[Tango-L] Roots of Tango

tangosmith@cox.net tangosmith at cox.net
Wed Feb 6 11:15:28 EST 2008

While often a popular topic of discussion, it’s actually very difficult if
not impossible to try to isolate the “roots” of a dance by identifying a
particular place of origin or with a particular historical dance.  It seems
much more appropriate to discuss “influences” rather than roots.  As far as
any dance having African influences, it would appear difficult to identify
any modern vernacular dance that’s originated in the Western hemisphere in
the last 150 years that doesn’t have African influences, some just being
more obvious than others.   
As an example far removed from tango, consider the history of tap dance. 
Tap draws on Irish jigs, Scottish reels, English clogs and African shuffle
dances.  For any one of these influences to be singled out as being the
“roots” of tap is impossible but it has clearly been influenced by all of

While tango undoubtedly has African influences, compared to modern Latin
dances and even swing dance, the influence would seem comparatively mild. 
While the rhythms and some of the movements may be discerned, consider that
a very defining feature of virtually all historical tribal African dances
was a separation of the partners, that is, men and women danced apart,
generally with no physical contact at all.  The influence of this African
dance characteristic can be seen in the openness of swing, disco,
contemporary club dancing and in salsa.  Interestingly in contrast, in
tango certainly one of the most defining characteristics is the close
embrace of the partners.  

For a surprisingly good scholarly discussion of the evolution of the
influences of different musical cultures on Western music and dance, I
would recommend "Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo" by
Ned Sublette.  Don’t be put off by the title, it’s about much more than
just Cuba (which served as a crossroads) and includes good discussions of
dancing.  It is well-researched and documented with sources and footnotes. 
It presents a much better and broader analysis of the influence of African
rhythms (as well as other influences) on Western music than the Thompson
book on tango (even though Sublette does cite it in places).     

For anyone interested in the early cross-pollination of influences in the
evolution of unique Western music, including tango, I would strongly
recommend taking a look at the life and works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. 
If you haven’t heard of him, he was born in New Orleans in 1829.  His
father was an English-born businessman of Jewish Spanish descent and his
mother was French Creole Haitian.  He was a child prodigy on the piano and
was classically trained in Paris.  When he returned, besides living in New
Orleans, he made many lengthy trips to Cuba and Central and South America. 
He died in 1869 at the age of 40 while in Rio de Janeiro.  Even though he
is largely unknown today, he was hugely popular giving large concerts in
the 1850’s and 60’s, incorporating classical skills with the ethnic music
of the Caribbean and Central and South America, Creole music, the rhythms
of African slaves heard in the Place Congo, Spanish folk music, and French
ballroom dances.  Try listening to Bamboula, written in 1845.  While it is
widely-regarded as the forerunner of ragtime, elements of what would become
tango can be found in it also.  If there is a common “root” of African
rhythms, the haberna, ragtime, and tango, it may very well be traced
through the works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk.


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