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Tango History

The history of tango is as colorful as the dance itself - evolving from folk dance and milonga, having at its heart a multitude of cultural influences.

Tango Etymology

It is said that the essence of a thing is contained in its name. Thus before we examine the history of tango, let us pause, briefly, and focus on the word tango itself.

Etymology is the study of the history of words and how their form and meaning have changed over time. So what does the etymology of tango show us?

Well for one, whilst there are no proven derivatives of the word, there are a large number of theories in place as to how the word came to be. Given that it is a very recent dance (circa 1880) the implication is that tango arose from a number of sources simultaneously - and indeed that is true.

The most widely held theory for how the word 'tango' arose

Argentina was colonised by Spain in 1542. During the centuries that followed, millions of African slaves were imported, and more than two thirds of these came from the Eastern and Equatorial regions of Africa called Bantu. The drum-based music and dance that originated in Bantu - still played today - is called Candombé. Those slaves used the word tangó both for the drum used to perform the Candombé, the place at which they performed the music, and the dances themselves*.
* REFERENCE: V. Rossi: Cosas De Negros, Buenos Aires, 1926; and C. Vega: Danzas Y Canciones Argentinas, Buenos Aires, 1936..

Later, in Spanish speaking Latin America, the word tango slowly came to be applied to black dances in general - and eventually to the modern tango.

Very interestingly, the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), which is the official organ responsible for regulating the Spanish language, founded in 1713, defined tango in its 1899 edition as a fiesta and dance of negroes or gente del pueblo [those that belong to lower socio-economical class] in America. In 1803, tango was defined as a variant of tángano, which meant a bone or rock used to play the game bearing the same name. In the 1925 edition this definition was changed to dance of high society, imported from America at the beginning of this century as well as music for this dance and Drum of Honduras. It was not until 1984 that tango was officially defined as an Argentinean dance! It is thus no wonder that the Real Academia Española is sometimes criticized for being somewhat slow to reflect language evolution.

The first written use of the word tango in its modern form is found in a 1786 document signed by the Spanish governor of Louisiana, which has in it los tangos, o bailoes de negros meaning the tangos, or dances of the blacks.

Other explanations for the etymological roots of word 'tango' include:
  • A word from Africa meaning closed space or reserved grounds.
  • Derivation of the word tambo, used by slave traders to indicate a place where the slaves were kept.
  • In his book Tango: The Art History of Love, Robert Farris Thompson defines a list of further derivatives of African words related to tango, including tanga (meaning festival, or a ceremony marking the end of mourning), tanga dungulu (to walk or show off), tangala (walk heavily or stagger), tangala-tangala (walk like a crab), tangama (leap) and taganana (walk).
  • The sound of the Candombé drumbeat.
  • Derivation of an African dialect in which tang meant to touch, to feel or get close to.
  • Derivation of the Latin verb tangere meaning to touch.
  • The music historian Carlos Vega wrote that a dance called tango existed in the 18th century in Mexico, which was danced individually and not as a couple.
  • Archives of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico refer to the ancient tango as a song in 1803.
  • In the beginning of the 1800s, the tango was developed in Brazil in the chorinho style.
  • A derivative of the name of the Yoruba god of lightning and thunder, Shango, which would have sounded like 'tango' in Cuba.
  • A derivative of the word tangonette meaning a special variety of castanet used in dancing.
  • Vernon and Irene Castle state in their book Modern Dancing that in fact tango is not of South American origin but is a gypsy dance.
  • The Milford Mail wrote in 1914 that the tango was of Japanese descent.

The Evolution of Tango

The evolution of tango is shown below. This evolution is described at length within this article.

Evolutionary timeline of Tango

The Birth of Tango

Tango was born of a complex melting pot of freed slaves, immigrants, social segregation, poverty and racism. The major influences leading to tango included the following:

African Slaves and Candombé

Buenos Aires was a major hub for African slavery, particularly during the 1800s - where almost one quarter of Buenos Aires inhabitants were black. Unlike many other countries, slaves in Argentina were permitted certain rituals - one of which being the drum-based music and dance called the Candombé. After slavery was abolished in 1853, the Candombé continued to flourish, evolving into the milonga, and ultimately into tango.

Candombé music

Original slave sale document dated 1797 showing the sale and official ownership in Peru of a 16-year-old woman slave who arrived through Chile and was sold in Buenos Aires

Habanera, Contradanza and Polka

Another dance brought into Buenos Aires by black slaves was the habanera, at about 1850. This dance originated from Havana, Cuba, and was co-derived from the Spanish contradanza. It combined the African undulation of the hips with something similar to the European waltz. This was further fused with the polka to act as a major stimulant for the origins of tango.


The word gaucho described a rough individual, normally traveling alone or with a woman - having as baggage only the clothes on his back and his knife. Gauchos were intricately familiar with the landscape and were considered the very best breed of cowboys. Gauchos regularly held payadas in which the payadores (a paydore being a singer at la payada) competed through improvisation with guitars.

The Life of a Gaucho

Gaucho - 1870
Gaucho - 1870


The word Creole (Criollo in Spanish) described those working class Argentineans of "old stock", often descendants of mixed race Spanish and Afro background. The term was negative, implying someone who has lived for so long in Argentina that they have gone as wild and barbaric as the countryside - in other words, gone native. Creoles had very strong influence on tango - almost mythical - and in fact Carlos Gardel's repertoire was known as creole rural music, consisting of estilo, cifra, triunfo, cielito, milonga, zamba and vals criollo.


Gringos were the descendants of European migrants, mostly Italians; like Creoles, they were often poor and working class.

Compadres and Compadritos

Around 1880, the Argentine government distributed much of the country-side to aristocratic owners and European immigrants. As a result, many gauchos were forced to move into the poorest suburbs of Buenos Aires. These gauchos eventually became to be known as compadres. These compadres had roots in the rural areas, and were often employed in the slaughter houses that proliferated around there. Compadritos were very similar to compadres, but were of city background rather than rural - many of these resided in the arrabales, which were the outmost slums of Buenos Aires. Both compadres and compadritos were the men who hung out on the streets of Buenos Aires - reputed to be macho but likeable scoundrels, often carrying knifes, avoiding work, and living for women and tango.

Simon Collier, the notable tango historian, has vividly described compadres in The Popular Roots of Argentine Tango as follows:

The free nomadic gaucho world had more or less vanished by the 1880s, yet the suburban compadre did perhaps inherit certain gaucho values: pride, independence, ostentatious masculinity, a propensity to settle matters of honor with knives. More numerous than the compadres were the young men of poor background who sought to imitate them and who were known as compadritos, street toughs well depicted in the literature of the time and easily identifiable by their contemporaries from their standard attire: slouch hat, loosely-knotted silk neckerchief, knife discreetly tucked into belt, high-heeled boots. The tango was thus populated by compadres and compadritos at a time when the gauchos heroes were important in popular culture and literature. Gauchos and compadritos, in a kind of unusual blending, become, during this period, related to the ideology and objectives of the traditionalist movement in Argentina.

A 1913 tango called El Apache Argentino depicts the compadrito as follows:

He's the Argentine outlaw,
proud to be a thug.
He'll defend to the death
the woman he loves.

Sharp and cocky,
he gambles on his life
when rivals show up,
making bets with his knife.


There are many sources that claim that tango originated from being danced at brothels. This is a myth and is examined at length in the article around Tango in Brothels.


Tango was in its early days the dance of the poor, the lower class, the dispossessed, and many of those were bandits and criminals. In fact quite a few early tango songs are in Lunfardo, which was the language of the criminals that evolved into the Buenos Aires street lingo.


A milonga was a place where dancing in close embrace was practiced, considered scandalous and immoral by the upper classes - since at that time, only dances without physical contact were deemed acceptable. It is at this time that the Bandoneón was introduced as well.

The milonga is considered by many historians to be the predecessor of the tango. It is an urbanized folk dance derived primarily from a fusion of the Cuban Habanera, the Mazurka, the Polka, the Brazilian Macumba and in particular the Candombé and the Payada.

The earliest tangos were mostly milongas rather than true tangos, with ensembles consisting of bandoneón, flute and guitar.

See this website's article on Milonga for extensive information on this subject - a must read for those interested in Tango History.


In the late 1880s and 1890s, there was a new style of couple dancing called the baile de corte y quebradas (cut and break dance), which featured sudden stops called cortes. In the Candombé men and women danced apart whilst in the Quebrada they danced together. John Chasteen, in his book looking at the Origin of Tango wrote that:
The characteristic profile of modern tango choreography finally emerged from an encounter between Candombé moves and the closed-couple choreography of the international ballroom repertoire.
Simon Collier in his book looking at the Roots of Tango also said that:
The tango... was just a fusion of disparate and convergent elements: the jerky, semi-athletic contortions of the Candombé, the steps of the milonga and mazurka, the adapted rhythm and melody of the habanera. Europe, America and Africa all met in the arrabales of Buenos Aires, and thus the tango was born – by improvisation, by trial and error, and by spontaneous popular creativity.

Pivotal Moment in Tango (pun intended)

The 1890s presented a momentous point for tango - a halt in movement was introduced, in which the man would stand still while the woman would dance aside him in a rotating style - in other words, the creation of that most beautiful, the infamous, the sensual ocho.

This led to the embracing of bodies, touching of faces, and the man leading and woman following.

True tango was born!

Tango Criollo

Tango Criollo or Creole Tango, first appeared around 1897 and was popular until about 1910. This was used to differentiate the lyrical Spanish tango from the Habanera. Later, the local names of Tango Orillero, Arrabalero and Canyengue developed as derivatives of Tango Criollo, due to subtle changes according to who or where the tango was danced. When tango first begun, it is extremely unlikely there were any differences between these styles; however as tango evolved, so did the differences appear in their interpretations.

The Tango Criollo marks more of an evolution of other dance forms - the Waltz, Polka and Habanera - into tango, than pure tango itself. Much of this music was played by ensembles called Conjuntos, often consisting of a violin, guitar and flute. Sometimes the harp, clarinet or a harmonica were present as well. Towards the 1910s, the pianola was introduced.

At times the Tango Criollo was danced between men, with accompaniment by a small organ called organito.

The original Tango Criollo had a fairly small repertoire. Movements were limited to caminata (walking), caminata cortada (clipped walking), refiloneo (walk to the side), corrida o carrerita (running), vuelta (turn), ocho para adelante (ocho from side step with crossed end) and ocho para atrás (backwards ocho). Breaks in movement were limited to the corte (stop), parada (one partner's foot stops the other) and quebrada (the 'signature pose' of tango).

Tango Orillero / Tango Arrabalero

Tango Orillero and Tango Arrabalero both mean 'Tango from the outskirts of the city'. Tango Orillero's signature is short, sharp steps with strong embellishments.

Tango Orillero was danced in relatively large spaces and did not necessarily follow a line of dance. For this and socioeconomic reasons, it was banned from the indoor tango dance salons.

Tango Canyengue

Canyengue is a streetwise slang word of Buenos Aires that meant 'lower class'. It is a another particular style of tango that was danced outdoors - probably on the dirt.

Tango Liso

The name of Tango Liso, or Plain Tango, was introduced around 1910 to describe a new genre of tango which was simple and without complex figures. This was the most popular dance at tango venues of the time, with the exceptions of ballrooms.

Tango de Salon

This was the name given to social, systematic tango dancing, from about 1910 onwards. Tango de Salon reached Paris at about 1910, and gained complete acceptance throughout the world about 1913. Features of Tango Orillero, specially embellishments, were incorporated into Tango de Salon of the 1940s, particularly in the outer suburbs of Buenos Aires where there was more space on the dance floor. Some of the more exaggerated movements of tango Orillero were later incorporated into stage tango.

The First Documentation of Tango's Birth

The first recorded documentation of Argentine tango's birth occurred on September 22, 1913 in the Buenos Aires’ mass-circulation popular newspaper called Crítica, founded only a few days earlier. A man under the alias of Viejo Tanguero (translated as Old Tangoer) - who has never been identified - wrote an article in which he said that the tango was created as a parody of the dance, by the young campadritos.

He claimed that in the year 1877, the African Argentines of the region of Mondogo improvised a new dance which they called tango. This dance, which was danced apart (not in an embrace) had all the elements in it of candombe. The article stated that compadritos frequented Afro-Argentine dances, and saw a candombe-like dance that the negroes called tango. The campadritos liked the dance and took it back to Corrales Viejos, which was a southern slaughterhouse district in Buenos Aires, and in the low-class bars and dives these ruffians wove it into the milonga, which was soon danced in other parts of the city.

This is corroborated by a book by Ventura Lynch who in 1883 wrote that the milonga is danced only by the compadritos of the city, who have created it as a mockery of the dances the negroes hold in their own places.

Thus it truly seems that at its beginning, tango was derived from, and formed a new way to dance, the milonga. The campadritos borrowed from the Afro-Argentines two elements: the quebrada, which consisted of an improvised jerky distortion, and the corte, which was a sudden pause in the dance, and fused these together.

The Effect of Immigrants on Tango

Argentinean tango was heavily influenced by many external cultures, and in particular the following:
  • Italians: players and instrumentalists as well as the melancholic and nostalgic aspects of this music.
  • Spaniards: songs and dances, including flamenco.
  • Jews: violinists, piano, bandoneón, lyricists, conductors, arrangers, composers, singers and klezmer.
  • French: at the turn of the century and thereafter, many musicians went to Paris. While playing there, they introduced their own compositions, and were invited to record the music, and taught the dancing of tango in newly opened dancing studios and schools.

First Tango Compositions

Juan Pérez and Anselmo Rosendo Mendizabal, both tango composers, are momentous in the story that is tango.

Juan Pérez

Juan Pérez is credited with creating the first known tango song Dame La Lata (Give me my tin). It was written some time in the 1880s, in Lunfardo, the Buenos Aires street lingo. The title alludes to the tin that clients bought from the dance clubs, who then gave it to the woman they chose to dance with. This represented their right to dance.

Dame La Lata

Anselmo Rosendo Mendizabal

Anselmo Rosendo Mendizabal (1868-1913), a pianist in Buenos Aires, created El Entrerriano in October 25 1897. This is the first known written structured tango.

El Entrerriano

First tango recordings

The first sound recordings of tango started to appear in the early 1900s, with the first tango recorded around 1905 by Angel Villoldo. The song was El Choclo, a widely recognizable tune even today. Here is a 1929 audio recording of it.

El Choclo

Ensembles and the Orquestas Típicas

The early tango ensemble was played in a trio usually consisting of the following instruments:
  • Bandoneón
  • Flute
  • Guitar
After 1910, many ensembles had expanded into sextets:
  • Two bandoneóns
  • Two violins
  • Piano
  • Double bass
After 1913, these sextets developed even further:
  • Two bandoneóns
  • Two violins
  • Piano
  • Flute
Tango ensembles were called orquesta típica criolla (creole traditional band); eventually the term criolla were dropped and ensembles were called simply orquestas típicas.

The First Tango Stars

The first tango stars emerged about 1910, including:
  • Francisco Canaro (1884-1964) - violinist
  • Roberto Firpo (1884-1969) - pianist
  • and Vicente Greco (1888-1924) - bandoneonist
Please refer to the Tango Legends page for further information.

Tango Lyrics

Most early tangos were completely improvised and had no lyrics. Structured lyrics only began to appear after 1910, particularly with Pascual Contursi - thought to be the most important tango lyricist. His most successful song is Mi Noche Triste. Here is a Carlos Gardel rendition of that song.

Mi Noche Triste

Tango lyrics typically espouse the topics of the immigrant struggles, love (and loss thereof), betrayals and hopelessness.

Carlos Gardel

Carlos Gardel (1887/1890-1935) requires a special mention because he is considered the most distinguished figure of tango, with a most beautiful baritone voice. He is commonly referred to as the King of Tango.

From a humble beginning in the 1910s as a Buenos Aires local bar singer, Gardel exploded into a world-wide phenomenon. His repertoire was creole rural music (cielito, estilo, triunfo, cifra, milonga, zamba, vals), which were loved all over Argentina.

Tango Melbourne - Carlos Gardel
Carlos Gardel

Please refer to the Carlos Gardel page for further information.

Acceptance and Rejection of Tango

Various forces accepted or rejected tango in its early years:
  • Argentina: whilst tango was popular with the lower and working classes, it was fiercely denounced by the upper classes and diplomats.
  • The Church: tango was condemned by most churches (particularly by the Vatican) and considered immoral.
  • France: there was widespread acceptance within Paris, including its upper classes. The Parisian women saw the tango as very liberating. In fact by 1911, tango had surpassed the waltz as the preferred dance in France.
  • United States: generally condemned by Christians

Men Dancing the Tango With Men

The ability to dance well was considered an asset for men, particularly because in some districts there was a significant shortage of women, and hence women had the pick of the bunch. This resulted in male practicas, where men danced together to perfect their Tango technique. It is worth noting that in 1916 there came about an order banning dance between men at public ballrooms.

See also the Men Dancing Tango With Men page.

The Old Guard - Guardia Vieja

The years from 1880 to 1920 form the first period of tango, called Guardia Vieja or The Old Guard. It was dominated by violins, harps, flutes and guitars. Musicians mostly improvised as the tango was danced to rather than listened.

Eduardo Archetti described the Old Guard period as follows:
Urban life in Buenos Aires was rapidly transformed during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Luxury hotels, restaurants, bistros, hundreds of cafés, a world-famous opera house and theatres were built by European architects. This ethnography needs to be replicated in Argentina. This prompted changes in the use of leisure time and created a new environment outside the walls of privacy and home. The appearance of public arenas created new conditions for public participation and enjoyment where cultural life, sports and sexual concerns dominated... Later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the cabaret became a privileged public space for dancing, playing and singing. It has been assumed that originally the tango was only music and was mostly dances by male couples. However, the importance of the ‘dancing academies’ as meeting places for men and ‘waitresses’ or for couples cannot be overlooked.

Tango in Paris

Eduardo Archetti wrote of tango in Paris during the Old Guard period:
The tango as a dance arrived to Paris as early as in the in the 1910s and it was seen as exotic as other musical genres: tropical Cuban music, flamenco, Russian and Hawaiian dances, and, later, North American jazz. It is in this context that an urban dance will be associated to a typical gaucho bodily creation. The European gaze conditioned the evolution of the dance and the way the opposition between wild and sophisticated eroticism was presented. Dress was important in establishing the symbolic frontiers and 1913 was the year when in France one could feel that almost everything was related to tango: tea-tango, champagne-tango, chocolate-tango, dinner-tango and exhibition-tango. The tango-color, an intense orange, was popular in the making of women clothes. A popular drink, the mixing of beer and grenadine, that even today is possible to get in Paris was called tango. The impact on women dress was also important: tango cocktail-dresses were designed, being the harem trouser-skirt and the tango corset the most successful innovations. The latter was defined as revolutionary because it was flexible and led to many women to abandon orthodox fixed corsetry.

The New Guard - Guardia Nueva

The New Guard, or Guardia Nueva, defines the period of tango after 1920. The piano and the bandoneón were both introduced into tango during this time. Tango become a more subtle art, improvisation was reduced, and traveling orchestras entered the dancing halls and the cabarets. However the most dramatic transformation came in the form of lyrics, in which tangos used to tell moving stories of love and moral questions of the times. Tango became a world wide phenomenon via the media of movies, radio and recordings.

Eduardo Archetti wrote of the New Guard period:
The new tango developed after the 1920s, and has been called the tango of la Nueva Guardia or ‘the new Guard’. Both the musical composition of this period and the new orchestras gave more freedom to the soloists, drastically reducing the degree of improvisation and the conductors became more concerned with details and nuances in the orchestration than with the performances of improvised solos. In this sense, the tango evolved in the opposite direction of jazz. The most important change, however, can be observed in the lyrics. The new authors of the tango tell compressed, moving stories about characters and moral dilemmas that were easily understood and identified by a vast, heterogeneous lower and middle class audience. Thus, the tango shifted from being first and foremost a musical expression to being primarily a narrative interpreted by a plethora of extraordinary singers, both male and female.

The orchestras also entered into the dancing halls and in the cabarets. The cabarets of Buenos Aires in the 1920s were generally elegant, but also dark and secretive, definitely not a place for family entertainment. The cabaret became both a real and an imagined arena for ‘timing out’ and, for many women, for ‘stepping out’, even though only a minority of women actually moved into its sphere. It was both an existing physical space, and a dramatic fictional stage for many tango stories. In the tango lyrics the cabaret appears as a key place for erotic attraction, a powerful image to contrast to the home, the local bar and the barrio (the neighborhood). In this setting, as well in the different dancing arenas, the clothes were urban, modern, elegant and sophisticated. Neither dancers nor orchestras or singers used gaucho clothes, a matter evidently out of place. Tango was thus disconnected from the rural origins, the mixed dress of the compadritos, and turned into the representation of a quintessential urban way of life.

The globalization of tango took place during this period with the help of modern technology: radio, movies and records. Some of the singers, as ... with the case of Carlos Gardel, and the orchestras became famous worldwide. This very process of globalization served to invent a ‘tradition’, a mirror in which Argentines could see themselves precisely because the ‘others’ began to see them. The narrative, the dance and the music of tango became a key element in the creation of a ‘typical’ Argentine cultural product.

The Golden Age of Tango

The Golden Age of Tango originates in 1935 with Juan D'Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi. These stars created a tango with a quicker rhythm, which dancers found irresistible; the tango returned into its original function - music for dancing, rather than for listening. Whilst conservative tango dancers were appalled, the general tango community loved it. The new music evolved into one of the most beautiful couple dances in the world.

During the Golden Age the orchestras grew larger and more sophisticated, with conductors, composers and arrangers. Singers who were trained and professional became integral to the music.

Astor Piazzolla and Neuvo Tango

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was a tango composer and bandoneón player, in Buenos Aires. In the 1950s he caused outrage by fusing jazz rhythms and classical music into tango. The style became known as Tango Nuevo, and revolutionized tango.

Please refer to the Astor Piazzolla page for further information on Piazzolla.

Please refer to the Tango Nuevo page for detailed information on that genre.

Beyond the Golden Age of Tango

1955 brought in a coup that ousted Juan Perón and brought in a new government which discouraged tango. This conservative government, in conjunction with members of the upper class and some leftists, denounced and rejected tango as they considered it made the women prone to 'work in bordellos'. Tango went underground for many years.

Tango Argentino

In 1983 the military junta in Argentina fell and the massively successful hit show Tango Argentino premiered. This caused the spread of tango in Buenos Aires and throughout the world.


Neo-Tango evolved about the year 2000 - primarily from the USA and the rest of Europe, rather than Argentina itself. It is danced to music that is not traditional tango, such as electronic music called electrotango It contains many new forms of steps such as the over-extended step (almost a leap) and incorporates the separation of lead and follower, in which embraces are broken.

Please refer to the Neo-Tango page for detailed information on that genre.

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