The Tango Family Tree


This page on the Tango Family Tree stated, "When we compare European and North American tango descriptions to a Buenos Aires tango manual from the same time, we see that the northern hemisphere dancers mostly got it right, dancing the same or similar steps, in the same style, as the Argentines."

That statement requires a little more explanation.

Magazines and newspapers from the early days of tango occasionally quoted Argentines traveling in Europe commenting that the tango that they saw Europeans dancing had differences from the tango that they knew in Argentina.  This is likely due to one of two possible dynamics (or both).

Any dance travelling to another country will undergo changes.  Furthermore, when a new dance receives a great amount of publicity, dancers will sometimes create their own versions of what is wildly popular.  And those who disapproved of the tango would likely have been motivated to modify it into a preferred version.

But we also know that European and American social dancers retained much (or possibly most) of the original Argentine style, steps and figures.  As mentioned on the previous page, the steps, figures and style of tango as done in Europe was described in many dance manuals at the time, and they very closely resemble (and are often identical to) the steps, figures and style of tango as described by the Buenos Aires tango master Nicanor Lima, in that same decade.  Yes, there are some differences, but the Venn diagram overlap between European and Argentine tango in that decade is significantly greater than the overlap between early and modern Argentine tango, in steps, style and figures.

It is human nature to notice differences more than similarities, because we acclimate to similarities, causing them to fade into the background.  Thus, tango dancers from Argentina would mostly notice the differences from the tango they knew, and comment on the differences.  Then with the overview from a historical perspective, one can recognized the many similarities.

If someone were to watch a side-by-side comparison of 19-teens European and Argentine tango, they would mostly notice the differences, of course.  But if one added today's tango Argentino and competition ballroom tango, in a four-way side-by-side comparison, then the many similarities between the two 19-teens tangos will stand out, in contrast to the greater differences, in steps and style, to both today's tango Argentino and competition ballroom tango.

The more that we learn about early Argentine tango, the more we suspect that perhaps the earliest tango wasn't one definitive dance form.  Tango was evolving in an unorganized ad-hoc manner, from various elements in the diverse multiracial, multicultural mix that comprised the barrios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.  So, if Argentines traveling in Europe saw a tango that differed from the tango that they knew, it might have simply been a European dancing one of those other Argentine styles.  We can never know with certainty, either way, but we add this to our list of possible reasons that Argentines described differences from their familiar tango.

Furthermore, the tango scholar Augusto Tomas (London, from Lisbon, Portugal) has found evidence that the word "tango" was a derogatory slang name used by the wealthy elite in Buenos Aires for any low class dance from the impoverished barrios, especially those with Afroargentine influences.  This continued until the European Tangomania legitimized the term tango.  And thus, in the early pre-craze years, one authentic original Argentine "tango" might have been a significantly different dance, compared to another barrio dance also called "tango" by the Buenos Aires aristocrats.

But to put this second theory in perspective, many Argentine dancers traveled to Europe between 1910 and 1916 (we know some of their names), usually traveling to France or England, and the tango that they danced was essentially the same as Nicanor Lima's early Buenos Aires tango.  These Argentine tango dancers didn't know each other, and they probably didn't know Nicanor Lima, but they all danced the same or similar tango steps, patterns and step timings that Lima described.  Señor Juan Barrasa (who danced tango on his father's estate in Argentina since he was 12), Raoul de Alvez (who won awards for his Tango dancing in Buenos Aires), Nicanor Lima, and all of the other Argentine dancers described a near-identical first generation Argentine tango.  Thanks to their clear descriptions, we know what first generation 1911-1916 Argentine tango looked like.  Multiple concordances are essential in tracking dance history, to ensure that a single source wasn't an unusual abberation.