The music that would become the tango began to coalesce in the working-class barrios of late nineteenth century Buenos Aires, a swelling frontier town where out-of-work gauchos from the cattle ranches of the pampas and poor immigrant men from Europe came in search of opportunity. They lived in conventillos – large boarding houses built around a central courtyard where workers would gather in their off hours, playing the guitar and the violin, blending the folk music of the plains with the traditions of Europe and with rhythms borrowed from the city’s dwindling Afro-argentine population. Though wealthy Argentines scorned the tango at first, venturesome young men of the upper class were attracted to the outlying barrios where they could hear the new music and witness the new style of dancing that developed around it.
When their parents sent them to Europe to complete their education, these young men brought the tango with them, creating a particular sensation in inter-war Paris, where the French thought the dance exotic and exaggerated it accordingly to suit their tastes. It was this Parisian version of the tango that – with the help of the cinema – spread to the rest of Europe and to the United States, entering the ballroom repertoire as the international and the American tango.
In the meantime, as Argentina became more isolated from Europe, Argentinean tango developed along a different course, refining the art of small movement and tight partner connection for increasingly crowded dance floors.
By the Golden Age of the 1940’s as many as 75% of the adult population of Buenos Aires were active social dancers, but later the scene dwindled until it was finally forced underground by political unrest. By 1986 – three years after the end of military rule in Argentina – only 200 to 400 people were still dancing tango in the capital, but these were enough to begin a revival of the dance that in the last twenty years has spread throughout the world.
Today, Argentine tango is a living art that takes many forms, all of which preserve something of the traditional grammar and syntax for improvisational dance that developed in Buenos Aires in the first half of the twentieth century even as a new generation of dancers and teachers from all around the globe experiments with new vocabulary and new ways of expressing the connection that is at the heart of the dance.