All right, everyone. Fingers on your buzzers. It’s quiz time.
In which country did the tango originate?
If you said “Argentina,” you’re only half right. For full points, you’d need to answer “Argentina and Uruguay.” The two countries used to squabble over where it developed, but, in 2009, they applied together to UNESCO to have the dance added to the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” list.
To make the history of tango more tangible to tourists, Montevideo built a tiny museum on the site of the dance club where La Cumparsita, the classic tango tune, was debuted in 1917 (if you think you don’t know La Cumparsita, you actually do: give it a listen on this turn of the century player, located at the museum.)
The tango overcame its early associations with the sexuality of the lower classes to become a sophisticated, elegant dance popular around the world, and often lampooned. We saw videos at the museum of Japanese and Chinese tango dancers, and even an old Tom and Jerry cartoon in which Tom tangoes unwillingly with the dog who had been pursuing him.
Several days after our museum experience, we snagged a lunch table outside a busy downtown restaurant called Bar Facal. Established in 1882, it is the oldest bar in downtown Montevideo. As we waited for our lunch to arrive, a young woman joined a young man at the table across from ours and began to change from runners into red spike heels. I assumed she was arriving to start her shift as a server.
But then, the couple got to their feet, a recorded accordion and violin tune began to play, and they tangoed: wow, did they tango.
When the performance was done, the woman asked where we were from. She’d noticed us taking pictures while most other people passed by with hardly a glance. “Uruguayans don’t appreciate tango because they’re used to it. After I graduate from the National Dance School, I’m going to France.”
I suppose it’s natural not to value traditions that are so tightly woven into your national fabric, you don’t even notice them anymore. So I’m glad that the tango is forever protected on the UNESCO heritage list and that two young dancers are keeping it alive on the streets of Montevideo for those of us who still admire its exotic performance.