The Hidden History of Tango
The history of Tango is fascinating and complex. The evolution of the dance has profound
implications for the way we dance today, and Tango music has become one of the great World
Music genres.
For the first century of its history, while Tango music struggled for and then achieved
respectability, the dance was neglected by historians and academics. The articles on these pages
are based on many years of research in areas sometimes not covered by the official histories of
Tango. The aim is to get to the heart of the Tango from a dancer's perspective, but not forgetting
the rich history of the music.
We will examine the story of the dance, from its earliest stages, through its worldwide success
before and after the First World War, the Golden Age from the mid 1930s until the coup in
Argentina in 1955, the dark ages of Tango when the dance was pushed underground and
persecuted, and the fabulous Tango renaissance which has spread the dance once again all over
the world. An overview of the history of the music will examine its evolution and the influences
that formed it, putting the great Tango artists in context.
If you have any questions about the history of Tango not covered in these pages, please e-mail us
and we will do our best to answer them.
The History of Tango Dance by Christine Denniston
Christine Denniston is author of The Meaning of Tango, Dancing Tango - Unlocking the Mysteries and Secrets of the Tango - 1914
This history of Tango Dance is based on many years of study and research in Buenos Aires. The
subject is a huge one, and the great dancers, those who were genuinely part of the living culture
of Tango, have tended not to have academic backgrounds, while the academics in Argentina
have tended to neglect the dance, concentrating instead on the music. There are many gaps in our
understanding of Tango's history, particularly the history of the Dance, that might never be fully
If I talk about the history of Tango Dance, I need to divide it into four periods. First there are the
things that I have seen myself. I first went to Buenos Aires in 1993, ten years after the Tango
Renaissance began. I will tell you as accurately as I can about the things that I have seen.
In my research I have spoken to many people who were living witnesses to the story of Tango. I
have spent a great deal of time listening to great dancers, getting to know them, and trying to get
to the full picture behind the individual stories. I can take this second period back to about 1940,
practically to the beginning of the Golden Age of Tango Dance.
Prior to the Golden Age was a period for which we do have some kind of evidence — in the form of sound
recordings, photographs, film clips and contemporary accounts. I shall try to pick my way through the
evidence I have found to give the important facts about Tango History.
And prior to that was the pre-history of the Tango Dance. This was the period for which a contemporary
evidence is practically non-existent. Our understanding is based on later commentators. I will
present the few facts that we have, and do my best to interpret what little evidence there is. No
one will ever know the full story of how Tango began. All anyone can do is give you his or her
best guess.
Couple Dancing and the Beginning of Tango
Although nowadays the closed Tango hold seems to be the only hold possible for couple dancing, Tango
is only the third dance in history done with the man and woman facing each other, with the man holding the
woman's right hand in his left, and with his right arm around her.
The first dance done in this hold was the Viennese Waltz, which was a craze across Europe in
the 1830s. Couple dancing before the Viennese Waltz was formal, with couples performing
choreographed steps, and generally with no more physical contact than holding hands — although some Renaissance dances like la volta could involve surprising levels of intimacy.
The second couple dance to use this hold was the Polka which became the fashion in the 1840s.
The third dance, Tango, was radically different from anything that came before it because it
introduced the concept of improvisation for the first time, and was a huge influence on all couple
dancing in the Twentieth Century.
Immigrants into Argentina would have brought the fashionable new dances — with their shocking
new hold. Exactly how and when the Tango began to evolve from these dances we can never
now. The reason for this is that Tango was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no
mark on history except by dying in wars — the poor, the underprivileged. Often we have to pick
our way through comments made by people who were not part of their culture, who knew little
or nothing about Tango. However, there are a few facts that we can rely on.
The first piece of music written and published in Argentina describing itself as a tango appeared
in 1857. It was called "Toma maté, ché". The word Tango at that time probably referred to what
is now known as Tango Andaluz, Andalucian Tango, a style of music from the area of Spain
which is also the home of Flamenco, which was one of the most popular kinds of music in
Buenos Aires in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.
There are a number of theories about the origin of the word "Tango" in Argentina. One of the
more popular in recent years has been that it came from the community of people of African
descent, who mixed the name of their god of the drum with the Spanish word for drum (tambor),
and came up with the word "Tango". There is some evidence that the African community did use
the word. It seems to me, though, that if the word "Tango" was already in common use in
Spanish to describe a style of music at the time when Tango was first being born, then that surely
is the most likely root of the word, even though Tango in Argentina became something
completely different from the Spanish music from which it borrowed its name. In any case, there
is no traditional African dance done in couple hold — so important to the development of Tango.
Couple dancing as we think of it certainly seems to have begun in Europe. Members of the
African community in Buenos Aires certainly joined in and influenced the development of the
dance and music, just as members of all the other communities in Buenos Aires did. However, there
does not seem to be any real evidence that the dance originated in the African community. Nor
does there seem to be any remaining influence of African dance on it — so obvious even today in
Salsa and Swing dance, for example.
It is my belief that the most important group in the development of Tango was one of the most neglected and ignored: poor, undereducated, underprivileged, straight white men. That, of course, is only my opinion. So little evidence remains from this period that no one can be sure of anything.

We have evidence of the Tango being sung in theatres throughout the second half of the Nineteenth Century, and of a couple dancing Tango on stage in Buenos Aires in the 1890s, so certainly the dance was established before the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Clichés about Tango Origins of the Dance
There is a cliché that Tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires. However, a more likely
explanation is that the brothels were where people of the upper and middle classes first
encountered it. Members of Argentina's literary classes — the people who are most likely to leave
written evidence — did not mix socially with members of the lower, immigrant classes except in
Brothels were major places of entertainment for the working classes. The terrible shortage of
women in Buenos Aires made prostitution a thriving industry. A shortage of women in the
population also meant a shortage of women to work in the brothels. With many potential clients
and few working women, the consequence was that there would be queues in the brothels as men
waited for the women to become available.
In exactly the same way that a few years later Madams in New Orleans would employ artists like
Jelly Roll Morton, at the cutting edge of the new music transforming Rag Time into Jazz, to
entertain the men while they waited, brothel owners in Buenos Aires would employ Tango
musicians. In both cities, these musicians were playing the music of the poor, and brothels were
amongst the very few places in that section of society that could afford to employ professional
musicians. So it is not surprising to see that the most important early musicians often spent some
time working in brothels before becoming successful to a wider audience. The difference is that
the chattering classes and opinion formers in the United States were likely to have heard Jazz for
the first time in a nightclub in New York or Chicago rather than in New Orleans, while in
Buenos Aires it was in the brothels that opinion formers first heard and saw it.
The idea that it was the prostitutes in the brothels that danced with the men while they waited is
an appealing one, but doesn't make logical sense. The point was that the men were waiting
because the women were otherwise occupied. Obviously the brothel's income would be
maximised by keeping the girls busy at their primary occupation, so certainly at peak periods
where the brothel was busiest there would not be women available for dancing. However, if there
was music then it seems to me to be a pretty safe bet that the men would have used the
opportunity to practice their dancing together.
At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century Buenos Aires had been little more than a village at
the furthest corner of the Spanish Empire. In the middle of the Nineteenth Century the British
arrived to develop the railway network across Argentina. This opened up this practically deserted
country, and made accessible its potentially huge wealth. It made possible the transportation of
agricultural produce for export, and also the exploitation of mineral resources. The only thing
missing was the workers necessary to make the landowners rich.
The Argentine government decided to advertise in Europe for workers. They offered
accommodation for a man's first week in Argentina with very generous rations, and sometimes
subsidised passage. Immediately an avalanche of immigration began. Unlike the immigration to
much of the New World, which might include families or whole communities hoping to start a
new life in a new land, much of the immigration into Argentina was economic — people hoping to
work for a few years, make some decent money, and then go back home to their families. So the
overwhelming majority of the immigrants were men. And by the beginning of the Twentieth
Century the overwhelming majority of people in Buenos Aires were immigrants. This meant that
there was an enormous lack of women.
Not only did the majority of the immigrants not get rich, and so never go home, but they also had
very little chance of creating a family for themselves in Argentina. There were simply not
enough women for all the men who might have wanted to settle down and have children to be
able to do so.
There were really only two practical ways for a man to get close to a woman under these
circumstances. One was to visit a prostitute and the other was to dance. With so much
competition from other men on the dance floor, if a man wanted a woman to dance with him, it
was necessary for him to be a good dancer, and being a good dancer only meant one thing. It
didn't matter if he knew lots of fancy steps, or if the other men thought he was a good dancer.
The only thing that mattered was that the woman in his arms had a good time when she danced
with him — because with so many other men to choose from, if she didn't enjoy dancing with him
she wouldn't do it again, and neither would her friends.
This meant that it was necessary for the men to practice together in order to be good enough to
dance with the women. It is important to remember that this was a time before recorded music
was available. The only kind of music was live music, and there would have been very little of it.
So if a group of men heard music playing they would jump at the chance to dance to it. In the
brothels there would be live music and other men waiting. So it seems to me quite obvious that
the clients of the brothels would have danced together while they waited, making the most of the
opportunity to practice, not because they wanted to dance with a prostitute, but because they
wanted to be able to dance well when they got the opportunity to dance with a woman who was
not a prostitute.
It was the potential wives and sweethearts that lived in the tenement blocks — conventillos — that
they were hoping for a chance to dance with. A prostitute took money from a man in return for
her favours — a clear and simple transaction. To win a sweetheart in the real world took
something more, and being a good dancer helped a lot.
It was not in the brothels that Tango was born, but in the courtyards of the tenement blocks
where the poor lived. With so many people living together in one building, it was very likely that
someone might play the guitar, perhaps someone else might play the violin or the flute, and that
from time to time they would get together to play the popular tunes of the time. And other people
in the building would take the opportunity to dance, to have a moment of joy in what might be a
terribly hard and lonely life.
The music and dance became a common language that united people from many different
cultures. It was here that the different music and dance styles brought by immigrants from
different countries, and by the people already in Argentina, blended together, and what emerged
slowly became Tango.
Another cliché of the origins of Tango is the men dancing on a street corner. This certainly must
have happened. People relied on live music to dance, and there were buskers in Buenos Aires, as
in any city, making a living from playing for passers by. One of the most popular instruments for
buskers was the barrel organ, or organito. Without a doubt, men hearing a busker playing a tango
would have been keen to take the opportunity to practice, and buskers would have found it
profitable to have a few tangos in their repertoires.
The men practicing together, looking for the best ways to please a woman when they danced
with her, preparing for that rare moment when they actually did have a woman in their arms,
were the people who created the Tango as a dance. It evolved and became Tango, unique and
glorious, under these very special and unusual circumstances.
Couple Dance Begins in Europe
Tango was the first couple dance ever seen in Europe that involved improvisation. Before the
arrival of Tango, couple dance was sequence based, with every couple on the floor dancing the
same steps at the same time. (The only notable exception to this was the Boston, a rhythmically
difficult form of Waltz fashionable in London in 1911, although it was never widely danced.
Some Ballroom dancers today dance a very simplified version of the Boston.)
It was the arrival and popularity of Tango that really defines the beginning of couple dance as we
understand it.
The earliest evidence of Tango being danced in Europe comes from the first decade of the
Twentieth Century. It probably came into France first through the port of Marseille, where
Argentine sailors would dance with the local girls, and Tango was the couple dance they
prefered. There is evidence of a couple dancing Tango on stage in Monmartre in Paris by 1909.
But it was in 1912 that the Tango took Paris by storm.
By this time Argentina was the seventh richest country in the world, with an average per capita
income four times that of Spain or Italy. While the poor stayed poor, the rich got very rich
indeed, and it became the fashion for families to send their young sons to Europe, either to go to
university, or simply to do the Grand Tour and finish off their education.
Young men of good families have a tendency to spend time in places they are not supposed to
visit, and with girls that their mothers would rather they did not marry, and as a consequence
several of these young men were quite good Tango dancers, even though Tango was still
completely unacceptable in polite society in Buenos Aires. But when these young men began to
dance in Paris the upper classes were entranced, and Tango became a massive craze.
1913 was the Year of the Tango all over the world. Tango was the couple dance everyone
wanted to learn. In this year the Tango Teas began at the Waldorf Hotel in London, picking up
the fashion of Tes Dansants from Paris, and a grand Tango ball held in the Selfridges department
store was declared the event of the season. All of Europe was dancing the Tango. There were
many disapproving voices, but the mania had bitten. Fashions in clothing, already changing away
from the restrictions of the Victorian corset and hooped skirts, changed more quickly under the
influence of the Tango. It is said that women in Paris abandoned the corset in order to dance it.
The feathers in women's hats moved from horizontal, sweeping across in front of the face, to
vertical, going up from the forehead, letting a couple dance without the feather getting in the
Tango partner's way. Tulip skirts, which opened at the front, made dancing easier. Women were
sold not just Tango shoes, but Tango stockings, Tango hats, Tango dresses, and anything else
that manufacturers could think of. And the colour of Tango was orange.
In 1913 and 1914 a variety of books were published in Europe claiming to teach Tango, four of
them in London. It seems to me that one of these, Secrets of the Tango, has a ring of truth about
it. It was published in 1914, under the name of an English author, but the steps in it are credited
to a young Argentine living in London. His parents thought that he was studying Engineering. In
fact he was appearing on the stage of the Queen's Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue dancing the
It is quite clear that the young Argentine, referred to only by his stage name, Juan Barrasa, feels
that the other books published in London were written by people trying to jump on the Tango
bandwagon, and lack any real Tango content.
It is my guess that the steps he presents give us one of our only indications of how Tango was
being danced in Buenos Aires before the First World War. Certainly they seem to fit naturally
and beautifully with Tango recordings from that period. There are also movements reminiscent
of the ocho cortado, a step popular in the 1950s, and fashionable again in the Tango renaissance.
It is sometimes described as a decadent form of the forwards ocho, but is clearly a variant of a
very early kind of step.
The popularity of Tango in Europe, and especially in Paris, made it an interesting couple dance
to the upper classes in Buenos Aires, and the Tango was re-imported for their benefit. I have
seen a book published in Buenos Aires around the time of the First World War (the publishing
date was not given on the copy I saw) which says in its introduction that this is to teach people
the elegant Tango as it is danced in Paris, which is nothing like the tasteless, squalid little dance
done by the lower classes in the outskirts of Buenos Aires!
In the early years of Tango lyrics were generally comic and often bawdy. They were usually
written in the first person, and described some excellent quality that the character possessed. In
the original lyric of the tango Don Juan, for example, written around 1900, the character
describes himself a such a great dancer that when he does a clever step in the south of Buenos
Aires everyone talks about it all the way to the north of the city. He also points out how
incredibly good-looking he is, and that the bravest man cowers in front of him.
This sort of lyric was not acceptable in the houses of the middle classes. As the popularity of
Tango grew in Paris and across the world, there started to be a market for Tango music and
Tango recordings amongst the middle and upper classes in Argentina. This put pressure on both
the music and the lyrics to change.
From about 1917 onwards a new sort of Tango lyric began to be written. Many of finest poets
that Argentina and Uruguay have ever produced have written Tango lyrics. Quickly the form
became one of the richest in Twentieth Century popular culture. And as the lyrics improved in
quality, this was also the period when great singers began to emerge, and then to dominate the
Tango scene, particularly with the advent of radio, and later sound film.
As the music adapted to accommodate the needs of the star singers, it began to be less attractive
to dancers, and between the mid 1920s and the mid 1930s in Buenos Aires the dance became less
popular. There were still great orchestras, notably the orchestra of Julio de Caro , who brought
classical training and sensibilities to the Tango. But it was not until the explosion onto the Tango
scene of the ruthlessly populist orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo that the dance was swept back up
from the doldrums and returned to the height of popularity.
Everyone Learns to Dance Tango
From 1935 people again began to dance Tango in Buenos Aires in huge numbers, inspired by the
powerful Tango dance rhythms of Juan D'Arienzo . D'Arienzo was unapologetic about creating
the kind of Tango music that people wanted to dance to, even though his style was criticised as a
backward step in the evolution of Tango music. And it was precisely the injection of energy that
the Tango needed. The period between D'Arienzo 's recording contract in 1935 and the military
coup that changed everything in Argentina in 1955 is generally considered to be the Golden Age
of the Tango. It is the period when all aspects of the Tango were in the greatest harmony.
Musicians played for dancers. Singers sang within the orchestra, as another instrument, rather
than dominating the orchestra as the star. The dancers, inspired by the many great orchestras,
created a massive evolution in the dance, and also provided the market for the many orchestras,
encouraging them to compete and reach new heights in Tango dance music.
In the 1940s and the 1950s practically everyone in Buenos Aires danced the Tango. Generally
those who did not dance Tango were the members of the upper classes, for whom the bulk of the
population still represented the recent immigrants, whose culture was very different from their
own. To the upper classes in Argentina, Tango, particularly the dance, was then, and remains
today, at least as exotic and alien as it is to the bulk of people in Europe or the United States.
But for most of the people of Buenos Aires, Tango was very much a part of their everyday lives.
I asked a friend of mine who began to dance Tango in 1940 how he managed to go out dancing
every night when he also had a job to go to. He told me that he would go out dancing, then go
home to shower and change, work from 6 or 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., go home and sleep, and get up in
the evening, ready to go out dancing.
Buenos Aires is a huge city, and in any huge city you will find a variety of accents, perhaps even
dialects. That is how it was with the Tango in the Golden Age, when everyone danced. I have
been told that in the 1940s and 1950s you could work out not just which part of town a leader
came from, but which of the many, many dance halls he favoured on a Saturday night, by the
time he had taken two steps at the beginning of a dance. This did not mean that people were
doing a different dance. Just as a language has certain grammatical rules and basic vocabulary
that are constant across all its accents and dialects, so the Tango had fundamental rules much
more important than the specific Tango dance steps that were being done.

Dance Styles of the Golden Age
The huge variety of Tango dance styles in Buenos Aires in the 1940s and 1950s represents the
amazing depth and richness of Tango. I shall begin by describing three different broad styles,
danced by the great Tango dancers who were dancing before the 1955 coup in Argentina, and
that I danced with them in the 1990s.
I shall begin with a style popular in the geographical centre of Buenos Aires and the central part
of the south of the city in the early 1950s. This was a style developed for crowded dance floors.
The shape drawn on the floor as a couple moves in this style is like a kind of Brownian motion.
It appears almost random and slightly jagged, with many changes of direction. This is probably
the simplest Tango dance style, choreographically speaking, although it is technically
demanding. It relies on the connection within the couple and the musicality of the dancers for its
flavour and delight. The musicality of this style relies on steps on the beat and frequent double
time steps. This form of musicality appears to be the easiest for people with an ear trained in
European musical styles to understand.
The archetypal step in this style is the ocho cortado, not seen in any other style, and the
archetypal orchestra is early Troilo .
The most elegant Tango dance style is without question the style danced in the north of Buenos
Aires in the 1940s. This is a part of the city that has historically tended to be financially better off
than the south. Dance floors here have tended to be larger. The shape drawn by the couple on the
floor as they dance tends to be long straight lines, punctuated with a sudden, very complicated
movement. The form of musicality in this style is probably the hardest for the person trained in
the European tradition to understand.
While I was doing my research on the various styles of the Golden Age I would ask dancers that
I met who, apart from themselves of course, was the best dancer of the style. In the north of the
city the answer always came back "Portalea". I would ask why, and I was always told that it was
the way he interpreted the music that made him the best. One evening someone told me that
Portalea was in the room, so, very excited, I scurried off to watch him dance. And I looked at
him in amazement, because I simply could not work out how what he was doing had anything to
do with the rhythm of the music at all. And that, of course, was my mistake. He wasn't dancing
the rhythm of the music. He was dancing the phrase.
In the style of the north it is very common to see people dancing three equal steps in four beats of
the music, in a way that is utterly natural, and completely at one with the music.
The archetypal step in this style is a salida in which the leader takes just two steps to the four
taken by the follower, followed by walking in line with frequent weight changes. The archetypal
orchestra is Di Sarli .
Possibly the oldest of the Tango dance styles of the Golden Age is the style of the south. The
shape drawn by the couple on the floor is one without many straight lines, made up of curves and
arcs, looking very much like an Art Nouveau design. The stance of the dancers is a tiny bit closer
to the floor. The interpretation of the music involves many pauses, and many rapid movements.
This is the style where ganchos and boleos were danced.
The archetypal step is one where the leader takes the follower off her axis, taking responsibility
for her weight, and perhaps walking her around the foot she is standing on. The archetypal
orchestra is Pugliese .
The Traditional Way to Learn to Dance Tango
By the 1940s, and very possibly some time before that, the way in which a young man would
learn to dance Tango was surprisingly uniform across the whole of the city. I have asked many
elderly men, from every part of the city, and dancing every style how they began to dance.
Generally they start, "I was 13 years old, and there was this girl..." A 13 year old boy in Buenos
Aires in the 1940s or 1950s was not the same as a 13 year old boy in the First World today. Most
boys would have left school at 11, at the latest, and would have been full members of the work
force for at least two years. So at 13 they were young adults with quite a lot of independence.
The young man who was starting to notice the attractions of young women had little option but
to learn to dance the Tango. He would go to a men-only practice dance, or práctica, and, after he
had watched for a little while one of the older men would start to teach him how to follow, that is
to say he would learn to dance the woman's part. Once he was considered to be good enough at
dancing the woman's part he would be allowed to try leading another young man who had been
dancing about as long as he had, and start to learn to dance the man's part. I have asked many
elderly men, from many different parts of the city, how long this process took (baring in mind
that the men I speak to for my research are generally the outstanding ones, who would not have
been the slowest members of their group), and I have never been told that it took less than nine
months to learn to dance the woman's part well enough to be allowed to start learning to lead.
They would then continue to learn, dancing both parts, gradually leading more, until one night
one of the more experienced men would tell them to put on a suit on Saturday because they were
going to a dance, or milonga. I have asked many elderly men how long that whole process took,
and not one has told me that it took less than three years.
Their first dance with a woman would have to be arranged for them. No woman would dance
with a young man she had never seen dancing. There were too many good dancers for her to be
interested in risking a dance with someone if she didn't know if he could dance, so unless he was
exceptionally good looking, one of his more experienced friends would have to ask a woman, as
a personal favour to him, to dance with the boy. If it went well then he could be left to carry on,
as the other women would have seen him dance. If it went badly then he would have to go back
to the práctica until he could do better.
The men did not simply go to the práctica to learn to dance—or there would not have been any
experienced men for the beginners to dance with. The men continued to go to the práctica for a
couple of hours each night, four or five nights a week, before they went to the milonga. In fact
several men have said to me that you did your real dancing at the práctica. You went to the
milonga to meet women. Generally the men in the prácticas followed better than the women in
the milongas did. And in a práctica you could experiment more and take risks. Dancing with a
woman you had to stick to what you could do perfectly, to increase her enjoyment of the dance.
In the prácticas there would be men who specialised in following - although they also led in the
milongas to meet women. Often men had regular dancing partners, and there would be
demonstration dances done in the milongas to a very high standard.
The process by which a man would learn to dance was similar to the way a child learns a
language. First of all the child listens. Then, after perhaps nine months the child starts to make
little noises, imitating the sound of words spoken by the adults around it. But mostly it still
listens. Gradually it starts to make words, and then phrases and sentences, until by the age of
three a child can have a proper conversation. There is still some way to go, of course, but the
fundamentals are there, and a child who learns in this way doesn't make grammatical mistakes as
an adult. The child may grow up to be a poet or someone inarticulate, but whatever use it makes
of the language it learns, the fundamentals are always right.
When I ask elderly women how they learned to dance, the story is also similar whichever part of
town they come from. It was done in private and in the home. Many were taught by fathers,
brothers or uncles, but some were taught by mothers, sisters or aunts. When I ask a woman who
says she was taught by her mother, "So your mother danced the man's part?" she say,
"Obviously," as though I was insane to ask the question.
While it is not part of the official history of Tango, I do believe that a considerable number of
women in the Golden Age (and probably before that too) did learn to dance the man's part as
well as the woman's part, and took their Tango as seriously as the men did. There was much less
pressure on women to reach a high standard in the dance, as they were such a rare commodity. A
woman did not have to be a particularly good dancer in order to dance all night if she wished.
But it is my belief that those women who were captivated by the Tango did practice together in
private, and did learn to dance both parts.
When you talk to the men about the standard of the women it is clear that some women were
significantly better than the rest, and that they were the ones that any man would choose to dance
with. I do believe that these were the women who practiced, and who, in the privacy of their
homes, led.
However, that is only my theory, and not the story that has been officially recorded.
The Dark Age of Tango
The coup in 1955 that ousted General Perón had profound consequences for Argentina as a
whole, and for the Tango in particular, launching the country into a kind of modern Dark Age.
The new military government was made up of members of the upper classes, for whom the
culture of the mass of the population was alien and dangerous. They did not understand the
Tango. They did not dance it.
Also they had a knee-jerk reaction that anything Perón had said was good must be bad. Perón
was a nationalist and a populist, and Tango was both national and popular. Perón had used Tango
and Tango artists for his political purposes, and many famous Tango artists were involved with
the Peronist movement. As a consequence many artists were either imprisoned or blacklisted by
the new regime.
And large numbers of men meeting every night in the social halls of community or political
associations in order to dance together? That would have seemed very suspicious, and an
obvious cover for political agitation.
It would have been difficult to ban the Tango itself, although specific songs were banned, and
some had to have their titles changed. Some of the measures natural to a repressive regime took
their toll on the dance. At various times there were curfews, making things difficult for a night-
time activity like Tango. At other times there were bans on meetings of more than three people,
making a social dance illegal.
But one very subtle and clever attack was made specifically against the Tango. This story was
told to me by someone who ran a number of Tango dances in the mid-1950s. There were laws
banning the presence of minors in nightclubs. These laws were rigidly enforced for Tango clubs,
but were not enforced at all for clubs that only played Rock and Roll music. So where before the
coup the best way for a young man to meet a young woman was in a milonga, suddenly it was
much easier to meet a girl by dancing Rock and Roll. Overnight, young men stopped learning
how to dance the Tango. There was no reason to spend three years learning how to dance Tango,
when the girl you liked was in a Rock and Roll club instead. The generation that were 18 years
old in 1955 learned to dance the Tango well and with confidence. The generation that were 13
didn't learn it at all.
It seems extraordinary that a repressive right-wing regime would encourage Rock and Roll at a
time when conservatives all over the world were trying to stop young people dancing to the wild
new music. But it served the purposes of the regime, and it served them well.
Between the coup in 1955 and the fall of the military junta in 1983 after the Falklands War,
practically no one learned how to dance the Tango. The Tango did not disappear. It was still
possible to go out dancing, and many people did. But the Tango was pushed underground, and
naturally people became very suspicious of strangers. Some professional dancers of other kinds
of dance found that they could make a living doing choreographies that looked like Tango in
shows, particularly shows aimed at the overseas market. In fact it was in the 1950s that the
concept of the Tango choreography for stage seems first to have appeared. Before that
professional dancers seem to have improvised.
The Tango Renaissance
The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 began a spectacular Tango Renaissance in
Buenos Aires. Friends of mine who were in Buenos Aires at that time tell me the atmosphere was
extraordinary. Suddenly everyone wanted to move. It was as though a physical weight had been
lifted from them. Yoga classes were full. Martial arts classes were full. Dance classes of all kinds
were full. And suddenly people wanted to learn to dance Tango, the ultimate symbol of
Argentina to the rest of the world, because suddenly it felt all right to be proud to be Argentine
The problem with the Tango was that there had never been beginners' Tango classes in the
Golden Age, and there was no tradition of teaching Tango. The prácticas had gone. There were
no Tango teachers in Buenos Aires. There was a vacuum that needed to be filled.
A dear friend of mine, and a wonderful dancer, told me a story about how he started to teach
Tango. He was a student at university, and there was this girl... He wanted to find a way to get
closer to her, and he saw a notice for a Tango class aimed at people training to be professional
stage dancers, to prepare them to dance in shows. The turnout had been low, so they had opened
the class up to other students. He suggested to the girl that they go to the class together, and she
agreed. After the second class her schedule changed and she couldn't make it to the Tango class
any more, so he suggested that he carry on going and then show her what they had learned
After about three months of classes things were going well, and she suggested that as he was
doing so well teaching her, perhaps they should start a class. She had some contacts in a local
Arts Centre and got their class put into the programme. It happened that this was exactly at the
moment that the junta fell and everyone suddenly wanted to move. They came to teach their first
ever Tango class and there were 200 people there.
Everywhere in the world that Tango has begun since 1983 the story has been more or less the
same. I taught my first Tango class in London when I had been dancing seriously for four
months, not because I thought I knew everything, but because people asked me to teach, because
I had taken as many classes with visiting teachers or by travelling myself to Europe as I could,
and knew a little. Very few Tango scenes anywhere in the world were begun by experienced
Even in Buenos Aires, when the Tango Renaissance began, it was mostly young dancers who
knew a little who were the first teachers. In 1983 many of the people who had been dancing in
the Golden Age were not dancing, and those that were would still have been suspicious of
strangers. After all, there had been a brief flirtation with democracy in the 1970s, but in the
background the Dirty War was already beginning.
So the first people to start dancing again in Buenos Aires would probably never have danced
with someone who had danced in the Golden Age. A friend of mine tells me that she went to
milongas and sat and waited and went home and didn't dance for years before people began to
believe that she might be able to dance and started to ask her. Another friend of mine went to
Tango classes for almost two years, eventually becoming the teacher's assistant, before she
decided to go to a milonga for the first time. She took one look at the people dancing and
suddenly realised that what she had been doing for such a long time had nothing to do with
Tango, and was something that her "teacher" had made up.
Gradually the people who had been dancing in the Golden Age, and who might not have danced
for thirty years began to dance again. Some of them developed a passionate desire to pass on to
the younger generation the dance that they loved.
One of the most important couples in the early years of the Tango Renaissance were Miguel and
Nelly. Miguel tragically died at a relatively early age, before I had the chance to meet him,
though I did meet and dance with Nelly. They organised their beginners' classes to be as close as
possible to the traditional way of learning. Students were only allowed to dance with the teachers
until they were considered to be ready, only doing the most basic steps.
A friend of mine tells me that she went to Miguel and Nelly's classes with her boyfriend of the
time. After a few months he said to Miguel, "When are you going to teach us some steps?"
Miguel said, "When you're ready. You're not ready." The boyfriend protested and picked up my
friend to show some of the steps another teacher had already taught him. Miguel threw him out
of the class.
Many of the most important professional dancers of the Tango Renaissance trained with Miguel
and Nelly.
The early period of the Tango Renaissance was dominated by complex steps. There can be a
tremendous excitement to doing complicated steps, especially if they are done with the technique
used by those who learned Tango in the traditional way—native speakers of Tango, if you like.
When done in this way, steps are part of the emotional connection that defines the essence of
Tango. I began dancing when this fashion was still dominant in the new Tango scene. I always
loved dancing with complicated movements, and still do. But even as a relative beginner I started
to feel that some people in the new generation of dancers were dancing differently, and using
steps to keep an emotional distance from their partners.
One of the most influential teachers of this period was Antonio Todaro, a brilliantly inventive
dancer of the older generation. The intellectual challenge of the steps he created, and danced
with the technique of the Golden Age, was a great inspiration to new dancers. He taught many of
the professional stage dancers, and toured frequently in Europe. Todaro fell ill late in 1993, and
passed away soon afterwards. It may be coincidence, but the fashion amongst young dancers in
Buenos Aires, and then in the rest of the world, began to swing away from steps in 1994.
The next style to come into fashion was one based on the style of the geographical centre of
Buenos Aires and the centre of the south of the city in the early 1950s. This is a style that is
choreographically relatively simple, relying on the connection between the dancers, and their
connection with the music. While it is possible to dance the other styles of the Golden Age with
space between the dancers' bodies (although this was not done during the Golden Age), this style
makes no sense if it is not done in a close hold.
The great attraction of this style is in the connection within the couple which is necessary to
make it work, and which, when done well, is tremendously seductive.
One of the most prominent champions of this style, Susanna Miller, coined for it the term "Estilo
Milonguero", milonguero style. The word milonguero, though it literally means someone who
spends a lot of time in milongas, had come to be used to mean someone who had been a regular
Tango dancer during the Golden Age, before the 1955 coup. While the choice of the term was
obviously inspired by the desire to distinguish this style from the steps-dominated style danced
on stage, the unfortunate and unforeseeable consequence was that it set up the idea in people's
minds that this was the only authentic social Tango style.
One of the saddest things I ever saw in Buenos Aires was a dear friend of mine who started
dancing in 1945, in the style of the north of Buenos Aires, which is the most elegant and also the
most difficult style of the Golden Age, on the point of tears—and elderly Argentine men do not
cry in public—because a young dancer had said that he was not a milonguero because he danced
with steps. He was being accused of lying about an important part of his whole identity, because
this young dancer had misunderstood the term "Estilo Milonguero" and thought that this was the
only true style.
The dancing of the people who were dancing in the Golden Age remained unchanged, and one
could still go to milongas away from the centre of Buenos Aires and see people doing the most
fabulously complicated steps in a truly authentic and completely social way. But by 1995 the
style variously known as “close hold”, “short steps”, “Tango club” or “milonguero” had come to
dominate the dancing of the people in Buenos Aires who were part of the Tango Renaissance.
The problem with this style, lovely as it is, is that it lacks the fascinating choreographic challenge
of all the authentic styles of the Golden Age, apart from the style of the geographic centre and
centre south in the early 1950s on which is was loosely based. The thing that makes this style
exciting is the connection within the couple and the musicality of the dancers. Quite quickly I
started to notice people finding ways of manipulating the close embrace in order to maintain an
emotional distance from their partners. Most particularly I noticed people not dancing directly in
front of each other, but with the follower away to the leader's right. This was certainly not my
experience of dancing with people who had danced this style in the 1950s. They always were
directly in front of me, as were almost all the dancers I danced with who had been dancing in the
Golden Age, whatever the style.
So quite quickly people began to get bored with this style, as they were not getting the emotional
connection that made the style work, but were also not getting the chorographic challenge of the
other styles.
Canyengue, Orillero and Tango de Salon
The question: "What are Orillero, Canyengue and Tango de Salon?" was one that people from
many different countries began to ask, as they came to Buenos Aires looking for the truth about
Tango. I asked that question along with them.
Orillero, Canyengue and Salon were terms often mentioned in books on the history of Tango. I
asked many, many people, dancing many different styles from the Golden Age what Tango de
Salon was, and all of them answered, "What I do," no matter how different their styles. Indeed, I
saw a very fine, and very famous, dancer, who had begun to dance in the 1940s, thrown into a
great rage because a young dancer (not me, I'm glad to say!) had told him that he danced Tango
Orillero, because he danced with figures, when he had spent his whole life dancing what he
considered to be Tango de Salon.
Tango de Salon means literally "Tango for the ballroom"—not, of course, Ballroom Tango, as we
think of it, but Tango suitable for respectable social dance halls, and seems to be the only way to
describe all the various styles danced in the Golden Age, including the style on which the 1990s
invention of Estilo Milonguero was based. Tango Orillero means "Tango from the outskirts of
the city". If there ever was a distinction between Tango from the outskirts and Tango suitable for
ballrooms, it may well have been the distinction drawn by the author of the book on how to
dance Tango published in Buenos Aires at the height of Tango mania, between the elegant Tango
being danced in Paris and the dubious dance from the outskirts of the city. So it is possible that in
the early part of the Twentieth Century there was a real distinction between Orillero and Salon,
as the dances of the poor and of the rich.
By the Golden Age, however, the term Orillero seems not to have been in use to describe any
style still being danced in Buenos Aires itself, and the real Tango had reclaimed the ballrooms
and the dance halls, to be called Tango de Salon.
The word Canyengue is almost impossible to translate into English. It is a word from the slang of
Buenos Aires that describes a quality that is indefinable, in the same way that if you have to ask
what Swing is you don't understand it. Canyengue describes a streetwise quality from the end of
the Nineteenth Century, and originally meant lower class.
It may be that there was never any distinction between Canyengue and Orillero as Tango styles,
but that they were different ways of describing the same thing—the dance done by the
immigrants and the poor who were creating Tango in the earliest period, the lower class
(cangyengue) people who lived at the edge of the city (in the orillas).
If this is the case then it was this one style of Tango—sometimes called "orillero" and sometimes
called "canyengue"—which was the original way that Tango was danced. It was this style, with
cortes and quebradas, which took Paris and the world by storm in the years before the First
World War. (Certainly a step known as a "Corte" and its variants are fundamental to the sources
we have which detail Tango steps from this period.)
Most Tango historians in Buenos Aires would agree that Canyengue was a style danced to
music that was played in 2/4, with a lilting, habanera rhythm, before the squarer 4/8 we now
think of as Tango emerged. This "Canyengue" period was an important stage in the development
of Tango music, but this distinctive musical style, and therefore by extension the dance that went
with it, had disappeared by 1920.
In any case, by the early 1990s there was no one dancing in Buenos Aires who was old enough to
have been dancing in the "Canyengue" period, or whose dance style was one that they
themselves would have described as Canyengue. But many people, like me, were asking about it,
and one dancer, Rodolfo Cieri, remembered some steps that his father had taught him when he
was 7 years old. His father was a mature man, and so would have seen people dancing in the
Canyengue way when he was young. Rodolfo and his wife Maria (who was several years
younger than Rodolfo) started to do little demonstrations including those steps, genuinely trying
to help satisfy people's thirst for knowledge. The demonstrations were an instant hit, and people
wanted to learn the steps they were doing even though, to begin with, they were reluctant to teach
them as they knew that they could only give a flavour of Rodolfo's childhood memories of his
Rodolfo was a fabulous dancer, with a very individual way of dancing. The success of Rodolfo
and Maria's demonstrations of these Canyengue steps owed a great deal to the charm and
personality of this delightful couple. But the memories of one man of some steps that his father
showed him when he was 7 are not enough to resurrect a complete style, as they themselves
would have agreed.
Another couple, Marta Anton and Luis Grondona, began teaching some steps very similar to the
ones Rodolfo and Maria were doing at about the same time. Interviewed on the cable television
station Solo Tango they explained how they had been playing around one evening and had come
up with these steps, and had since started teaching them.
It is not surprising that the style inspired by Rodolfo and Maria and championed by Marta and
Luis became very fashionable amongst young dancers looking for the authentic Tango in 1996. It
was danced in a close hold similar to the one used in dominant style of the Tango Renaissance,
but was more playful and choreographically inventive. So people took to it to spice up their
Oddly, the music most commonly used by people dancing this new style is music from the
1970s, although sometimes music from the early 1930s (the period dominated by singers when
there was very little dancing taking place) is used. The style does not seem to sit so comfortably
with recordings from the second decade of the Twentieth Century, when Tango had the 2/4
rhythm, usually referred to as Canyengue.
Undoubtedly this new style is very charming and attractive. However, the use of the name
"Canyengue" for it may be slightly misleading, as people think that when they are doing it they
are doing an authentic early Tango style. It would be nice if another word had been used to
describe this charming new Tango style which emerged in the 1990s.
If we genuinely want to discover what the original Canyengue was like, there are a few sources
available to us. My own studies have led me to examine a number of books published in the
years running up to the start of the First World War—the period of the height of Tangomania
across the world, and also the period of the music with the 2/4 beat. Many of these are clearly
filled with the fantasies of the particular author, or with steps taken from other dances. However,
one stands out from the others that I have seen.
This was a book published in 1914 called Secrets of the Tango and it is clear that the steps in it
were recorded by an Argentine of good family, who had come to London to study engineering,
but had found himself instead making a handsome living teaching and performing Tango. He
claims to have learned Tango on his grandfather's farm, but this is very unlikely. Presumably he
did not want people to find out exactly what kind of place he had been visiting to practice his
The earnestness and seriousness with which he approaches his subject, and the apparently
genuine and deep desire for people to learn the real Tango rather than steps made up in London
or Paris, or imported from other dances, seem to me to make him either a fabulous liar, or the
most genuine, authentic witness we will ever find for the early Tango danced in Buenos Aires to
the music of the Guardia Vieja (the old guard, the term used for the great musicians of this
period), and probably the only style that deserves the name Canyengue .
How was Tango danced at the height of
The worldwide Tangomania at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was so massive as to be almost
There are records of Tango being danced in Paris as early as 1907, but the passion for Tango shook the
elite of Paris in 1912, and until the outbreak of the First World War the Tango was a powerful cultural
force, catalysing changes in fashion and in the mechanisms of social interaction, and influencing
powerfully the birth of Modern Ballroom dancing.
What was this Tango, that played such a pivotal role in world culture, like? By the time the Tango Revival
began in Buenos Aires in the 1980s, there were no dancers left who had been adults in 1912, when
Tangomania began.
Certainly, the music was significantly different from the music of the Golden Age, and while many of the
great tango melodies were written at this time, the rhythm - the cornerstone of the dance - had a different
Outside Argentina, as Tangomania swept people up, the dance was talked about and discussed in print
by a wide range of people, from self-proclaimed experts, to people proud of never having even seen the
shocking dance, and a variety of sources exist, giving tantalising glimpses of the dance.
Many of these sources are obviously fanciful, and others are clearly influenced by a variety of other
dances and techniques. But as there is practically no record in Argentina of how the Tango was danced
at this time, the few reliable European sources are the best guide to the authentic Tango in this early,
Canyengue period.
Wading through the original material to find the occasional specks of gold that illuminate the real nature of
Tango in Argentina at that time is a massive job—made much harder not just by the difficulty of locating
these documents, rarely stored in any but the most complete and exclusive academic libraries, but also
by the problem of trying to work out what someone really means by the description they give of a step.
Christine Denniston has spent many years studying Tango in great detail, always going back to the most
authentic sources. For her research in the styles of the Golden Age she worked with a wide variety of
dancers who danced in the milongas of Buenos Aries at that time. For her research into the first great age
of Tango, she hunted down and examined a wide variety of original sources.
Canyengue period
Christine says, "The Tango that was danced in Paris, London and New York in 1913 and 1914 had its
origins in Buenos Aires and the authentic early Tango style. The massive popularity of the dance meant
that there were many teachers, and some of them had learned the Tango in Buenos Aires and danced it as
it was danced there. Sorting through the fanciful inventions of other teachers and the additions from other
dances, it is possible to get a feel for the core of the real dance—a central body of steps that probably
came directly from Buenos Aires.
"Amongst the various sources I found, one stood out. That was Secrets of the Tango, attributed to
Samuel Beach Chester, but with figures supplied by a young Argentine dancing professionally in London
under the stage name Juan Barrasa. The steps Sr. Barrasa presents seem to me to cover the core
movements of the Tango at that time, including the corte, so often mentioned in descriptions of the dance
at this time."
The job of trying to work out exactly what each author means by a description of a step is a difficult and
time consuming one. Christine has undertaken that work, and has presented Juan Barrasa's steps in a
really clear and useful format, with simple animations that clarify exactly where the feet go.
We are delighted to be able to make Christine's analysis of Tango at the height of Tangomania available
to anyone interested in the true history of this fascinating dance, as Secrets of the Tango - 1914 by
Christine Denniston.
And as the music is so vital to understanding the dance, and since the music of that great period of the
Tango is not quite the same as the music most Tango dancers are familiar with, Christine has carefully
selected a fine recording from the period to include with Secrets of the Tango - 1914 as part of the
electronic book, so that you can try the steps straight away with the music with which they fit so perfectly
and charmingly!
Secrets of the Tango - 1914 by Christine Denniston is available on CD ROM or to download. Order the
download now and in minutes you could be learning the secrets of the dance that shook the world.
totaltango -
pure passion
To search this site click here
The Meaning of Tango - The Story of the Argentinian Dance
Order for delivery from the UK or from the USA
In this new book, published by Portico, Christine Denniston records what Tango meant to the great
generation of dancers who learned to dance the Tango in the Golden Age, and who were the cornerstone
of the Tango Renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s.
The book reveals the secrets of Tango in Buenos Aires, including the technical secrets that made the
dancers of the Golden Age so wonderful to dance with—secrets any dancer can apply to their own
dancing today. It explains how Tango left Argentina for the first time in the years immediately before the
First World War, and charts the global Tangomania that led to the development of Ballroom Tango,
American Tango, and indirectly, the Modern Ballroom dances. It also explores the Tango Renaissance,
and the development of new styles of Tango by a new generation of dancers.
For the person who enjoys watching Tango but does not dance, this book is a fascinating exploration of
why Tango is unlike any other dance. For the person who already dances Tango and whose aim is to be
a pleasure to dance with, the book is filled with invaluable information.
From the suburbs of Buenos Aires, to the elite salons of Paris in 1912, to its current popularity around the
world, through social and political upheavals, The Meaning of Tango follows the fascinating story of the
real Argentinian dance.
We love the things people are saying about this book. Here are some reviews from Amazon and Amazon
Amazon UK
a must-read book...
required reading for anybody who is interested in
Tango... more
It is rare for me to find a book on any dance that
I have many books on Tango and this one is my
really excites and interests me. This was one of
favourite... more
those rare books... more
the book that the Golden Age dancers themselves
The essence of Tango!... more
never wrote!... more
Order the book for delivery from the UK or from the USA
© 2003 Christine Denniston
Christine Dennniston is author of The Meaning of Tango
Tango Dance Styles of the Golden Age
© 2003 Christine Denniston
Christine Dennniston is author of The Meaning of Tango
- Everyone Learns to Dance
- Dance Styles of the Golden Age
- How They Learned to Dance
- The Tango Goes Underground
- The Tango is Re-Born!
- Canyengue, Orillero and Tango de Salon
Articles include:
The History of Tango Dance - 150 years of Tango in Buenos Aires
This history of Tango Dance is based on many years of study and research in Buenos Aires. The
subject is a huge one, and the memories of great dancers have rarely been recorded.
Tango Dance Styles of the Golden Age
The huge variety of Tango dance styles in Buenos Aires in the 1940s and 1950s represents
amazing depth and richness. Here are three different broad styles danced by the great Tango
The Traditional Way to Learn to Dance Tango
The traditional way in which a young man would learn to dance Tango was surprisingly uniform
across the whole of the city by the 1940s, and very possibly some time before that.
The Dark Age of Tango
The coup in 1955 that ousted General Perón had profound consequences for Argentina as a whole,
and for the Tango in particular, launching the country into a kind of modern Dark Age.
The Tango Renaissance
The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 began a spectacular Tango Renaissance in
Buenos Aires. Friends of mine who were there at that time tell me the atmosphere was
Canyengue, Orillero and Tango de Salon
As people came to Buenos Aires from many different countries looking for the truth about Tango,
many of them began to ask, “What are Canyengue, Orillero and Tango de Salon?”
The Birth of Couple Dance
Tango was the first couple dance ever seen in Europe that involved improvisation. It was the arrival
and popularity of Tango that really defines the beginning of couple dancing as we understand it.
The History of Tango Music
The History of Tango Music is fascinating, with many unexpected twists and turns, and filled with
fabulous characters. Tango Music is as old as Jazz, and the variety of the music is as wide.