Like many other North Americans around my age, my first exposure to the tango came from a somewhat unlikely source: Al Pacino, the American actor best known for playing mob bosses, football coaches, and streetwise cops. That is to say, Patrick Swayze he ain’t. Still, the most powerful and revelatory scene in the film Scent of a Woman features Pacino, playing a blind and embittered retired Army colonel, dancing the tango, stunning onlookers with his grace and sensitivity on the dancefloor.
Upon first witnessing this scene I, too, was stunned — though less by Pacino’s performance than by the raw, yet refined power of the dance. The male — always the male — leading, the female receptive and at the same time evasive, playing out that most human of dramas with equal parts tenderness and unbridled passion. I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching, but I wanted to learn more, inspiring a lifelong fascination with tango that has eventually led me to reviewing the newly published cultural history of tango, Tango: Sex and Rhythm of the City.
Tango is more than just a history of Argentina’s most famous cultural export; it is, in many ways, a history of Argentina itself, with the evolution of tango and the lives of its main architects intertwined with the social, political, and cultural evolution of the nation. Authors Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yates do a masterful job of painting a literary portrait of tango that is both interesting and affecting; appealing equally to the devoted historian of Peronism as it will to the casual fan of the dance.
Gonzalez and Yates capably reveal how tango evolved and immigrated from its humble origins in the brothels and backstreets of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century to the finest salons of Paris by the early 20th. When tango “returned” to Argentina as a French fad, it gained a new respectability among the Argentinean bourgeoisie. It’s revealing to note that tango had to be accepted by middle and higher class Europeans before it was accepted by Argentines of the same social calibre. As the authors detail the ups and downs of tango’s popularity in Argentina, it’s revealed that tango frequently had to travel abroad in order to (re)gain credibility in its homeland.
The most fascinating chapters of the book detail the mysterious origins and eventual rise of the dance in early 20th century Argentina, and the lives of some of its most famous exponents. When Pacino stole the show in Scent of a Woman he was dancing to “Por Una Cabeza”, originally made popular by Argentina’s most beloved and mythical entertainer, Carlos Gardel. With lyrics detailing unrequited love, despair, and inequality, Gardel cut a somewhat tragic figure at the microphone — and Argentines loved him for it. Gardel gave the tango-loving world its first superstar, transforming an art form most often linked to transgression, prostitution, and criminality, into one defined by romance and passion.
One of the great strengths of Tango is the consistent insertion and explanation of tango lyrics as they evolved over the past century. As the book progresses, the lyricists featured embody the struggles and injustice of each period in Argentinean society and culture, as well as the timeless themes of love, romance, and passion that have remained almost unchanged since tango’s “golden era” of the early to mid-20th century. The narrative’s momentum tapers off late in the book, and the authors offer a brief and unsatisfying conclusion. But perhaps this, too, is a strength, as the book’s anticlimactic conclusion emphasizes the fact that the history of tango is still being written.
I first picked up my copy of Tango hoping that I would not find yet another dry, seemingly uninspired academic history of one of my favorite art forms. What I found was a book that inspired me to hit the dance floor as much as it did to hit the library in order to delve deeper into tango’s complex history. This is a book that will provide the budding fan of tango with all of the necessary background information and inspiration to embark on a love affair with the magnificent dance.