Argentina is world famous for its beautiful tango, an elegant and sensual dance accompanied by nostalgic music.
Tango shows are on most visitors’ bucket lists for Argentina. However, few visitors know the history behind Argentina’s famous tango.
From the emergence of tango in poor immigrant neighborhoods in Buenos Aires to its decline in the 1950s during the military junta in Argentina and re-emerging with the return of democracy in Argentina in the 1980s.
Tango reflects the developments in Argentine society.
For you who maybe don’t know as much about Argentina’s history or tango, I have gathered these fascinating facts about tango that you properly didn’t know.
Even if you are as hopeless on a dance floor as myself, I’m sure you will find some interesting information here.
The History and Present of Tango in Argentina
What is Tango?
Tango is a traditional Argentine dance style and style of music that became popular during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The word “tango” refers to both the music style and the dance.
Tango is a passionate and seductive dance. It originated in the late 19th century in the urban lower-class immigrant communities of Buenos Aires.
Tango is not just a dance but also a form of expression that encompasses music and lyrics. The music is a low-key music genre with nostalgia or sadness to it. Tango music mostly accompanies the tango dance but can also be performed separately.
Tango has become an important part of the cultural heritage in Argentina. And tango has even been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Today, there are many different tango dance styles, including Argentine tango, Uruguayan tango, and Ballroom tango.
+10 Facts About Argentine Tango and the History of Tango
Tango Dancehalls are Called Milongas in Argentina
In Argentina, tango dance halls or ballrooms are called milongas in Spanish.
You can still find milongas throughout Buenos Aires. Here local tango enthusiasts meet to practice their tango skills and have a good time.
Some milongas offer tango lessons at the beginning of the evening before the social dancing begins. Examples of popular milongas that offer tango lessons are La Catedral in Almagro and La Viruta Tango Club in Palermo.
You can find a complete list of milongas in Buenos Aires open on a certain day at Milongas Hoy.
Actually, milonga is also the name of the musical style. The milonga is said to have been the forerunner of the tango in Buenos Aires. The difference between milonga and tango is the speed of the music; tango is slower than milonga.
Tango Emerged in Argentina in the 1880s
Tango emerged from the melting pot of cultural heritage and musical traditions present in Buenos Aires during the 1880s.
There are disagreements about when exactly tango emerged. Most sources agree that tango spread in Buenos Aires’ urban lower classes during the 1880s. While other sources state that tango emerged in Montevideo in Uruguay and was transferred to Buenos Aires later on.
In San Telmo, there is a traditional tango venue called el Almacen Viejo. The venue claims to be among the first tango dance halls in Buenos Aires. I don’t know if that is true. But at least, el Almacen Viejo is considered one of the best tango shows in Buenos Aires.
Both Argentina and Uruguay claim to be the cradle of tango, and you will see tango shows offered in both cities.
Argentine Tango is the Result of Homesick Immigrants
During the 1880s, Buenos Aires experienced a massive wave of European immigrants. Most immigrants were people with few resources. They fled Europe in search of a better life in the Americas, including Argentina.
The first stop in Argentina for the European immigrants was Buenos Aires. While many continued their journey to other parts of Argentina such as the fertile lands of La Pampa, others chose to stay in Buenos Aires.
In Buenos Aires, the European immigrants mixed with the already existing vulnerable communities including slaves with African and Caribbean heritage and indigenous native Argentines, also called Criollos.
The European immigrants in Buenos Aires came mostly from Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy, and France. But some also came from the U.K., Germany, and even the Nordic countries such as my own Denmark.
Tango is said to be the result of the different musical heritages of the European cultures and the African and Caribbean musical heritage. It shares the immigrants’ joint desperation about their situation in the foreign country and their homesickness.
Tango Was Not Accepted by Argentine Elites
While tango became increasingly more popular among the immigrants in Buenos Aires at the turn of the 19th century, then tango wasn’t accepted by the upper classes of Argentine society.
For the Argentine upper classes of the 19th century, tango was associated with violence, illicit sex, and the lower classes. The dance was often danced by pairs of men or prostitutes. And the sexual and aggressive steps were seen as vulgar.
According to some sources, the passage of universal suffrage laws in 1912 in Argentina brought more legitimacy and status to the lower classes. This contributed to the increased acceptance of tango in Argentine society as it gained worldwide fame over time
The Golden Age of Tango in Argentina
The worldwide breakthrough of tango happened during the 1920s and 1940s. These years are often referred to as the Golden Age of Tango in Argentina.
In the 1930s, during Juan Perón’s first presidency, tango’s popularity grew. Soon tango had become a part of the national pride and identity in Argentina.
With the support of Perón promoting tango, the dance became widespread throughout Argentina, and soon beyond Argentina’s own borders too.
During the early years of the 20th century, tango migrated to France, England, and North America. The first copies of tango music were distributed. Tango dancers and tango singers traveled to Europe and North America to perform and spread awareness of tango.
During this time, tango became one of the most popular dances in big cities such as Paris and New York.
The Tango Song Mi Noche Triste (My Sad Night) Represents the Argentine Tango Spirit
The main themes of the tango songs that became popular during these years were individualism, sadness, nostalgia, and nocturnal life.
The song Mi noche triste (My Sad Night) is said to have been the breakthrough of Argentine tango worldwide.
Mi noche triste was produced in 1917. The song was written by the Argentine composer Pascual Contursi and performed by Argentine tango star, Carlos Gardel.
The song sums up the main themes of Argentine tango:
- Individualism: My Sad Night – the focus is on the individual’s feelings and actions.
- Sadness: My Sad Night – the focus of the song is also on sadness, frustrations, and even nostalgia.
- Nocturnal: My Sad Night – the Argentine tango spirit usually takes place in a dark and nightly environment.
I’m not a dance or music expert at all, but I think this is a very good way to understand the spirit of Argentine tango.
If you want to improve your Spanish before visiting Argentina, check out these 10 popular Spanish phrases in Argentina.
Carlos Gardel Made Tango World Famous
The Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel is one of the main reasons why tango became world famous during the 1920s and 1930s.
Carlos Gardel traveled the world to perform Argentine tango songs and he became a big hit everywhere he went. By many, Gardel is considered the soul of Argentine tango.
Carlos Gardel himself had arrived in Buenos Aires as the child of a French immigrant and embodied the origins of tango.
In 1935, Carlos Gardel died under tragic circumstances in a plane crash in Colombia. He was only 44 years old. The tragic accident happened when Carlos Gardel was at the height of his career.
As has happened with many prominent Argentine personalities who died at a young age (such as Evita Peron), Gardel’s young death left him as a hero in Argentina.
Tango Was Banned in Argentina in 1955
Tango was banned in Argentina from 1955 until the 1980s. A military coup on the populist Argentine president Juan Perón in 1955 shocked Argentine society and changed the situation for tango.
The Golden Days of Tango ended abruptly in 1955.
The 1955 military coup introduced several restrictions, among those restrictions was a ban on tango and public gatherings.
Former populist president Perón had promoted tango and the Peronist movement in Argentina also counted many famous Tango artists. Perón had included tango performers in his political propaganda.
The new military junta hated everything to do with Perón. They wanted to get rid of everything to do with Perón, nationalism, and populism. And so, the military dictatorship in Argentina also banned tango, which was both national, popular, and pro-Perón.
With a ban on public gatherings, it was also hard to meet in the tango dancehalls, milongas, to dance tango.
During the military dictatorship, tango and tango performers went underground. History of Tango.com highlights that some tango artists were imprisoned or blacklisted by the regime because of their connection to and support of the Peronist movement.
Tango Re-emerged in 1983 with the Return of Democracy in Argentina
In 1983, Argentina started its transition from military dictatorship to democracy. With the renewed liberties of democracy and freedom of expression in the 1980s, tango started to re-emerge in Argentina.
However, after years of restrictions and repression of tango artists, the practice of tango had been lost. History of Tango.com also highlights that during the Golden Age of tango, there hadn’t been a tradition for teaching tango or for doing beginner classes.
Furthermore, those tango artists who had survived the repression of the military junta were still suspicious of strangers. Making them mostly unwilling to teach what they had learned during the Golden Age.
Experience Live Tango at Dorrego Square on Sundays
In Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood, San Telmo, you find one of the city’s oldest public squares, Plaza Dorrego or Dorrego Square.
On Sundays, you can find local tango dancers dancing tango at Dorrego Square. The tango dancers place tick cardboard on top of the cobble-stoned square and perform there for hours.
San Telmo is also a good place to visit on Sundays. Each Sunday the popular outdoor handicraft San Telmo Market is open.
The San Telmo Market is a perfect place to buy local souvenirs, while also enjoying the tango performers at Plaza Dorrego.
Tango Star Carlos Gardel Has a Subway Station Named After Him in Buenos Aires
The success and memory of Carlos Gardel is not just because of his tragic death. Carlos Gardel was truly the biggest of all the big tango stars that Argentina had.
Carlos Cardel has had such importance for Argentine tango that the City of Buenos Aires named a subway station and a street named after Gardel.
On the red B-line on the Buenos Aires subway, look for the station called “Carlos Gardel” in the neighborhood of Almagro.
Take the subway to the Carlos Gardel station and you will also find a small sidewalk called Callejon Carlos Gardel.
Visit Almagro to Learn about Tango
Buenos Aires neighborhood Almagro is a great spot to learn about tango.
On the quiet street Jean Jaures in Almagro, you can find the museum and childhood home of Argentine tango legend, Carlos Gardel. At the Gardel Museum, you can learn more about tango and the life of Carlos Gardel.
The entrance to the Carlos Gardel Museum is free on Wednesdays. Check out more free things to do in Buenos Aires!
Near the museum, there is a sidewalk named Pasaje Carlos Gardel. Here you can find traditional bars and tango-inspired street art.
Jean Jaures Street in Buenos Aires also features houses decorated with the traditional Buenos Aires decoration style, fileteado porteño.
Fileteado porteño is a traditional way of decorating signs, windows, and even buses and trucks in Buenos Aires. The traditional handicraft is UNESCO Cultural Heritage. Fileteado porteño is often connected with tango and used to decorate signs or portraits of tango stars.
The houses in Almagro were created by an initiative from the Buenos Aires City Government. The aim was to help preserve and promote the traditional porteño way of decoration.
Buenos Aires Has a Tango-themed Subway Line
The stations on the yellow H-line of Buenos Aires subway, el Subte, are decorated in memory of different Argentine tango stars!
For example, if you change subway on the subway station Corrientes, you will find a huge mural of Carlos Gardel and Argentine musician, Enrique Santos Discépolo. Sometimes, there is even a local couple dancing tango in front of the mural.
There are many more tango references on all the other subway stations on the H-line. I once went on a tango tour through the subway of Buenos Aires. The guide took us from station to station and pointed out all the different tango personalities commemorated on each subway station.
Unfortunately, this tour doesn’t seem to exist anymore. You can read more about the different subway stations, tango personalities, and artworks (link in Spanish).
The tango-inspired artworks on the H-line are not there by accident. In 2003, the local City Government of Buenos Aires passed a law the subway’s H-line should be created as a “culturally tango tour of the subway”. Back then in 2003, the construction of the H-line was just about to begin.
The artwork we see on the H-lines subway stations today is the result of the work done to make the wishes of creating a tango tour in the subway come true.
Did you learn something new about tango? Or do you maybe know something that is not on my list? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!