Argentine tango

The National Book of Argentina

Every culture seems to have its National Writer or National Book.  England has Shakespeare (and the US borrows him as the emblem of writerly perfection, at least until they decide that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and stop dicking around), Italy has Dante (who had Virgil) and so forth.  Moving to the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is similar.  Spain has Cervante’s Don Quixote.  Perú has the wonderful Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia, García Márquez.

But what about Argentina, my own land?

Ask a foreigner and, if he knows a little about literature, he would say “Borges” without hesitation… but that isn’t necessarily true, even though I wish it were, since Borges represents everything that’s good about Argentine culture.  Hell, they even passed him over for the Nobel Prize for the right reasons despite now being considered an embarrassing error on the part of the committee.

But there is one book that Argentines consider the national book, and it isn’t by Borges.  It’s by a man called José Hernández, and it’s a poem. (Yes, we do poetry here sometimes).

Martin Fierro José Hernández

Yes, the Martin Fierro (always referred to as “the” Martin Fierro, never just Martin Fierro) is the book that Borges pointed to when he said that Argentina has at least one work of great literature.  Everyone else in the country can name it.  It’s the ONLY work of Argentine literature that everyone can name, and would be the very first book most people would name.

Better still, it speaks to the very soul of the country.  Not only to the people from the ranches and farms, whose life int eh mid 19th century it describes so well, but you can also, in the fatalist view and the celebration of suffering as the only real road to becoming a man, see the roots of the art form that most people would associate with the country: tango.

I recently quoted a line that said that only in Buenos Aires can sadness be turned into an art form… but it isn’t exactly true.  Martin Fierro did it half a century earlier.  It’s something I’ve always hated about the national character, that we dwell on the negative so much (I tend to look at positive stuff much more than negative, so I end up in endless arguments).

Other than being a paean to suffering, this book is actually quite good.  Entertaining (he isn’t suffering from imaginary ills and persecutions, but very real ones), true to its time (PC crusaders will need to avert their gazes) and reflecting the politics of its time without bothering to be overtly political or naming names (something the great Dante would have been well advised to do).

It’s been used as a battle flag by everyone including anarchists, but it’s not really that kind of book.  It’s more of an ode to the gaucho life and the kind of men it forms, and even ends on a reasonably hopeful note.  The politics of the day are long gone, but we can still identify with the characters.  And that is timeless.

Finally, a technical note.  The Martin Fierro, like the Quixote (again, if you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of Spanish speakers, remember it’s “the Quixote”) before it, consists of two books.  If you only read the first, you’ll miss a lot of what people are talking about when they mention it.

Anyway, grab a copy and get to know the Argentine soul.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who writes about the world, and the things that make everyone similar–as thrown into sharp relief by the things that make us different.  If you like to read about people like you from different parts of the world dealing with problems that wouldn’t happen to you, then his science fiction and fantasy collection Off the Beaten Path will probably make you very happy.  You can have a look at it here.

Tango for Export

Astor Piazzolla, Flores, ciudadencolor

Tango Week continues here on Classically Educated and, as they say, it takes two…  Today’s guest post has been written by two people who learned the dance far from its traditional home, and who can give us the perfect complement to Alex’s Tuesday post: the view from outside of Argentina.

Our first guest poster prefers to be known only by his WordPress sobriquet: iwasforcedtoregister.  Our second, Alejandro, was born in San Juan, in the northwest of Argentina. He did his undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering in the Universidad Nacional de San Juan, and his graduate studies in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Even though he is currently working as a postdoctorate scientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, he is already looking for Professor positions within Europe.

Alejandro gives complimentary tango lessons at the EPFL to everyone willing to explore this part of his heritage. He also participated in the organization of the 2013 Tangofolies de Lausanne festival as artistic director. Currently, Alejandro is also looking into exploring a new facet of the tango world. He made his debut as a singer during the 6th Bergen tango marathon, in Norway, and he does not waste opportunity to sing whenever he goes to a tango event.

One of the best things I got from tango was the friendships. At the top of the list is Alejandro Aragón, from whom I am now separated by an ocean, but with whom I constantly connect to discuss different events in our lives, although we inevitably end up talking about tango.

We both had a similar introduction to tango. We are both Argentines who were brought up in Baby-Boomer households where the predominant artists were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones instead of D’Arienzo or Troilo. We both left Argentina in our late 20s to get our Master’s degrees (different states in the US) without really paying any attention to the genre, until one night, thousands of miles and years apart, each one of us were listening to  a song we probably heard several times before when something suddenly clicked. Maybe it was just regular nostalgia, but this music, that once felt ancient and dated, resonated with all the frustrations and loneliness of our immigrant experience like nothing else ever did before or since. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were hooked.


Our Tango experience differed from most Argentines because it started outside Argentina in, of all places, the US. It’s not the fact that not everyone understands the lyrics, but it does start with the fact a few come into it with the lens of years of watching or practicing ballroom tango, which is as close to Argentine tango as figure skating is to ballet. If that were not enough, with the distortion of distance, some people here resort to YouTube videos in order to imitate that spectacular step sequence they saw in a tango show in Buenos Aires (which was choreographed for foreign audiences). Moreover, some of the great traveling Argentine teachers who come here are encouraged to spend their rime teaching as many steps as possible. Steps, steps, steps, steps; as if tango was nothing more than a coordinated dance routine, where acrobatics is the equivalent of technique. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification since there are also some genuine “tangueros” here, but you get the point. What is exactly the same in every milonga around the world is the oxymoron of a relaxed atmosphere while drinking with friends, coupled with a scrupulous scrutiny of other’s technique, love life, and whatnots.

So, what is Real Tango*? What beginners and outsiders have in common is that the former will give you a meticulous definition, and the latter a confused one, but both will be ultimately wrong. Advanced dancers will usually say one word: ”Uf… “ and switch to a different topic (within tango, of course).

What everyone feels in tango is that bliss, that adrenaline filled dance that ends with a strong connection with the other person, and although you probably won’t remember what steps you performed, you will remember that dance; and believe you me, that feeling has such a high intensity that it will shake you to your core and you will mistake it with love, passion, and anything and everything that feels worthy and powerful. It will create a hole that cannot be filled with anything else and you will look to repeat that feeling, which as technique improves, it becomes more scarce but more intense too, and you will spare no money for classes, no distance will be too far to find a decent partner, and sleep will become an overrated commodity. In other words, you will become a tango junkie. It happened to Alejandro, and now that tango occupies a major part of his life he is becoming a recognizable character in some European tango cities. It happened to me, although this addictive circle full of happiness and bad habits was broken by the most wonderful person on earth, a tango-heathen who is now my wife, who was the only person capable of filling that hole I had in me, which now I realize was only uncovered, but not created, by tango. And if you were wondering, this effect also happens to these few miscarried US tango dancers as well, although every time it happens it sends them marching double time towards their mecca of unlimited cool tango moves.

Yet, they are mistaken. That’s the conclusion both Alejandro and I reached, after spending our obliged time learning “steps to impress”, as we both later understood that tango is not about the show.

For me, tango became an emotional outlet, a psychologist to whom I withhold no secret and hid no vulnerability, where without words I offered every 3 minute partner a simple proposal: “I will give myself entirely to this moment with no regards to where the song will take me physically or emotionally, come with me.”  I can remember every time someone accepted wholeheartedly. Steps never mattered, because it was never about trying to amaze people on the sidelines who will never be able to guess what happened in that dance. It’s not about anything you are trying to express or communicate, as your partner will probably never guess what’s going on inside your head (unless you are trying to be creepy) and if there’s anything you are trying to say, it will probably interfere with the dance. The “tango high” is all about that physical and emotional un-choreographed synch which is built on both absolute trust and absolute abandon.


Still, I wanted validation, and what I got from my friend was an article he wrote that was published in a tango magazine that was almost, but not exactly, entirely unlike my definition. The following is his article:

“What is tango? I was asked during a radio interview in Switzerland. And I stayed there… without being able to say anything. Because saying that tango is a just a feeling or passion would be the most unfair thing I could have said. In the end I don’t even remember what I said. But then I wondered why I couldn’t say anything, and I concluded that not answering was much better than saying something empty. I concluded that I couldn’t say anything because I just can’t summarize in a sentence or two what tango means to me. And now, alone, I ask myself the same question…

Tango is the shelter I find from a system that imprisons almost everyone, where to engage you have to follow exactly what you have been taught since your childhood. It is the escape from the stress produced by that system, where my mind can finally disconnect and think only about feeling and producing passions.

Tango is the legacy of the masters, who left us so much by just following their vocation. It’s that internal struggle between D’Arienzo and Di Sarli, which shows two sides of me, very different but equally vehement. It’s that violin solo put by Pugliese from time to time that gives me goosebumps.

Tango is her, the woman to whom I taught the dance. To whom one day I couldn’t teach anymore and with whom I started to grow. The woman who marked me for life, and who will be always remembered every time I hear Poema. The woman who one day, after splitting because of differences, said to me: thanks for giving me tango.

Tango is them, the boys, who share what I feel but who don’t know how to express it other than with a lápiz or a parada. The wizards who draw, and those who try but still enjoy. Those who constantly come with stories that are woven between tanda and cortina. Those who laugh while dancing, and those who suffer when listening the lyrics, and those who seduce and are driven by feelings.

Tango is my homeland, which I miss so much, but to which I can’t return because it has betrayed us so many times. The city I try to come back from time to time to reduce the nostalgia. The land by which I try to be worthy emissary, wasting no opportunity to hold the blue and white high.

But above all this, for me tango is that insatiable quest for harmony. A search that sometimes forces me to travel because I can’t find what I’m looking for where I live. Harmony that seems to come across in that tanda for which I’ll smile in the coming weeks. It is the search for that woman, who still does not come into sight, the woman I’ve searched for my entire life and who seems to hide between giro and adorno in a remote milonga somewhere in the world I haven’t visited yet. That woman with the sublime embrace that I haven’t felt just yet, but which I would recognize immediately, for I would have finally found the harmony that I pursue”

So even though we started our tango journey in the path of “exported tango”, I know we are both starting to understand it as if we would have studied in Buenos Aires. Because when you find yourself immersed so deep you neither know nor care which way is up, you don’t need to follow someone else’s definition of tango, you’ve made it your own. (Unless, of course, you still think it’s about steps).


milonga san telmo

(*) Real Tango©, as observed and approved exlusively by the legitimate, quasi-independent and virtually irreconcilable, pontific milongas of San Telmo, Almagro, Uquiza, et al; and, under no exception, prohibited from copying, reproducing, modifying, distributing, displaying, performing, or be merely stated or implied, without written consent, outside the boundaries of formerly mentioned sacred entities. Amen.

Tango: The Forgotten Argentine Passion


Our guest post today is written by Alex Vidal, an Argentine tango enthusiast who, despite the short time he has been involved in the tango scene, has already begun to make a huge impact, having his own shows – both singing AND dancing.  Here, he gives us an insider’s view of what tango means to some, what it should mean to many, and most especially, the place it should have in Argentine, and probably world, culture.  I’m sure he’ll be delighted to respond where you can see him sing or dance, if you leave a comment!

When trying to figure out where to begin talking about this, I endlessly perused many articles describing the origins of tango, it’s peculiarities, musical form, dance history, how it become a huge success during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s in Argentina thanks to the advent of radio and such, and finally decided  not to summarize the history of tango in a nutshell but rather tell you about it from a different perspective.

Tango is a passionate form of art: it expresses emotion, sorrow, and evokes deep feelings. When sung, the music, the beautiful poetry in the lyrics, and the singer’s expression can have a huge impact on the listener, either because of the sheer beauty of the piece by itself or the reminiscence of evoked past experiences.

Dancing a tango is also a unique experience: there is no dance in the world that can connect two people the way tango does. It is an extremely sensual dance, an implicit wooing that demands both giving in to your dance partner and, at the same time, showing your worth to him or her as a dancer.


A great video of Carlos Gavito, one of many Tango dance legends, can be seen here.


Having enjoyed its golden age a bit over sixty years ago, tango nowadays struggles to stay alive. There is very little air time for tango on radios or television, and the politicians only devote themselves to Tango when it serves the proper tourism-related purpose. This is the main reason behind non-thriving Tango artists and lack of interest from the Argentinean population itself. The art still survives though, mainly in the form of milongas, a type of social gathering where Tango-lovers assist to dance to the music of treasured recordings, listen to good music, have a good meal or just hang out with friends. The milongas, once the most popular social event in Buenos Aires, date from the time when Tango was the undisputed king and many tango bands (usually called “orquesta tipica”) played live music to the delight of everyone present. The recordings played nowadays in a typical milonga are almost entirely those left by those popular Tango orchestras of yore. However, every once in a while, a live tango orchestra performs in a milonga, stirring up memories from the ‘good old days’.

Contemporary Tango artists mainly survive thanks to the tango-for-export concept: carefully produced and choreographed tango shows that tour all over the world, usually performing with live orchestras and professional dancers and singers. Consecrated Tango dance masters also tour, teaching seminars and exhibiting their talents in world milongas. For a very long time this has been the best way to earn a living as a Tango artist. And, for all we know, it will continue to be so until Argentinean authorities decide to assign Tango the place it deserves in the country’s cultural agenda.

But Tango is not all about the music. It is a proven fact that tango is beneficial for your health: It increases testosterone levels, concentration, coordination and stability. It has also proven to be very effective as a complementary treatment for patients with mild or severe dysfunctions of the nervous system.


It all comes down to your own taste, but let me assure you that once tango enters your life you become addicted to it. It took me almost thirty-four years to truly discover what Tango can give you, so it’s never too late to start. I’ve been dancing tango for almost four years now, and also been singing for a year, so I can say I’ve truly become a Tango junkie.

Tango was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009 so it might strike you as odd that Argentina is still paying so little attention to its own child. Tango is admired and respected worldwide. Maybe it’s time the folks at home did the same.