Tango: a dance from Europe’s heart

Night tango in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Maksym Kaharlytskyi, Unsplash.

I was delighted to see the people of Kyiv taking advantage of a lull in the bombing to indulge in a bit of outdoor social dancing. Whilst Ukraine might bring to mind images of wild Cossack solos, the dance that the couples followed in the Kyiv sunshine was an outsider from a far-away shore and yet in its own way deeply rooted in the Slavic cultures of eastern Europe: Argentine tango.

The historical roots of tango

Tango emerged at the end of the 19th century in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires and Uruguay capital Montevideo, neighbouring cities across the Rio de la Plata and the centre at that time of a mass migration to South America from Europe. Italian and Spanish immigrants were joined by Germans, French and people from the Slavic nations to the east. Some were Jews fleeing Europe’s many pogroms; some came only seeking their fortune and a better life. 

They packed the crowded tenements of both cities with their bodies, their religions and their dreams. They brought with them traditions of social dancing: the tarantella, polka or waltz. The Germans brought a strange accordion called a bandoneon that could fit the whole voice of a church organ into a box small enough for one person to carry.

Music of the dispossessed

Africans, shipped to south America against their will a century before, beat the drums for their ecstatic candombe as overcrowded living spaces forced disparate peoples to mingle in improvised communal spaces. Communication in a kaleidoscope of languages created a culture whose history is written not only in Spanish, but Polish, Italian, French and Yiddish. This culture echoed the vanished meeting places of the dispossessed slaves: places that had been known as ‘tangos’. The music and the dance of this culture shared the same name. Tango.

Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 1910. Photo credit: J. Cunill, Wikimedia Commons.

Tango returns to Europe

Tango soon spread back to Europe, dominating Paris between the wars and becoming so popular in Berlin that the Nazis went to the trouble of banning it. Today the customers at Clärchens Ballhaus dance past the bullet holes from the war, and the stolpersteine in the streets mark homes from which Jewish tango musicians were seized and taken to the death camps.

Decades later, the rise of another military regime in Argentina would send the flow of migrants briefly back the other way. Argentines fleeing the Junta took refuge in France and Italy, including the famous Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla.

Tango lives on in Ukraine

Although UNESCO recognises tango as an Argentinian and Uruguayan tradition, it has deep European roots, but it is also a living record of how an incredibly diverse community found common ground and connection with strangers. Tango is the dance of an outsider in a community of outsiders, where you and your partner might have no common tongue, only the shared language of the music.

That is why tango was the perfect dance to make a statement on that spring day in Kyiv. We, the people you drove away, came back. We, the people you made cower in fear now dance before you. We, the people you divided, are together. Together in the milonga, together in the embrace. A shelter you cannot penetrate. A connection you cannot break.

A milonga, Buenos Aires. Photo credit: Lee Iazzarello, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.  

On 8 May, the Romano Viazzani Ensemble will perform some of Piazzolla’s work at St John’s Smith Square, London, as part of ‘A London Tango for Europe Day’. On every seat there will be an EU flag, courtesy of the EU flag Mafia team. as well as a packet of sunflower seeds in solidarity with Ukraine.

Slava Ukraini! and Viva Tango!

  • Pez Pearson is a social tango dancer, artist and member of the Festival of Europe’s steering committee

And in Sussex …

Tango is thriving in the UK, including within Sussex – until the pandemic – with regular tango classes and milongas (social dances) in Brighton, Eastbourne and Worthing. And this year the tango beat goes on with a milonga at Arundel on 14 May, organised by Regis Tango, and a workshop at Eastbourne on 26 June, run by Eastbourne Tango Club.

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