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Published July 2003

By Maestro Ive Simard

"Before any human being starts to walk, he already has his own way of living which began on the day of his birth, so is the tango." I.S.

Argentine Tango, Tango del Rio de la Plata o Rioplatense, was born as a new cultural form between 1880 and 1900. It is a synthesis of. Dance, music and culture that arose in a particular social context and limited location on the banks of the Rio de la Plata estuary, in the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Tango is a complex art form, the product of the mixing of diverse human, ethnic and cultural elements. Tango was borne of the interaction of Argentinean or Uruguayan creoles and immigrants, mostly Italians, heavily influenced by the culture surrounding popular dance.

Tango is the result of the integration of traditional dances (valse, mazurka, polka, Scottish dance by was of the Spanish chotis) and local dances (zamacueca, habanera, milonga) that were frowned upon by the bourgeoisie, accustomed still to the European dances (minuet, contradance). Tango borrows equally from Latin-American folklore (candombe), Caribbean dances (calenda), European dances such as flamenco and African dance. Tango evolves from this complex mix of popular dance, music and literature and becomes its own and new form of art.

The tango is an aesthetic expression of marginality, the cultural creation of the immigrants of the barrios of Montevideo and Buenos Aires. This marginality is linked in its origin to a very particular place, the port; hence its name tango porteno. The tango was born in the port celebrations and rejected by mainstream society. It became popular in brothels and in the academies (dance balls of the turn of the century) of working class neighborhoods. Although its humble origins are in the low quarters of the Rio de la Plata estuary, it acquired its legitimacy when Europe, and in particular Paris, recognized its uniqueness. At that point it began its spread across the world.

Above all tango is a dance shared by a woman and a man. This requirement existed from the beginning. The couple is the essence of the tango, with its strong sensual grounding, where the man and the woman take on very different roles--the steps of the leader and the follower are very different. It is a close dance, as is the waltz. The port was always a place of welcome for new dances, as was the case for the waltz, first considered revolutionary and licentious, but well established before 1800 in Argentina. In the XIX century, there were many dances called tango. There was a black tango, a form of Spanish flamenco that is not a couples dance, a Mexican dance called tango popular before the XVIII century, and a Spanish dance from Andalucia that existed in the 1850s. This last tango from Andalucia had a strong gypsy influence and was both a musical and singing form. The Spanish influence was also found in the fandango, also sung and danced in Argentina in this period; this form was continued within the tango tradition of the Rio de la Plata.

Ive Simard is the president of the Argentine Tango Master Association (ATMA).

Next month: What makes the tango unique?
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