Argentina and Uruguay have temporarily buried the hatchet in their long-held rivalry over the birthplace of tango (was it really Buenos Aires or was it actually Montevideo?). The countries are presenting a joint application to Unesco for tango to be accepted as part of our world heritage. But what exactly is our world tango heritage anyway? Here’s a quick global guide.
Hertfordshire’s Lisa Snowdon dances with New Zealand’s Brendan Cole on Strictly Come Dancing
As the UK’s biggest dance show, Strictly provides our main image of the tango. According to the programme, there are two basic styles: the tango and the Argentine tango. The very name “Argentine tango” makes it sound like a specific case, an exception to the general form. Uruguay, meanwhile, doesn’t get namechecked at all. In some ways, that’s true to history.
Buenos Aires and Montevideo, with their mix of African and European influences, may have been the crucible in which the tango was formed, but the dance became part of “world culture” only when it went abroad. In 1913, tango fever swept Paris – you could buy tango hats, tango stockings and orange was the “in” colour. From Paris, the craze quickly spread to London, Berlin, New York and St Petersburg.
Inevitably, the style changed. The rhythm became more like a march and the distinctive “head snap” was introduced (apparently by a German). It was the English, through the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, who laid down standard rules for tango and, like a dance version of Greenwich Mean Time, exported their version around the world. It is this “ballroom” or “international” style that Lisa and Brendan are performing above. Here’s how it’s done by some (Italian) pros: killer gargoyle glances, head snaps like doors slamming in your face – that is one fearsome dance.
New York had already been infected by the Parisian tango craze, but it was Rudolph Valentino (Italian by birth) who took the tango to Hollywood in his first film hit, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1926), thus paving the way for the American style of tango. With the focus more on leading and following, the American style is a little more sociable and open – frankly, a little less British – than the international style you see in most ballroom competitions. As Barbara Garvey wrote in a 1993 article in the Smithsonian Magazine: “The American tango is like the beginning of a love affair, when you’re both very romantic and on your best behaviour. The Argentine tango is when you’re in the heat of things and all kinds of emotions are flying: passion, anger, humour. The international tango is like the end of the marriage, when you’re staying together for the sake of the children.”
But does being less uptight bring the Americans closer to the true spirit of tango? Hardly. Just take a look at …
Depression, isolation, social awkwardness – these are just some of the reasons why tango fits the Finnish soul so well, according to this funny but convincing documentary. Tango came to Finland from Paris and went native, turning into a kind of Moomin-tango: the rhythms slowed down, harmonies turned to minor modes, melodic lines drooped like sighs – and singers such as Olavi Virta, Finland’s tango king, scored hit after hit through the 1940s and 50s. The annual tango festival at Seinäjoki, founded in 1985, now attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year. If you’re too hung up on tango cliches about “fire” and “passion” to picture it in arctic Finland, try watching this melancholy little film.
Tango was created by immigrants in the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, many of them Jewish. Some Jewish tango dancers and musicians composed in Yiddish, such as this version of the most famous tango song, La Cumparsita.
In Europe between the wars, Jewish musicians – both in mainstream society and in the ghettos – were as taken with tango as the rest of the continent. But for the many Jews sent to concentration camps, tango inspired extreme ambivalence. On the one hand, it was part of the shared culture of the inmates; on the other, tango was included in the enforced repertoire of the camp orchestras, music groups formed under the direction of Nazi officers. According to historian Simon Collier, the Nazis approved of tango in contrast to jazz. While jazz was thought to encourage disobedience and “collective delirium”, tango was seen to provide “an escape, a willing preoccupation with the dance as an oblivion of the self”. And so tangos were played, especially at executions – to the extent that any music played by an inmate orchestra during exterminations came to be called a death tango.
We’ve wandered a long way from South America. So should the big wide world of tango, in all its variety, be included if tango gets world heritage status? I don’t think so – because I don’t think tango should get world heritage status at all. It’s a living practice, not a thing or place that can be located, owned and authenticated. Try to preserve it and it might just end up fossilised.