Tango and the Missing Link

By Jean-Pierre Sighé


Tango was created in the brothels of Buenos Aires! This is the assertion generally trumpeted to any Tango student who opens the door to this new world, eager to learn and fascinated by the beauty and sophistication of the dance. As newcomers they don’t ask challenging questions and are willing to take a lot by faith. It is true that the idea of such beautiful art form being shaped in the brothels carries a fascination of its own and provides many subjective impressions and imaginations that might encourage the studying of the dance itself. Therefore, the status quo has been enthusiastically adopted by default. To me, such assertion, when I first read about it, immediately provoked the logical follow-up questions as to HOW was that possible? In other words, what was the process by which Tango was actually generated in the brothels?


If Tango was purely and simply created in the brothels of Buenos Aires, used as foreplay to sexual encounters, as often described, then perhaps, we could reasonably expect other dance forms to have been created in other brothels around the world. After all, brothels exist for the same human reasons, wherever they are created. The same reasons should then, in the global identical human context, imply and generate the same results, or at the very least, very similar results. The fact is that there has not been any other dance anywhere in the world, generated or created with that model. An honest inquiry must then, logically, encourage anyone eager to know, to research for other ingredients that favored the creation of Tango in the brothels of Buenos Aires, that is, if one would accept it as a given. It has not been my case.

The aforementioned assertion tends to emphasize the “brothel” as an important ingredient to the creation of Tango. Does it mean that men who went to the brothels with their sexual needs, instantly started walking a certain way, executing pivots, taking the beautiful creatures of the brothels in their arms and making them instantly walk the Tango walk and do the ganchos and hooks...etc? Was their erection instrumental to the new behavior? What could have possibly inspired Tango in the brothels? My inquisitive mind went to work and as I started doing some research on the matter, some few things came to light and the story began to make more sense. Quite a different story though! Let’s walk the path together here.

Tango is a word from one of the African languages, from the Basin of Congo. Tango meant to the descendants of African slaves in Buenos Aires: “The place of gathering” or “the place of coming together”. They had mixed up their African rhythmic structures with the other European dances they saw around them (Fox-trot, Waltz), as they executed their Candombe. Candombe, yet another African word, meant “The people we are” from which the Milonga and the Canyengue directly derived, is itself a mix of the Habanera from Cuba, brought to Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Montevideo (Uruguay) by the descendants of the Cuban slaves and is an African rhythm. That African rhythm is called different names depending on where you are on the continent or in the Diaspora in general. It is Merengue! Merengue has generated Cumbia, Calypso (and more recently the Soca), Beguine (and more recently the Zook).

To this initial rhythm, the creative minds of these great African dancers in Buenos Aires, injected the other dances they saw thus generating a totally new dance art form. By the way, this phenomenon of mixing up different rhythms to create new ones is not new. In Cameroon (West and Central Africa) for instance, the popular Makossa (that has crossed the Cameroonian borders into the international stage) is a combination of three distinct rhythms from three very different tribes in Cameroon. The rhythms are : Ambassibey, Essewe and Assiko. The particularity here is that these three different rhythms must be mixed up (in a certain way) to produce the Makossa beat.


Similar creations deriving from the mixture of different elements, have taken place in the modern time: Rock n’ roll, Jazz and more recently the Rap.


It is important to keep in mind that we are here talking about a group of people who have been taken away from their natural environment, in a totally foreign land and who, deep inside are longing to remain connected to the deepest part of themselves in the face of very terrible conditions of discrimination and racism and so forth. Dancing and chanting and playing their drums remains the magical connection to their land and therefore to themselves. It is an important thing to them to keep that connection, both as individuals and also as a group. So, they simply name the place where they gather to do their dancing and experimentation by using one of the languages of their distant land. They call it Tango!

They don’t just meet to dance. It goes deeper... far deeper than that. It is in the sense of an incantation context where the gesture is added to the verb to keep the mind and the spirit psychically focused and aligned. “The place of gathering”... yes, but also the place of “Tuning up”, or a “place of atonement”. The content hence begins to bear the name of the container and the place becomes the rite itself. Tango, the dance art form is thus created or to be more precise, projected!


Although racism is prevalent around them, these Africans also have great friends and acquaintances in the other communities. Although they are excluded from the Whites communities, they do have some great people who are fair minded and who enjoy coming to Tango to be entertained. Some of the steps invented are thus taught to these admirers.

Later, in the Whites halls of Buenos Aires, these steps and manners with which they are danced are mimicked and passed along to other dancers. At first ridiculed, but little by little adopted as they are more fun to experiment with.


As Tango makes its way into the Whites halls of Buenos Aires, it couldn’t be called anything but what its originators have called it. Let’s think about this for a moment.

Given the strong racism, given the “untouchable” status of these African descendants, the Whites halls could not have volunteered to name something of their own invention in the African language (of all languages!). In fact, quite the contrary has always happened where the African or indigenous name would be summarily changed for a European word. For the Whites halls to call whatever they are doing, in the African language, it ought to have been the same thing that the Africans have called Tango. Otherwise, the Whites halls would have called their own activity differently. So, Tango was Tango as Jazz is Jazz, as Rap is Rap, regardless of who is experimenting with it. In other words, the character of Tango was ALREADY well defined, making it impossible to call it anything else, but Tango. That is why and how Tango entered the Whites halls in its original name.


It has been amusing to me to often read that the creation of Tango has so many missing pages. The instinct to always use the other phony answer to pertinent questions by stating: “nobody really knows for sure how it started”, has been so common and never challenged. In other words, people have been willing to accept as normal, that events that took place on earth several centuries ago could be well documented and kept intact for future generations. But the same people, all of a sudden when it comes to Tango, something very recent ( a century is nothing!), are comfortable with the idea that whole pages of its history are missing. How could that be? I came to the unavoidable conclusion that these pages have been purposefully hidden or destroyed by some who wanted very much to deny due credit to the African descendants of Buenos Aires.

I am grateful to people such as Robert Farris Thompson who brings to truth to light in his book “Tango : The Art History of Love” or someone like Jean Arsene Yao, who compiled some great information about the History of Tango in its social context in Buenos Aires in his “ Negros en Argentina: integracion y identidad”. These honest people along with some few others have dared to challenge the darkness of immense ignorance and profound injustice. It takes a lot of courage to rock the boat! It also takes intellectual honesty and integrity to state the facts and to let the chips fall where they may. Such courage, I salute with great respect.


Despite the tremendous effort by some to veil the truth, the facts will remain very stubborn. The Milonga will always contain the unchangeable African beat! Tango will always channel its initial rituals to whoever comes in contact with it. It is a matter of vibrations where the initial thoughts and intentions are forever engraved in an indelible pantheist watermark.

The sensual nature of the intimate and intense communication between partners that Tango provides, made it the most attractive dance to be introduced in the brothels to induce and facilitate the sexual activities. The owners of the business didn’t care about the genesis of Tango. They only saw a tool to enhance their businesses. It is easy to see how and why Tango finally entered the brothels of Buenos Aires. From there it became more and more popular, understandably so.

To claim that Tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires, is to overly simplify an interesting process to a gross caricature. It is at best telling only a third of the whole story. The question becomes: why not tell the whole story that is actually more interesting and filled with complex excitements? It is my belief that if the simple story about Tango is told in its integrity, people would actually learn it more efficiently as they would be immediately connected to its source, right from the start. If I may go back to my Cameroonian example about Makossa, I would also reveal that Cameroon has more than 200 tribes living together. People have over the years shared their cultures and dances and rhythms with each other. When the time comes to dance on a rhythm from a different tribe, people instantly know that they must espouse the attitudes and idiosyncrasies of the people from that specific tribe. They do this automatically. Otherwise, they know, they would only dance the steps and not be in the spirit of the rhythm.

The same is applicable in Tango. The steps, although important are just a small part of the story. They only imperfectly express the essence of Tango. There is a link, there is a “magical” thread that connects the participant to the original “Place of gathering”. It is a beautiful spiritual place. The path to that holy place, is the gift of Life, Love and Light. Those who have been working very hard to sustain the confusion and the fuzziness about the true story of Tango will undoubtedly go into a more frantic mode as the Light comes shining through. Eventually, the truth will prevail, as it always does and Tango, the “Place of gathering”, will continue to offer its open arms to those who manage to come to the ritual.


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