It Takes Two To Tango

The Argentine Tango


Click this flag to enlarge   tango2.jpg (59531 bytes)


Located in Southern South America, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world. A large part of the population is made up of immigrants that came to the country from Europe in search of a better life. Upon arrival they found themselves as lower class citizens living in the crowded cities. Much of the entertainment occurred in the brothels of Buenos Aires , the capital city of Argentina . It was in these brothels, with the help of these immigrants, that the tango began. Initially related to prostitution and vulgarity, the tango was not well received by the upper classes, especially women. After traveling to Europe and gathering popularity the tango returned to Argentina and has been claimed as a national identity providing words and feelings that the people of the country cling to.



Couples elegantly marching across the dance floor dressed in sexy black outfits, red roses in mouth. These are the images that come to mind whenever the word tango arises. Although it has become very popular and widely accepted, the tango was once stigmatized because of its roots in the brothels of Argentina . In fact, women were either excluded or refused to participate, so the men were forced to dance with other men (Castro 1994: 68). This negative sentiment towards the tango arose from its vulgar and sinful nature, with lyrics referring to sex and obscenities ( Jakubs 1984: 136). In the following years, the tango began to gain social acceptance. As Argentina developed and gained power, the dance and music spread to Europe where it was warmly received (Salmon 1977: 862). From 1880 to present day, the tango has evolved from an unaccepted form of music and dance in Argentina to a national icon loved around the world.


Location, Geography, and Climate of Argentina

Argentina is located in Southern South America . It is bordered by the South Atlantic Ocean, Chile, Uruguay , Bolivia , Brazil , and Paraguay . Ranking as the second largest country in South America , Argentina is slightly smaller than a third of the size of the United States . The land is made up of plains in the north, plateaus in the south, and the Andes in the west. Overall, Argentina has a temperate climate, but the southeast is considered more temperate and the southwest is subantarctic (Central Intelligence Agency 2004 ) .


Brief History of Argentina

Argentina had two main indigenous groups named the Diaguita and Guirana who were responsible for holding off the Inca expansion and beginning the agriculture of the country. These indigenous groups fought strongly against colonization by the Spanish, but after being weakened by disease brought in from Europe they were overtaken and the country was colonized by Spain ( Interknowledge 2000). In 1816 the people of Argentina were once again able to declare their independence (Central Intelligence Agency 2004). Following this independence was a struggle for power between the two dominant political groups, the Unitarists and the Federalists ( Interknowledge 2000). Post World War II was a period of Peronist authoritarian rule. The military took over in 1976 but democracy was restored in 1983 (Central Intelligence Agency 2004).


Distinctive Features of Argentina

Argentina has been in the news a lot recently due to its economic instability. The nation seems to be well endowed. It is rich in natural resources, the population is highly literate, and the economy has an export-oriented agricultural base and a strong industrial base. Despite all this, the Argentine economy suffered severely from inflation, external debt, and budget deficits. The peso had been pegged with the U.S. dollar for many years, but due to the governments inability to recover this was dropped in 2002 and inflation immediately skyrocketed. By the middle months of that year the economy had begun to stabilize at a lower level. Recently, the Argentine economy has been able to recover some due to its focus on exports ( 2004).


Origins of Tango

The etymology of the word tango has not yet been identified. There are speculations that it stemmed from a compilation of several different words. Some of their meanings include to touch, to be pleasing, to excite, to deceive, to corrupt, and to wound. All these roots come from many dialects and countries ( Salmon 1977: 860).

  Some will argue that the tango initiated as mimicry, imitating the dance of the blacks, but there is not an abundance of research to support this idea (Chasteen 2000: 44). The common belief is that the tango originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires ( Emory University ). Because the tango began in the underworld of the city, it was socially unacceptable for any self-respecting woman to take part in the dance (Castro 1994: 68). Men could be found dancing with each other in order to practice. The tango first appeared in 1880. Even though the generally held idea is that it originated in Buenos Aires , Montevideo also attempts to claim the tango as its own. Nobody will deny its first appearance in the brothels, though. The instruments used in the original music include the piano, flute, violin, and eventually the bandoneon. The lack of guitar is used as evidence that the tango did not have its beginnings on the waterfront, but does not help to settle the dispute between Buenos Aires and Montevideo (Salmon 1977: 860).

  The flow of immigrants from Europe that characterizes Argentina shaped all of the culture, including the tango. Most of these immigrants found work in the city, so they were exposed to the life of the tango. The affect they had was to add life to the tango through their “melodic singing” (Guillermoprieto 2003: 35). After World War I, the tango made it's way over to Europe where it gained popularity in higher society ( Emory University ). It was only after the tango was accepted overseas that the upper classes of Argentina began to acknowledge it. The tango had been refined by the Europeans, and continued to grow in fame when it returned home to Argentina (Jakubs 1984: 139). By 1920, the tango had become part of the Argentine national identity (Guillermoprieto 2003: 35).


The Cultural Significance of [name of music style]

Sample Song: [Abandano]  

Original Lyrics of Song and Translation

Interpretation of Song


Prognosis for this Musical Genre

Because of its recent gain in popularity around the world, it seems that the tango will not see its death anytime soon although it may continue to evolve to ensure acceptance by the upper classes of society.



European immigration is, for a large part, responsible for the emergence of the tango in Argentina . Life in the city and entertainment in the brothels provided the background for this musical genre. A desire for control and power by the men of the country was found in dancing the tango, while the expression of their losses and loneliness could be seen in the lyrics. After achieving such great success, the tango now serves as a symbol of social mobility that provides hope for all those striving for a higher social status.


Internet References Cited


Peer-Reviewed References Cited


    Castro, Donald

    1994     Women in the World of the Tango. In Confronting Change, Challening Tradition:  Women in Latin American History , edited by G. M. Yeager, pp. 66-75. Scholarly Resources Incorporated, Wilmington .

    Chasteen, John C.

    2000     Black Kings, Blackface Carnival, and Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Tango.

    In Latin American Popular Culture , edited by W.H. Beezly and L.A. Cuicio-Nagy, pp. 43-45. Scholarly Resources Incorporated, Wilmington .

    Guillermoprieto, Alma

     2003   And Still They Tango. National Geographic 204(6): 34-54.

    Jakubs, Deborah L.

    1984     From Bawdyhouse to Cabaret: The Evolution of the Tango as an Expression of

    Argentine Popular Culture. Journal of Popular Culture 18(1):133-141.

    Salmon, Russell O.

    1977     The Tango: Its Origins and Meaning. Journal of Popular Culture 10(4): 858-865.

    Taylor, Julie M.

    1976     Tango: Theme of Class and Nation. Ethnomusicology 20(2):273-291.

    1987   Tango. Cultural Anthropology 2(4): 481-493.


Where to Buy This Music

Contact Jim Aimers | ©2004 Miami University