From continental African rhythms, impoverished African slaves in Haiti, Cuba and Argentina, Spanish Flamingo, French country dances, to Nazi-Germany elitists, tango has traveled across the globe and hybridized into the formal social dance known today.
Tango is formally danced by partners in a close embrace with rigid postures, but with dramatic movements. It is typically danced to the romantic rhythms of the 1920s through the 1950s (known as the “Golden Age” of Music), but can be adapted to a variety of music, and is typically danced in a medley of three songs.
“The whole idea of tango is ‘the connection’ and people have written a lot about it; it can be very poetic as it takes you away someplace,” says Guadalupe Rodriguez, Wasatch Tango Club President and recent Salt Lake Community College Film Technician graduate. “You have to learn so much about the walk and the connection. Tango is about the connection with somebody and you spend a lot of time developing that.”
Rodriguez describes tango as nearly addictive for many people from of all walks of life; including “professionals, doctors, entrepreneurs, educators and engineers, because it is structured, but has the freedom to interpret the music through the dance.”
Rodriguez says many introduced to tango seem to instantly fall in love with the formal social dance and become avid, life-long devotees.
“If the tango bug bites you, you might enjoy it the rest of your life,” he says. Rodriguez describes his own passion for and relationship with tango, as well as early on discovering added health and emotional benefits, as well.
“I’ve been doing this for six years and my health, agility and balance is so good [as a result]. Your range of motion improves dramatically,” says Rodriguez, whom also began working on a Utah tango documentary while still a SLCC Film Technician student.
He further says he witnesses a specific and transformative ‘emotional lift’ experienced by tango dancers. “I have danced with women in such a stupor, and then, after the dance was over, it just woke them up.” He describes the glide of the dance to be so soothing that it seems “when the music stops, they had to come back from a hypnotic state.”
“As a health benefit, dance in itself is a big health benefit. There are studies that show that you live longer and there are all kinds of articles on that for dancing in general,” Rodriguez says.
He further outlines various clinical tests which have proven positive health outcomes for treating Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, among other diseases and several age-related health concerns.
Although Rodriguez says some people think tango is for the elite, he believes it is a dance for everyone.
Tango was culturally formalized in low-income barrios of Buenos Aires, Argentina in the early 1900s. The dance developed in impoverished urban areas primarily populated by male immigrants, whom taught each other and perfected the form, culture and style of the dance.
Like hip-hop, tango grew into popularity; crossing cultural barriers and expanding across the globe to become a mainstream dance and which has been included for decades in professional ballroom competitions.
In 1997, tango became recognized for world heritage and cultural preservation by the United Nations. Rodriguez says this is especially important for many people who danced it in their youth in the 30s and 40s. However, he says that a new resurgence has swelled in present times, as young people have come forward to preserve the dance and resurrect the music.
Today, Buenos Aires is still considered the tango capital of the world, where “tango salons” are packed with hundreds of people — all looking, watching, learning and waiting to dance.
“It’s like going to Mecca to pay tribute; it’s our cultural Mecca,” says Rodriguez. “I think people need to learn the social etiquette of the dance before they go.”
Rodriguez recommends formal tango lessons, which are readily available at a “practica,” where you learn basic instruction and practice just prior to a dance. He says “practicas” and “milongas” (formal dances) are readily available several times a month in Salt Lake and around the state. He says dance partners are not required to attend, as dancers rotate partners as part of the structure of the dance.
Rodriguez also suggests the best way to improve your dance is by dancing with different partners and learning to let go of your ego.
“When you dance with somebody, you have to be right there with that person,” he says. “Traditionally and when beginning the dance, the man leads and the woman follows, in the ‘cabellero’ etiquette style.”
Rodriguez adds, “There’s so much to it. Like I’m going to look at you and your eyes tell me you want to dance, so I take you to the floor and dance,” yet as you progress, “roles kind of blend and it’s good to learn to make decisions and not to be wishy-washy.”
In April, a three-day tango workshop is being offered to the public. Rodriguez recommends getting involved and is initiating a SLCC Tango Club to promote the dance to students and faculty.
He also says each August the Wasatch Tango Club hosts a tango retreat at a vintage 1920s resort outside of Snowbird. Rodriguez says the hardwood floors, dramatic music and Argentinian barbeque are only heightened by hours of tango dancing and warm conversation in a majestic mountain setting.
“If people can get beyond the male-female thing and [learn that] the close embrace doesn’t mean it’s sexual, once you get behind the fear of the close contact, they can embrace dancing their entire lives. To me it is a lifestyle, not just a social dance,” Rodriguez says.
Photo gallery by Tamara Brune-Wharton