“Canción maleva, canción de Buenos Aires, hay algo en tus entrañas que vive y que perdura. Canción maleva, lamento de amargura, sonrisa de esperanza, sollozo de pasión. Ese es el tango canción de Buenos Aires, nacido en el suburbio que hoy reina en todo el mundo. Este es el tango que llevo muy profundo clavado en lo más hondo del criollo corazón.”
- La Cancion de Buenos Aires (The Buenos Aires song) 1932,
- Lyrics: Manuel Romero, Translated by: Walter Kane
(“Mischievous song, song of Buenos Aires, there's something in your essence that lives and endures. Mischievous song, moan of bitterness, smile of hope, sob of passion. That is the tango song of Buenos Aires, born in the slum, today it rules all the world. This is the tango that I carry so deep, buried in the depth of the Creole heart.”)
As the intellectual elite debated amongst themselves over the true identity of the Argentine, a cultural phenomenon that would come to define the very essence of the porteño was being conceived in the brothels of the outer barrios. In these illicit dance halls men and women locked their bodies together against the passionate and tortured rhythm of the tango, unknowingly creating a profound and enduring identity out of the city’s most undesirable locations.
A blend of African, Creole, and European elements, the tango reflected the diversity of the immigrant population gathered along the city limits. Its controlled yet aggressive dance steps and mournful lyrics expressed a bitter sorrow and resentment at the economic struggles awaiting immigrants who had come to Argentina in search of a better life. Social mobility was a common theme of tango lyrics, and in the dance’s movements can be read an attempt to exert control in a world where there was little.
Contrary to prevalent beliefs, the tango is not a lover’s dance. In the world of the tango, love is equivalent to suffering and man is fated to endure continuous pain at the hands of callous, traitorous women. The lyrics recount the disillusioned lament of the scorned man, heartbroken and dejected after being left by the woman he loved. Yet, the dance’s choreography seems contradictory, for in the steps can be seen the machismo of the Argentine male. The dance revolves entirely around his dominance. He holds his partner rigidly and advances powerfully, forcing her to submit and recede, making her every move seem under his control. In the tango, the female never makes a move independent of the influence of her partner. It is through the dance that the man can finally dominate the duplicitous temptress who has tormented him.
During the late 19th century, those outside of the slums were scandalized by the overt passion of the tango and viewed it as a vulgar infestation of the lower class. Gradually, however the tango began to infiltrate the upper strata of society as wealthy young men entered the brothels and carried the tango to Europe where it became fashionable in Paris. By the time the 1920s arrived the tango had become a cultural phenomenon, launching figures like Carlos Gardel to international fame and local veneration.
Even today the tango can be found in every part of the city. The porteños consider the tango solely their own possession, an expression of their history that only they can truly understand. For them the tango is not a dance between a man and a woman, it is a solitary dance which they execute together, a willing plunge into suffering. To dance the tango completely is to not only surrender to pain, but to take pleasure in it. It is a solitary journey into the psyche and a means of accepting betrayal; the betrayal of man by woman, of immigrant by false promises, and in what came to grow increasingly in relevance over the coming decades, of citizen by nation.