Tango History /  the “Golden Age”

by: Jay Aland

Tango dancing arose organically among the lower class peoples of Buenos Aires well over 100 years ago, as an interpretation of tango music. In America, Blues dancing arose similarly, in the juke joints in the deep south, as an interpretation of blues music.  The big difference is that tango music had a unique rhythm which had evolved from Candombe, which came from Africa with the slaves.  Tango music used  a rhythm of slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, and used steps and figures to match this rhythm.  These tango steps and figures were brought to Paris about 100 years ago, and from there spread to Finland and America, where they were preserved intact, and may be seen today as “ballroom tango” in America.

Our oldest records of tango date to 100 years ago, when music was first recorded and tango sheet music first published.  Julio De Caro was the first professional musician to play tango music; before De Caro, the music was improvised by amateur musicians in small groups.  RCA started recording tango music around 1915, and then around 1925 they started using electronic amplification in their recording process, and pressing 78 rpm records, which became the standard recorded tango music.

Around 1935, Juan D’Arienzo, who had a popular tango band, started to emphasize the beat of the music.  He minimized the singing, which had dominated tango music until then, and he used simplified music arrangements which allowed the beat to be heard more clearly.  Dancers found it much easier to dance when they could hear the beat clearly; they dubbed D’Arienzo “The King of the Beat” and flocked to his dances.  Tango dancing exploded in popularity as dancers found it easier than ever before, and bands all copied D’Arienzo’s emphasis on the beat.  This began the Golden Age of tango, in a virtuous cycle of more dancers causing more bands, and more dance halls springing up all over Buenos Aires.  Everyone was dancing tango.

At that time, Buenos Aires was a growing port city, and immigrants came from Italy and other countries seeking opportunity.  Most immigrants were young men; few were women; the single men were hard pressed to find women to date, but did find a few in the milongas.  The women, far outnumbered by the men, became very picky, and would only dance with a man who was an expert at making them look good and feel good.  The ability to make a woman feel good and look good became the standard for male dancers.  Men would meet at each other’s homes, or on the street corner, to compare notes, ideas and techniques, and to practice with each other until they were good enough to get a woman to want to dance with them.  Thus arose the popularity of men dancing tango with each other and the practice of men perfecting dancing skills far beyond what dancers had done previously.  The men invented many many new figures and complex steps.

For a decade, tango bands, recordings, dancers and milongas proliferated.  Then the government changed, and forbade public gatherings of any kind, including milongas.  Tango went underground; people danced at home.  Bands went out of business and milongas closed down.  Dancers collected 78rpm records, and danced to the same old records every day.  Before long RCA quit pressing records (no new recordings because of no bands), and eventually, when sales died out, they destroyed the masters.  They could no longer press records even if they wanted to.  The Golden Age was over.  No new figures were being invented; no new music was being recorded; and no new techniques for wooing the women were being developed.  But the Old Milongueros, who had been dancing every day for years, kept on dancing the same figures, with their same partners, to the same records, and got better and better and better.  Tango developed into a dance with subtlety and skill at a level which had never been seen before in the history of dancing.

A couple of decades passed and a different government came into power, and removed all the social restrictions.  Dancers came out of the shadows; old milongas reopened their doors, and people started dancing in public again.  But there were hardly any bands left, so they danced to the old 78rpm records (and still do today – you can tell by the sound).  The dancers were incredibly good, after decades of practice.  It was a whole new tango from the one which had been brought to Paris many decades ago.

Richard Powers, a dance professor at Stanford, brought a group of these Old Milongueros to Stanford to teach this new tango to Americans, about 20 years ago. We called it “Argentine Tango” to distinguish it from the older tango we already had, which was called “American Tango” or “Ballroom Tango”; in fact, it is a completely different dance.  From Stanford, the tango has spread to many American cities.  Our teachers go to Buenos Aires regularly to learn from the few Old Milongueros still dancing (about a dozen of them) or, sometimes, we bring them here to teach us.  Either way, we copy exactly what they do, hoping to duplicate their results.