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Tango Tangle

“In Argentina, Blacks do not exist. That is a Brazilian problem,” remarked Carlos Menem, the former president of Argentina. His problematic statement exemplifies the country’s tense relationship with race. Contrary to Menem’s statement, however, Afro-Argentines are inextricably linked to the country’s society through Argentina’s most popular national symbol: tango. Though the popularity of tango transcends national boundaries, its true influences remain tucked into a crevice of Argentina’s history. 

Unbeknownst to many who assume that tango is a product of the whiter aspects of Argentinian culture, the dance’s roots have distinctive Black origins. Indeed, Argentina’s history reveals a complex ideological and literal erasure of the Afro-Argentine presence. Tango can be used as a vehicle to critique the decentralization of racial narratives in Argentina and the country’s attempts to adapt the Black aesthetic in order to demonstrate its modernization to the rest of the world.

Over the past few centuries, there has been a steep decline in the number of people who identify as Afro-Argentine. In the 1810, 1822, and 1838 censuses, over 25 percent of the population identified as Black. However, in 1887, this number dropped to 1.8 percent. The census has not asked about race since, but a 2006 survey showed that only five percent of Argentines believe they have at least one Black ancestor. So, where did these Afro-Argentines go?

The answer lies in immigration patterns, historical perjury, and racial miscegenation. First, at the end of the 19th century, Argentina had one of the highest rates of European immigration, which drastically reduced the percentage of the population with African origins. Furthermore, census data is misleading: Many census recorders viewed Black communities as “undesirable” and avoided these areas when collecting data. Some Black communities also avoided census takers to escape draft selection. Moreover, even those surveyed are misrepresented. The census has only sporadically included “Afro-Argentine” as an option, and it does not consider how Argentina’s government has stretched the boundaries of whiteness. “White” in Argentina includes those who would be referred to as mulattos or mestizos in other countries, even for individuals who may identify as Afro-Argentine.

Ultimately, Argentina viewed white hegemony as the key to a brighter future in the hierarchy of the world. Jose Ingenieros, a Latin American sociologist, went so far as to argue that Europeanization of Argentina should be embraced because “by an inevitable law of sociology, the more highly evolved social organisms overcome the less evolved.” To the government, Afro-Argentines were not a part of this more modern future. 

Exploring the history of tango lends great insight into the cultural erasure of the Black community. The most direct ancestor of tango is candombe, a public dance performed by the neo-African societies of Buenos Aires. Candombe was an expression of solidarity—an effort to connect enslaved people taken from a variety of distinct African nations. The etymology of the word “tango,” as it is now known, is ambiguous, but Latin American historians generally agree that it signified the dancing done to drums. Thus, Argentines began to refer to tango as “black dancing” since drums were a popular instrument of candombe.

"The census has only sporadically included ‘Afro-Argentine’ as an option, and it does not consider how Argentina’s government has stretched the boundaries of whiteness."

However, as the number of Afro-Argentines declined, fewer Black Argentines performed the dance. Its tradition was extended instead through blackface, and candombe became a “mocking musical impression of blackness.” White performers danced what was once candombe in attempts to appropriate and redefine blackness, thus undermining the unity seen within the communities of enslaved Africans. In this respect, blackface performances played on tropes of Black people’s cultural traditions as being “backward” and comical, thereby associating Afro-Argentines with vice and barbarism.

At the start of the 20th century, the dance was still clandestine, limited to slums and brothels. Many Argentine men of the urban lower class attended these underground performances, eventually teaching their family members and spouses what they had learned. Soon, however, white, non-blackface performers entered into the genre, fusing candombe moves with the closed-couple choreography of the international ballroom scene. In turn, the dance evolved into its modern form—tango—and the middle class began to adopt it more publicly. 

Around 1910, tango became all the rage in Paris when white dancers toured internationally. This convinced “the polite society” of Argentina to finally appreciate the dance. Paris’ ability to radically transform negative perceptions of tango speaks to the larger socio-political dynamics between Latin America and Europe. Parisians were arbitrators of taste and gave tango the racial validation it needed to ascend from the masses to high society. As a former colony of Spain, Argentina sought to prove itself globally and immediately capitalized on this opportunity to market tango as a staple of its white pop culture, leaving the Afro-Argentines who gave rise to this dance in the shadows. 

Argentina and other countries did not borrow tango. Rather, the dance was stolen and reconstructed. The rise of tango alludes to a broader question: Why is Black culture often so attractive to white people? 

Well, tango’s appropriation yielded clear monetary benefits. The commodified blackness of tango was profitable for Argentina, as it granted the country global recognition in the entertainment industry. On a more profound level, tango allowed white Argentinians to defy the limits of their whiteness. Following the stereotyping of enslaved Africans as hypersexual and primitive, the “hip-driven undulations” of candombe were seen as bold displays of sexuality that starkly diverged from the more conservative dances of the elite society. Tango was appropriated to satiate the curiosity and demands of a modernizing, consumption-focused world. To dance tango was to experience, even if only briefly, the forbidden and exotic “Other.” However, the nationalization of blackness vis-á-vis tango did not change the fact that Black people remained at the periphery of the white Argentinian consciousness—they were still politically repressed and socially marginalized.

Ultimately, tango is now more than just a dance. It is a sustained, constructed imagination of progress and civilization that has been reproduced and normalized within Argentinian life. Tango’s abrasive, sharp, and sexy nature hints at not only the unapologetic erasure of Afro-Argentines, but also at the dependence of Argentine popular culture on its Black community.

Photo: Argentinian Dancers