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A Taste of Tucson Tango

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Amy VanKirk, a graduate student at the University of Arizona studying dance, got her first taste of tango as an undergrad and her appetite for the sensual style has only gotten bigger since then.  

Tango is a dance that developed in the late 19th century at a time when many other ballroom and partner dances were also being established, she said. The dance continued to develop up until the early 20th century when it was exported from Argentina due to social factors, and then became popular worldwide.

VanKirk explained that there are three main styles of tango: International, Standard American and Argentine tango. She said the American style is more squared-off and there is more space between the couple. In the Argentine Tango, the partners dance much closer and lean into each other. She said this style is more intricate than formal ballroom dancing.

Tango is not to be confused with Latin dances like the salsa, VanKirk said. The main difference between the tango and such Latin dances is the seven-count rhythm. Tango has less hip movements and the partners' bodies really have to slide and move together. In fact, she said that tango is more closely related to the waltz and the foxtrot.

“I love it because it’s sultry and it’s really dramatic,” she said.

The evolution of tango styles happened when the dance was first exported over to Europe and the United States, said John Dahlstrand, the stage manager and lighting designer for UA Dance.

Vernon and Irene Castle started teaching the dance in the U.S., but since tango had such a sensual reputation, the couple tended to sanitize the style and made it more upright, he explained. As the vocabulary of movement continued to be translated outside of Argentina, it went in a different direction.

Dahlstrand has an extensive background in the Argentine tango and said it continued developing as a social dance in South America where they kept the feeling of intimacy going. He had his first bite of tango when he saw the show "Tango Argentino" and was so inspired that he eventually started a tango performing company in Tucson in the early 90s.

“It was just this complete revelation of something utterly different than what I had ever seen in a ballroom studio,” he said.

To date, there are many different stories and theories about the true origins of the Argentine Tango.

One of the stories says that back in the late 19th century, Argentina was primarily male. Dahlstrand said in a situation like that, prostitution becomes a big part of the cultural landscape. Since men didn’t have a lot of women to dance with in the first place, they would dance with each other to entertain themselves while they were waiting for their favorite lady. Dahlstrand also said a man would do the tango with a woman and the steps they did would indicate the kind of “favors” they would like in their upcoming encounter.

“The fact that it was primarily a male thing has really driven the look of the dance,” Dahlstrand said.

He said there is a long tradition of men practicing with each other so they were competent when they went out on the dance floor to make a good impression on the women they were dancing with.

Dahlstrand said trying to explain his passion for tango is like asking him to explain why he loves someone. Though he found it nearly impossible to put into words, he expresses what the dance means to him below:


Photographs courtesy of Amy VanKirk.


Written by Hope Jamieson You are reading A Taste of Tucson Tango articles

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