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
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
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