With the turn of the 20th century, a new dance called the tango swirled out of Rio de la Plata’s teeming urban underclasses. It combined Spanish, Italian, and French steps remembered by poor European immigrants; the candombe beats brought by former slaves from their native Africa; and sensual moves beloved by ladies of the evening, who gathered dancers together in their Buenos Aires and Montevideo brothels, and gave birth to the most fiercely passionate dance in the world.
By the onset of WWI, the tango had gone global, thanks largely to singer Carlos Gardel, “El Zorzal Criollo,” whose international hit Mi Noche Triste inspired a global tango revolution. The dance has gone on to become one of the world’s most popular, reaching new artistic heights in Finland, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere.
Both Argentina and Uruguay remain protective of their precious tango; the government of Argentina’s website calls it by far the best Argentine contribution to the worldwide culture. Uruguay disagrees, as the two countries are engaged in a long-running, and appropriately dramatic, feud about where the original tango took place.
The two nations (briefly) set aside their differences to submit the “symbolic universe” of tango to UNESCO together. In 2009, UNESCO designated the dance part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage: “It is practiced in the traditional dance halls of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, spreading the spirit of its community across the globe even as it adapts to new environments and changing times. That community today includes musicians, professional and amateur dancers, choreographers, composers, songwriters, teachers of the art and the national living treasures who embody the culture of tango.”
Today, there are tango festivals all over the world, from Russia and China, to Turkey and Senegal. The most important takes place this week in Buenos Aires, the Tango Festival y Mundial de Baile, or Tango Festival and World Cup. It is indeed a global competition; in the magnificent 2009 competition, neither an Argentine nor Uruguayan couple took first place; that went to Hiroshi and Kyoko Yamao, a Japanese couple.
The crown was reclaimed in 2010 by an Argentine pair, but everything is on the line once again right now. More than 400 couples and some 500 musicians are engaged in heated—nay, red hot—competition for the 2011 Tango World Cup. Events are free to some 350,000 fans who turn out annually for the event.