Bodega Caro put on a memorable tango show every Thursday night. Charlie O’Malley looks in to the history of this enduring dance.
‘The tango is in Buenos Aires a private dance from houses of ill repute and bars of the worst type. Never is it danced in high-class salons or by respectable people. Tango music itself arouses unpleasant thoughts.’
So said Enrique Rodriguez Carreta, the Argentine ambassador to France, in 1913. He was trying to pour cold water on a hot sensation sweeping across Europe – a sensuous, exotic dance called tango. It was fresh, exciting and more than controversial. Before it, men and women hardly touched when dancing. Now suddenly they were in a close embrace, cheek to cheek, chests together, legs invading each other’s space, passing sultry looks and caresses, accompanied by yearnful music with sometimes risqué lyrics. It was enough to give a puritan a heart attack. Kaiser Wilhelm banned it. Prince Louis of Bavaria denounced it as absurd. (Strangely enough Pope Pius was unimpressed and called it too languid for his tastes) All to no avail – the chattering classes took to it enthusiastically and the tango became the music and dance of European high society.
Its’ origins are as mysterious as the dance itself. Experts cannot even agree on the source of its name. Tango could come from an African word meaning closed place or circle. Others say it is an 18th century term for a place where slaves gathered (and perhaps danced). Or it could come from the tambor, a type of drum used in an African dance called candombe.
The music is a fusion of rhythms – candombe, the havana, the milonga and the madrileno. It was born in the late 19th century in the poor barrios that fringed Buenos Aires City. Waves of immigrants, mostly Italian but also Spaniards, Jews, Arabs, French, Irish and Poles began arriving on Argentine shores. They were young, single and working class, fleeing famine or persecution. They harboured an immigrants’ feelings of loneliness, displacement and nostalgia. They all of course had a love of music.
Brothels became big business, but not just for being places where sex was available. They became meeting points and social exchanges, drinking holes where people could share a story and listen to music in the form of three itinerant musicians playing guitar, violin and flute. Like the melodies, people improvised some steps and danced to ease their melancholy. A strange kind of mournful accordion called the bandoneon replaced the flute. A new type of popular culture was born and tango became its’ voice, echoing stories of lost loves and sad memories. The music and dance evolved. Some men took it so seriously they practised together for want of a partner (the girls were just too expensive). Their moves became a source of pride and perhaps a chance to improve their appeal to the opposite sex.
The new dance from the barrios was disdained by the rich establishment. It was uncouth and immoral. They banned their daughters from practising it. Yet the sons of the aristocracy were attracted by its romance and danger. They slummed it in the arrabales (city fringes) and picked up some steps. At the time Argentina was developing rapidly. It had become one of the ten richest countries in the world. Most of the Argentine elite owned property in Europe and spent time there every year (such was their wealth the French had a saying; ‘He’s as rich as an Argentine’). Sons of the privileged were often educated in Europe. They brought the new dance with them and the tango craze began.
Tango even influenced fashion. Womens’ dresses – up to now bulky and restrictive, became looser and lighter. One designer with a surplus of orange fabric he could not sell, renamed it Orange Tango. It sold out in days.
Europe legitimised the tango. The high-class salons of London, Paris and Rome reverberated with the music. What was born in rags, now wore a tux. The Buenos Aires elite began to grudgingly accept it as their own – a truly original Argentine phenomena.
Bodega Caro is located in Escorihuela winery, Godoy Cruz, a 10 minute taxi ride from Mendoza city center. The small, intimate show in a beautiful setting, starts at 8.30pm and includes Caro wines and a food platter. Presidente Alvear 151. For reservations contact Tel : +54 2614 246 477. www.bodegascaro.com
A Tango Tip
When the Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato wrote: ‘Only gringos dance tango for fun’, he was not kidding. True aficionados take it very seriously indeed. They stare intensely into each other’s eyes while the man leads. They never smile or say a word. They are deep in thought and concentration. The only language is in the feet, heart and head. But Tango is more than a dance. It is a way of looking at the world, a philosophy and poetry in movement and emotion. To dance tango is to immerse your self in Argentine culture; to dip into the nostalgia of the immigrant, to feel the agony and ecstasy of lost love, humble beginnings and true friendship. If you are brave enough to take lessons, remember you are stepping through history and whatever you do, try not to smile.