Tango dance classes today present you with two different worlds:
1) Authentic Argentine Tango, which is the dance of Buenos Aires in Argentina. This is social, lead-and-follow, floor-dancing found today in Argentina, and indeed all over the world, and is intended to be danced at tango dance parties, called “Milongas.”
2) Ballroom Tango, which is what you study at most independent & franchised ballroom dance studios. This is danced at ballroom studio dances, and also in ballroom dance competitions.
Authentic Argentine Tango is the dance of Buenos Aires, and has its origins way back in the 19th Century. It originated in the working class tenements, called “conventillos.” These buildings typically would often have an inner courtyard, and after work people would gather there and play music and dance. They were poor working class people, and in an era before radio, television, the internet, etc., people had to make their own entertainment. Typically, someone would play a guitar, someone would play a flute, and someone would play a “bandoneon.” This is the concertina-like instrument invented in Germany around 1870 by Heinrich Band, and named in his honor.
Tango music is related to the “habanera” which refers to the city of Havana, Cuba. Sailors on steamships bound for South America would cross the Atlantic, and often the first port of call was Havana. Sailors on shore leave would pick up the musical traditions of Havana, and take them with them as their journeys continued down the coast of South America. They favored the bandoneon because this musical instrument could be played on the rolling decks of steamships at sea. At Buenos Aires, sailors would often jump ship, and take their music & instruments with them. This is one theory of how tango music came to be transplanted to Buenos Aires, and over the years & decades, it evolved & grew.
Ballroom Tango dancing is based on an early & vintage form of the dance: what tango looked like over a hundred years ago, before the 1st World War of 1914 – 1918. It was one of a number of dances that Vern & Irene Castle, together with other dance teachers in England, popularized in both Europe & New York around the years 1911 to 1914.
But tango continued to evolve & grow in Buenos Aires, and today the dance looks nothing like that early & primitive version. I have often thought that ballroom tango should be called “English Tango” and that the term “Argentine Tango” should be reserved for the dance of Buenos Aires (similar to the distinction between “English Waltz” and “Vienese Waltz”).
Today, Argentine Tango (the dance of Buenos Aires) has become an international, worldwide phenomenon!