My post on tango from a couple of months back is now my fifth most popular post in the two years I’ve been on this blog. It’s odd because people always say they want stuff about history or writing. What to do?
How about I post about tango and history? Or tango and writing? Or, because tango is a fairly visual thing, tango in films?
OK, let’s do that.
Tango in history
Tango doesn’t feature in my books at all, despite the first of my books about James Burke (Burke in the Land of Silver) being set largely in Buenos Aires. That’s because the action takes place early in the 19th century and tango didn’t really start until rather later. According to the famous Argentine tango historian, Horatio Ferrer “the spiritual and artistic genesis of tango took place from about 1880 to circa 1895”.
Tango remained virtually unknown outside South America until the early 20th century. Then it moved to Europe, notably Paris, where it became very fashionable. It spread across the continent, reaching Helsinki just before the First World War, where it developed into the distinctive Finnish Tango that is still popular today. By the 1920s tango was being filmed. Rudolph Valentino was hugely successful with films like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The tango singer, Carlos Gardel, starred in a series of films from The Lights of Buenos Aires in 1931 until his death in 1935. Many of his films were released by Paramount in the USA and although they were made in Spanish they drew big audiences and moved tango further into the mainstream.
Vernon and Irene Castle, who were influential ballroom dancers and teachers at a time when that was pretty much like rock-star status now, adapted the tango to make it more acceptable to conservative American dancers. (They even developed a version where the partners did not touch each other at all.) Eventually their approach developed into ballroom tango, which has only a tangential relationship to Argentine tango, but which remains popular with Strictly fans to today.
Tango in books
One of my favourite books ever is the totally wonderful Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance by Lloyd Jones.It’s a book about life and death, loss and rediscovery and it made me cry, but in a good way. Tango is a central motif of the book and, unlike a lot of fiction about the dance, it’s been written by someone who understands it so well you can practically use it as a teach-yourself book. (Please don’t though. There is no substitute for proper lessons.)
Apart from Here at the End of the World… tango seems strangely absent in European and American literature. Tony Parsons’ Starting Over finds his hero finally redeemed by dance in the milongas of Buenos Aires but most of the fiction that Goodreads files under ‘tango’ has titles like Red Hot Fantasy and Laid Bare. Tango’s reputation for sexual impropriety lives on in books like these.
The Tango Singer is a lovely Argentine book that sees Buenos Aires through the story of a mythical tango singer, though the book (like many Argentinians) concentrates on the songs rather than the dance.
The best accounts of tango in books are through memoirs. Amongst tango dancers the favourite (and quite a succes de scandale when it was published in 2012) is probably Twelve Minutes of Love, a reference to the average length of time a couple will dance together before changing partners. The Bulgarian author, Kapka Kassabova, has travelled round the world behaving disgracefully in tango salons wherever she went and her deliciously indiscreet memoir left red faces from New Zealand to Scotland. Another classic is Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien which is part coming-of-age story and part travelogue as a young American moves to Buenos Aires and falls desperately in love with his tango teacher.
Another memoir, Bad Times in Buenos Aires, is unusual for a story about living in Buenos Aires because the writer cheerfully admits to not being able to dance and not really understanding tango at all. It is, perhaps, a useful antidote to the other books I’ve mentioned.
Tango in films
While tango hardly features in European and American novels, you can scarcely move for tango in the movies. I’ve already mentioned the films of Carlos Gardel and Rudolph Valentino, but Argentina still produces great tango movies. My personal favourite is Tango.
There are plenty of tangos in mainstream US and European films, though. Probably the most well-known is the stunning tango scene in Scent of a Woman.
There are films where tango is central to the plot, like Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango and others where it is only incidental. Often it is used for humour – a favourite of mine is in Addams Family Values (definitely not one for purists!).
I could carry on listing tango movies for a very long time. (I once went to a club where one evening we danced to nothing but film music for hours). It’s probably best not to push my luck now. Do say if you want more.
Horatio Ferrer’s classic history of tango is a multi-volume epic that foreign dignitaries may be presented with on State Visits. Ferrer is a poet rather than a historian and it’s not an easy read. The shorter English language version published by Manrique Zago ediciones is not an easy read either, but the illustrations are profuse and gorgeous. Well worth a look if you are interested in the history of tango.
A word from our sponsor
That’s enough tango for one week. I’ll be back again next week. I post something on this blog a little over once a week on average, but I don’t make a penny out of it. If you enjoy reading the blog, the only thing I ask is that you buy one or more of my books. If this post has interested you at all in Argentina (a wonderful country) then you might like to consider Burke in the Land of Silver, which is largely set in Buenos Aires during the years when people were beginning to rise against Spanish rule. Argentina finally achieved independence in 1816.
There is information on all my books, with buy links, on this website: http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/my-books/
If you would like to know more about the tango scene in London or get advice on how to start learning to dance, do get in touch through the ‘Contact’ page.