What Exactly is Tango and Why Do I Want to Learn this Dance?

Nadja Maril
5 min readApr 24, 2023

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Sundays are our Tango days. My husband and I set aside our desire to linger over a big weekend breakfast of eggs, avocado toast, salmon, and capers. Instead, we quickly eat our standard fruit with cereal. Rather than pensively reading the contents of the Sunday newspaper or tending the garden, we shower and don our dance clothes. Peter opts for a crisp button-down shirt. I decide on a graceful skirt. For our ninety-minute group lesson, we bring with us special suede bottom shoes that easily glide across the floor.

The number of couples convening at the Athletic Club varies from week to week. To take the lessons, you don’t have to be part of a pair, but it’s a serious group. Some of us, like Peter and myself, have been attempting to master this dance for years. Others have been dancing tango a few months. Knowledge of other dances can be a detriment. We also waltz, hustle and do East Coast swing. At one time we studied ballroom tango, but Argentine Tango is nothing like ballroom tango styles-American or International. Argentine Tango is very much an improvisational dance, complex and nuanced.

Like many Americans, I used to think that Tango was a Spanish dance related to bull fights, castanets, and flamingo dancing. Dramatic and romantic, the stereotype image was a couple dancing cheek to cheek, the man with a rose between his teeth, ready to declare his passion for his partner.

Tango, however, did not start in Spain or Europe. It started in South America in the 18th century, on the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. The dance we call Tango evolved gradually, out of the music and dance gatherings of enslaved peoples brought to South America from Africa who then shared these dances with fellow workers and immigrants. It is literally a street dance, that eventually captured the attention of the ruling class who first banned it and then tried to copy it- taking it to Europe, the United States, and Scandinavia.

The Tango vocabulary includes Spanish words like cruzado, sanguchito, and ocho to describe various types of dance moves or steps, and if you use them you sound very professional, but we rarely use these words. And what they really mean is, “the cross”, “the sandwich”, and “figure eights.” The first time you try to complete them, you are baffled. Eventually the movements make sense. We’re novices and we frequently argue over the steps, although as the “follower” I am just supposed to follow and stay quiet.

I try to limit conversation, although I’m a firm believer in giving feedback. “I think you’re supposed to put your arm a little higher on my back,” I might say, but Tango requires 100 percent concentration. And it also requires determination and patience. My husband and I do have our private code for understanding our dance moves, however. and they include the words, “pizza” for the configuration of feet and “the cape” for the twist of the leader’s torso to open the embrace.

Historians differ as to the exact origin of the word tango, which came to be used in Uruguay and Argentina to describe a gathering of dark-skinned people. African root words associate it with the meanings “Closed Place” or “Reserved Ground.” Gatherings of this sort were also called a “tambo”. In Spanish, the word for drum is tambor and some say it was mispronounced to eventually become “tango.” Whatever the origins, and posted on the internet are many theories, the name tango, stuck.

In Finland, a very specific style of tango has evolved. And as previously mentioned, there are European and American ballroom versions as well, but Argentinean Tango has a devoted following that has resulted in Milongas (social dance gatherings) being hosted around the world. Tango takes its influences from a myriad of cultures, and therein lies its richness.

Where I live in Maryland, USA there are dance classes and milongas (dance gatherings) in Baltimore, Severna Park, Kensington, and Washington D.C. (We belong to Fàbrica Tango.) Even if you cannot do the dance, the music is unique unto itself and perhaps it is the complexity of the music wherein lies part of the challenge for beginning dancers. Tango generously makes use of accented notes and sudden changes in dynamics fueled by its jazz roots. The time signature is either 2/2 or 4/4 but the dance is full of what I’ve come to think of as “tango moments” pauses in between phrases. The interaction between leader and follower is an organic building ebb and flow. As the follower, I like to close my eyes, to feel where I should be moving next.

In other blog posts I’ve mentioned Glen Echo Park and their spectacular Spanish Ballroom when writing about Swing Dancing and Lindy hop. Sunday evenings, Glen Echo Park has a Tango and Milonga lesson followed by a Milonga (social dance) often with live music.

WRITING PROMPT

Suppose you entered a world where all communication was conveyed through movement and touch? How would your characters cope?

Imagine a different kind of reality and invent a story that takes place in that alternate place. Have fun with your world building. What are the positive and negative results?

Use something you’ve learned from this exercise to apply to a piece of writing you are currently working on.

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Originally published at http://nadjamaril.com on April 24, 2023.

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