During my adolescent years, my father frequently summoned the expression, “It takes two to tango”—typically after a sister fight in which one of us declared that the other started it. After a year of dancing the tango and having just gotten back from a two-week trip to Argentina, the birthplace of the dance, I can confirm that it definitely does take two…but, the man always starts it. Seriously. A tango commences when a man invites the woman to dance with a seductive cabeceo— a wink, a raised eyebrow, a nod of the head…yes, sometimes even from across a crowded room. After a moment of facing each other on the dance floor and listening to the initial notes of the music, the two embrace and begin the famously sensual movements. One of the most interesting things about the tango is that the dance steps of the man and woman do not mirror each other, rather the man leads the woman to her various elements, does his own, and combines them for a very varied experience. The timing, speed and character can all be improvised, permitting the dancers to match the music’s rhythm and mood (mostly melancholic).
Developed among immigrants in the brothels and tenements of Buenos Aires in the late Nineteenth Century, the tango is said to have its origins in Cuban habanera, Uruguayan candombe, Argentine milonga (the milonga is still danced at tango nights, which to make things ever more confusing are called milongas!) as well as in several European dance traditions. While initially a dance of the lower class, the tango was eventually deemed acceptable and even fashionable among the middle and upper classes of Argentina after becoming a hit in Europe in the early Twentieth Century (thanks to Argentine sailors who landed in France…shall we call it T-Day?). The tango flourished under Juan Peròn’s government, but unfortunately saw a decline beginning in 1955 when various military dictatorships overtook the country and prohibited public gatherings. With Argentina’s return to democracy in the 1980s came a tango renaissance, which continues today. In 2009, the tango was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. I wonder if they know it’s often described as “sex standing up”…