I first heard of ‘Argentina’ during a football game my father was watching on our 14 inch television, while I sat under his arm trying to do what men did. Watch the match I mean, not admire his armpits. They were all running in their striped white and blue shirts, but one curly haired boy was running faster than all of them. My father, well he was laughing because this man would keep falling without a reason, and earning a foul for his team much to the anger and shock of the opposite team.
I guess I have a thing for curly haired boys. The other one I liked went on to become the greatest batsman in the world.
Argentina, however, for a very long time, meant Diego Maradona to me. It had a beautiful ring to it, ‘Maradona’. You are bound to be something, with a name like that.
Over the years, I started to view life from outside that big man’s arm. Argentina did not come much into my reading in those days. When it did, it was because I was reading about a handsome fellow who started from his home in Argentina and travelled across the South American continent, on a motorcycle with a friend. The journey disturbed, educated and changed him as a man. It also became the single biggest reason for making him one of the most recognizable figures across the world. You can see his posters plastered in the small shops of Palakkad and on the back of the buses in Thailand. His name? Che Guevara. You are bound to be something with a name like that.
But this story is about neither men. A month after I saw the Motorcycle Diaries (based on Che’s life), I was at a wedding and found myself talking to this rather attractive looking soul. The conversation veered around movies and I launched into what I thought was a sufficiently intellectual discourse on Che and Argentina). The world was not conspiring for me though, and soon a diplodocus invited her to the stage. Not the dinosaur breed, we are referring to a suitor here. Without any warning, they launched into a sensual dance, flowing into each other’s arms and bodies, stamping the floor as if they held it in contempt, yet moving across it like lithe beings. The rest of us just stood there transfixed, in admiration.
“Tango,” someone declared. Later, as I was having dinner, she came up from behind and whispered “I hoped you liked that. It is Argentine too.” I would have choked on my food had I not taught myself, over several years, to not choke in the presence of prettiness.
Very few good things have come out of slavery. Tango’s one of them. In the 1800s, Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas, and Argentina was no exception. The dances popular in Argentina at that time were the Polka and the Cuban Habanera. Along came the African Candombe.
Earlier couple dances were mostly restricted to holding hands. The Viennese Waltz (in 1830) was the first dance in which the lead held one hand of the follow, and put his second around her back, and it became a craze in Europe. 10 years later, the Polka became the second dance to use such a hold.
In 1853, Argentina banned slavery, and the Africans tried resurrecting their lives. Disillusioned, bitter, these compadritos (young men) in slouch hats, loosely tied handkerchiefs, boots and knives tucked casually in their belts, frequented the ghettos outside Buenos Aires, and tried to lose their despair in the music, the lights, the revolving dance, and in the bodies of their partners in these modest bars and brothels. It was first in such establishments where the African rhythms were introduced to the Argentine Milonga music, and it became the poor man’s dance, a dance of the streets. It was voluptuous, raw, passionate. Cheeks touched close, teeth were gritted, and the lead led with a rose in his mouth. It was nothing like what the world had ever seen before.
Argentina’s high society looked down upon this, just as all high societies do all over the world. However, it did not stop many young men from rich families to visit the slums and the brothels. Soon everyone knew about the Tango, and it started spreading from its birth city, to Uruguay.
In the early 1900s, rich families from Argentina sent their sons to Paris (the centre of the world in those days). Parisian society, always eager for innovation, did not disapprove of the risqué dance moves. Nor did they mind dancing with wealthy young men. The African rhythms, the Latin heart, the fast paced nature, the shocking body contact, and the erotic nature of it all helped spread it like wildfire in Paris. In 1910, the frenzy gripped London.
In 1916 the American dancer Isadora Duncan visited Argentina and declared: “I have never danced Tango, and today a charming tourist guide forced me to dance. My first steps were timid, but the feeling of the languid music caused my body to respond to the voluptuousness of the dance. Soft as a caress, toxic as love under the midday sun, cruel and dangerous as a tropical forest.”
The high society in Argentina which had shunned the Tango all this while, were now ready to accept it as a National treasure after Paris and London, and the whole world had fallen in love with it.
Rock and Roll invaded the world in the 70s and it lead to an almost an extinction of the Tango. However in the 90s, there was a Tango Renaissance and today there are clubs all over the world (India too) where people, like that girl I met once, learn the dance. In the last World Tango Championships, a Japanese couple won first prize.
There are certain etiquettes associated with the dance. On entering the hall (especially in Argentina), it is regular practice to not approach a person directly, but to try and catch their eye. If they do make eye contact and look back at you with favour, the man leads the lady to the floor. This practice of asking someone to dance with eye contact and a nod is called ‘Cabaceo’. Dancers have the right of passage of way, and be careful to not go through it, but around it. Don’t hold up the traffic, the floor is constantly moving forward. It is common to dance in an embrace during the Tango, but be aware and sensitive to your partner’s comfort zones. Once a dance is over, even if you want to dance again with the same person, you are supposed to go off the floor and wait till the music starts again. This is to let all dancers have the opportunity to make eye contact with people they want to dance with.
For the last 50 years, Argentina and Uruguay have been fighting tooth and nail, insisting that the dance originated in their country. Recently the United Nations gave the dance an “Intangible Cultural Heritage Status” and jointly recognized both nations as the source. Well, maybe it really takes two to Tango.