Much about the origins of the tango dance is unclear, but most agree the term initially applied to the place where African slaves would meet Argentinians to dance during the first half of the 1800s. Because most who danced were slaves, intermingling socially with both natives and European immigrants, the dances occurred in the poorest neighborhoods. Most immigrants to Argentina at the time were young men, hoping to make their fortunes and then move back to Europe or bring their families.
By the middle of the century, the tango was well-known and included aspects of many European dances as well. It was common for barmaids to use the dance as a type of mating ritual, with their late-night drinkers. Gang members would use the steps in hopes of gaining enough skill to get attention by women as well.
Thus, because of these associations and the sexual overtones, high Argentine society snubbed it, even as it spread to neighboring countries and cities. Around the turn of the twentieth century, rich young men, bored with high society, began to look for adventure and found themselves in the poor neighborhoods. Hoping to find excitement, they learned the tango in order to take it to Paris to show their friends.
Worldwide immigration increased prior to World War I, and the dance took over in Paris, then America and the rest of Europe where new crowds embraced it. This pressured those high-born Argentinians who had rebuffed it to embrace it in the name of national pride.
The spread of the tango brought about Argentina’s rise to position among the top 10 richest countries worldwide, and it was used widely in movies during the 1920s and 1930s. Following the worldwide craze, the dance was elevated in Argentina as well, becoming part of upper class courting customs.
Musicians went from disdained to esteemed, often booked a year in advance. Neighborhoods engaged in dance competitions often until the wee hours of the morning, which resulted in riots and required law enforcement’s help to restore order. Then, during the 1950s, the dance became synonymous with political subversion and was forced underground due to new rules suppressing public gatherings.
The younger generation brought it out into the open again in the 1980s when democracy took over. It was reintroduced in Paris in a stage show about European revival that then toured worldwide. Still a popular dance to learn, versions danced today in ballrooms have toned down the suggestivity.