s leading destination experts and challenge you with a quiz to win a monthly travel prize.