A short introduction to Tango

"The forms of tango are like stages of a marriage," said Barbara Garvey in a 1993 edition of Smithsonian magazine. "The American Tango is like the beginning of a love affair, when you're both very romantic and on your best behaviour. The Argentine Tango is when you're in the heat of things and all kinds of emotions are flying: passion, anger, humour. The International Tango is like the end of the marriage, when you're staying together for the sake of the children." 

The Argentine tango is, of course, the original and true form of tango and one of the most sensual dances of all. It grew out of the brothels and dancehalls around the ports of Buenos Aires in the 1880s, where Spanish settlers mixed with Jewish, Italian, Uruguayan and African immigrants. 

From its low-life beginnings, tango moved upmarket and spread to the ballrooms of Europe and then New York in the 1920s, alongside the foxtrot, the Charleston and other favourites of the jazz age. Hollywood idol Rudolf Valentino demonstrated his mastery of the tango on screen and the dance has reappeared in cinema in films including Scent of a Woman, Evita and Moulin Rouge

The simmering passion of the tango is the main attraction. The bodies are held close, but with a sliver of air in between. The dance is based on an eight-step formation, embellished with extra steps, turns, lunges and suggestive flicks of a high-heeled foot. The steps smoothly glide across the floor, like a panther's prowl, and the man always leads, using his hand on his partner's back to subtly guide her. 

Traditionally you don't necessarily dance on the beat but more with the feel of the music, following the melody, usually played on violin or the bandoneon (a type of accordion). The music has a slow 2/4 pulse, surging and melancholic. Astor Piazzolla is by far the most famous tango composer and introduced tango nuevo in the 1950s. 

Argentine tango experienced a revival in the 1980s and 1990s, which continues today with shows like Tango por Dos,Tango Fire and Subitango, often marrying tradition with more modern elements in slickly choreographed ensemble dances. 

Meanwhile, ballroom tango, (the American and International styles mentioned by Barbara Garvey) is ever popular, in part thanks to the success of Strictly Come Dancing, and despite being seen as a sanitised version of the raw, improvisatory, Argentine original. 

Tango has also been an inspiration for ballet and contemporary choreographers, with Frederick Ashton, Richard Alston and Henri Oguike all introducing elements into their work - and in 2013 Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's m¡longa became the first international large-scale tango production to be directed by a non-Argentine artist.

by Lyndsey Winship