Plaza Dorrego (Buenos Aires)

Plaza Dorrego is a square in the heart of San Telmo, the oldest barrio (district) of the city. It is named after statesman and soldier Manuel Dorrego who, in the 1820s, twice acted as Governor of Buenos Aires. In the nineteenth century, it was the main residential area of the city and Plaza Dorrego was its focal point. Located at the intersection of Humberto Primero and Defensa streets, its surroundings are full of bars where musicians and dancers perform tango exhibitions. Both the 1997 drama film The Tango Lesson by British director Sally Potter, and the 2002 crime film Assassination Tango produced and directed by Robert Duvall (who also stars in the movie), were shot in the locality.

The sensual plasticity of the tango has inspired numerous contemporary painters. Brazilian-born Juarez Machado settled in Rio de Janeiro in 1966. In a number of paintings he has been able to grasp the grace and embrace of the dance. One of the strongest painted images is Mariano Otero’s ‘Tango de Passion’.


Born in Madrid but living in France, the tango is a recurring theme in his works. Apparently, he is unable to dance the tango himself, but he has captured its essence with an understanding touch. The intimacy of the dance is reflected in an idiomatic expression. It takes two to tango (at times used with negative connotations) suggests that certain activities cannot be performed alone, making love, fighting a duel, playing ping pong, or dance the tango. The 1952 song ‘Takes Two to Tango’ was written by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning. It has the following catching refrain:

Takes two to tango, two to tango
Two to really get the feeling of romance.
Lets do the tango, do the tango
Do the dance of love.


Two different versions, one by Pearl Bailey and the other by Louis Armstrong, made it a hit in that same year. In Australia, during the 1930s, the phrase was used to indicate premarital sex. Tango and eroticism are inextricably linked.

Tango is the manifestation of an immigrant culture. It is impossible to reconstruct its history, because there are no written sources. Its roots are multiple. Both tango music and dance have indirect African, Cuban, and Andalusian influences, added to regional music and popular lyrics. The word itself is of African origin, meaning drums or dance. The Argentine Tango developed between 1860 and 1890 in Buenos Aires. It emerged out of the immigrant culture of Argentina’s dockside slums, on the shores of the Riachuelo River, and in clubs and brothels of southern Buenos Aires. The social class in which it developed was a mixture of regional people and European immigrants made up by sailors, craftsmen and workers. They frequented the establishments to escape the daily pressures of life and loneliness and identified with lyrics that expressed the hardship of life. It was danced by pairs of men, sometimes by prostitutes and their companions. The steps are sexual and aggressive, the music permeated with longing and despair, as the dancers act out the ritualistic relationship of prostitute and pimp. Buenos Aires society considered tango to be a ‘reptile from the brothels’, an indecent entertainment associated with violence and illicit sex. Clubs where the tango was danced were raided and closed by police. But its progress was unstoppable. The first tango bands were trios, which included a flute, violin and guitar players.

Towards the end of 1890 the bandoneon (a German import) was added to the line-up, sometimes replacing the flute. However, it appears to be that bands changed constantly and they were formed by whoever showed up on the day of the performance. The first tangos lacked lyrics and the musicians improvized them on the spot. The words were more often than not vulgar or obscene. The tango was a song of the streets. Some time later it spread to the city and arrived at places like the Café Tarana, known as Café Hansen, and other more upmarket resorts. It was only then that women started to take part in the dance. In 1904, the legendary Casimiro Ain (son of a Basque immigrant) appeared at the Opera Theatre in Buenos Aires as a dancer of tango joined by his wife. The dance had gained some respectability at last – but it would take some time for the tango to lose its familiar associations with brawls and brothels.

French-born immigrant Carlos (Charles) Gardel is a prominent figure in the history of the tango. He was born in December 1890 out of wedlock. Berthe Gardès left Toulouse not long after in order to escape the social stigma of being an unmarried mother. She and baby arrived in Buenos Aires on 11 March 1893. Carlos grew up and spent most of his life in the Abasto area of the city where, outside the Abasto Market, a statue honours his career and legacy (the local underground station carries his name as well). During his lifetime he was known as ‘El Morocho del Abasto’ (the dark-haired guy from Abasto). Together with lyricist and long-time collaborator Alfredo Le Pera, Gardel wrote many classic tangos. His baritone voice and dramatic phrasing of lyrics made an enormous impact on his audience (on women in particular). With more than 800 records to his name he was the soul of tango and a cultural hero who made the dance Argentina’s national treasure. Gardel died in an airplane crash at the height of his career (and so did Le Pera). Millions of his fans went into mourning. The popularity of the tango hit Europe just before World War One. Its introduction into France, England and elsewhere sparked a controversy that had been at the heart of European musical appreciation throughout the ages.

Boethius’s De institutione musica was one of the first musical works to be printed in Venice in 1491/2. It was written toward the beginning of the sixth century and shaped music in Europe for several centuries. Boethius came to be viewed as a primary authority on Greek musical thought. In the first chapter of De musica, the author stresses that music can both establish and destroy morality. The ears are a direct path to the soul for the formation of a moral awareness. When rhythms and modes have penetrated the soul, they affect the psyche with their own character. For that reason, socio-cultural observers have treated music and dance with suspicion. An effective means for disrupting civilized society is through a music that inordinately stimulates the passions. The Christian Church has been a persistent critic of song and dance. Early penance books more often than not contain admonishments against such forms of entertainment. Associating dance with promiscuity, Protestant reformers viewed it with a mixture of fear and resentment. Shoes were made for walking, not dancing. Dance cannot be enjoyed without ‘evil communications’. Hence, music was the work of the devil, and its demoniac power had caught many – especially women – by means of a disturbing sensual power. The nineteenth century novel presents the reader with a procession of women who are seduced into adultery under the influence of music (Wagner’s music in particular). Many cultural critics paid tribute to Plato who had banished music from his commonwealth.

The history of dance is a confrontational one. With its introduction in Europe jazz was regularly identified with the ‘spirit of the times’. Jazz as an expression of the age formed the essence of many articles and essays during the 1920s. Precisely the same had happened in earlier days with the introduction of other styles of music and dance such as the waltz, polka, and tango. Music reflected the acceleration of life, the intensity of urban existence, the sexualization of society. Composers established the link between creative activity and the demands of modernity. In 1869, C. Apitius created a waltz (opus 37) which he called ‘Der Zeitgeist’. The catalogue of copyright entries for the year 1909 of the Library of Congress makes mention of the ‘Zeitgeist Walzer’ for piano solo by G. Marschal-Loepke. The growing passion for music and dance since the nineteenth century was symptomatic of a more general craving for excitement. Critics pointed to the danger of a culture that elevates the hearing of sound over the listening to sense. Linguists argued that the word ‘ball’ is a corruption of brawl: during the Renaissance the French court dance, the ‘branle’, was known in England as the brawl or brawle. Time and again, dance ignited social controversy. Puritans had related dance to the devil, later social observers were shocked by the wickedness of the waltz, the wildness of the polka, or the lustfulness of the Charleston. Dancing, it was feared, would break all sexual taboos. When in the summer of 1816, for the first time, the waltz was included at a ball given by the Price Regent, an editorial in The Times protested that this intoxicating import from the Continent was an ‘obscene display … confined to prostitutes and adulteresses’.

Traditionally there have been various links between music and literature. It is unusual (although not exceptional) that we can identify literary influences that have shaped the history of dance. The first recorded use of the word ‘walzen’ goes back to the second act of a comedy written by the Viennese author Johann Joseph Felix von Kurz entitled Bernardon auf der Gelseninsel (1750). However, the European passion for the waltz was ignited by the immense success of Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774). The novel was held responsible for popularizing the waltz and for bringing the fashion to France during the years preceding the Revolution. The hero and narrator of the novel dances a waltz and falls in love with Lotte, a young lady engaged to another man. The ecstasy of the dance and the pain of passionate but unfulfilled love is the cause of Werther’s sufferings. The theme of the novel gave rise to a wide debate on ‘Werther-walzer’ in which sensuality, moral corruption and mental health were the main issues of contention.

In 1913, a new fashion swept over Europe. It had all started in Buenos Aires, took America by storm, before arriving in Paris. Tangomania grabbed the Continent: 1913 was the Year of the Tango. One of the musicians responsible for the rage for this dance in Paris was Casimiro Ain. That year he had left Buenos Aires with three other musicians on board the steamship ‘Sierra Ventana’ and sailed to France. They travelled from Boulogne sur Mer to Paris and went straight to Monmartre. They entered the first cabaret club they came across and were invited to perform. They were lucky. The club was ‘La Princesse’ which would later become the famous ‘El Garròn’, run by Argentinian musician Manuel Pizarro and his brothers. The young went mad with enthusiasm; the critics red with outrage. The issue of the Mercure de France of 16 February 1914 called the tango ‘la danse des filles publiques’.

The Argentinian ambassador in Paris, Enrique Rodriguez Laretta, was furious: ‘In Buenos Aires tango is found only in whorehouse and filthy taverns. It is never danced in the respectables lounges, nor between civilized men and women for tango is crude to the ear of any Argentinian worthy of his nation’. King Ludwig of Bavaria forbade his officers to dance the tango, while the Duchess of Norfolk pronounced it to be contrary to English character and manners. The Vatican issued a circular warning the faithful that the tango was ‘offensive to the purity of every right-minded person’. Pope Pius X barred what he called ‘this barbarian dance’. He had his moral instincts in a twist. Shortly after the ban, war broke out. Europe was about to witness levels of barbarity it had never seen before.

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