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gancho | October 16, 2019

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TANGO – the immigrant

TANGO – the immigrant

It is heart-breaking to witness the war on our lovely world. Unfortunately the power and money makers insist on war-business and economy more than the lives of people. Many people die or have to move away from their homes and motherland. I witnessed some of the immigrants in Greece last week, running away from their homes to save their families and read an article in a history magazine entitled “Next immigrant can be YOU!”. I believe that nobody will leave home risking their lives if they do not face “death”. There are still people who do not follow the politicians but their conscience and help and welcome all those people in need, and that gives me hope.

As I read those lines, I remembered that Tango was born thanks to immigrants, the ones who were longing the motherland, their families and a warm human contact in the early 1900s in Buenos Aires.

In the first issues of gancho, we shared with you some articles regarding tango history from Christine Denniston (who is the author of The Meaning of Tango, Dancing Tango – Unlocking the Mysteries and Secrets of the Tango – 1914). I think it is once more time for us to share with you some words from her, to refresh our knowledge about immigrants and tango.

“There is a cliché that Tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires. However, a more likely explanation is that the brothels were where people of the upper and middle classes first encountered it. Members of Argentina’s literary classes – the people who are most likely to leave written evidence – did not mix socially with members of the lower, immigrant classes except in brothels.

Brothels were major places of entertainment for the working classes. The terrible shortage of women in Buenos Aires made prostitution a thriving industry. A shortage of women in the population also meant a shortage of women to work in the brothels. With many potential clients and few working women, the consequence was that there would be queues in the brothels as men waited for the women to become available.”

We will not go into details of brothels story of tango, but continue with immigrant history regarding the birth of tango dance. (If you are interested in the first story, please refer to the links below or Christine’s books to read more)

 “At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century Buenos Aires had been little more than a village at the furthest corner of the Spanish Empire. In the middle of the Nineteenth Century the British arrived to develop the railway network across Argentina. This opened up this practically deserted country, and made accessible its potentially huge wealth. It made possible the transportation of agricultural produce for export, and also the exploitation of mineral resources. The only thing missing was the workers necessary to make the landowners rich.

The Argentine government decided to advertise in Europe for workers. They offered accommodation for a man’s first week in Argentina with very generous rations, and sometimes subsidized passage. Immediately an avalanche of immigration began. Unlike the immigration to much of the New World, which might include families or whole communities hoping to start a new life in a new land, much of the immigration into Argentina was economic – people hoping to work for a few years, make some decent money, and then go back home to their families. So the overwhelming majority of the immigrants were men. And by the beginning of the Twentieth Century the overwhelming majority of people in Buenos Aires were immigrants. This meant that there was an enormous lack of women.

Not only did the majority of the immigrants not get rich, and so never go home, but they also had very little chance of creating a family for themselves in Argentina. There were simply not enough women for all the men who might have wanted to settle down and have children to be able to do so.

There were really only two practical ways for a man to get close to a woman under these circumstances. One was to visit a prostitute and the other was to dance. With so much competition from other men on the dance floor, if a man wanted a woman to dance with him, it was necessary for him to be a good dancer, and being a good dancer only meant one thing. It didn’t matter if he knew lots of fancy steps, or if the other men thought he was a good dancer. The only thing that mattered was that the woman in his arms had a good time when she danced with him – because with so many other men to choose from, if she didn’t enjoy dancing with him she wouldn’t do it again, and neither would her friends.

This meant that it was necessary for the men to practice together in order to be good enough to dance with the women. It is important to remember that this was a time before recorded music was available. The only kind of music was live music, and there would have been very little of it. So if a group of men heard music playing they would jump at the chance to dance to it. In the brothels there would be live music and other men waiting. So it seems to me quite obvious that the clients of the brothels would have danced together while they waited, making the most of the opportunity to practice, not because they wanted to dance with a prostitute, but because they wanted to be able to dance well when they got the opportunity to dance with a woman who was not a prostitute.

It was the potential wives and sweethearts that lived in the tenement blocks – conventillos – that they were hoping for a chance to dance with. A prostitute took money from a man in return for her favors – a clear and simple transaction. To win a sweetheart in the real world took something more, and being a good dancer helped a lot.

It was not in the brothels that Tango was born, but in the courtyards of the tenement blocks where the poor lived. With so many people living together in one building, it was very likely that someone might play the guitar, perhaps someone else might play the violin or the flute, and that from time to time they would get together to play the popular tunes of the time. And other people in the building would take the opportunity to dance, to have a moment of joy in what might be a terribly hard and lonely life.

The music and dance became a common language that united people from many different cultures. It was here that the different music and dance styles brought by immigrants from different countries, and by the people already in Argentina, blended together, and what emerged slowly became Tango.”

Today, I can only wish that hard times pass quick with the least harm for everyone… the days that unite people together come very soon… and all immigrants bring colors of a rainbow to the society and enrich the human-culture… music and dance take the place of wars and guns… and tango continues to connect people, as it did from its birth on…



ps: another good reading regarding Italian immigration and tango is here.

*photo from


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