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After decades of dispute and mutual outcry of cultural piracy, Argentina and Uruguay can now at least rest assured that their beloved tango will forever bear the coveted world heritage status granted by the UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO.
The characteristic music steeped in nostalgia, lust and betrayal and its corresponding sensually aggressive dance steps were recently given protected status, along with several other nations’ cultural treasures.
The mention of tango usually conjures up images of somewhat frenetic and costumed partners whirling, kicking and lunging across the dance floor in a dramatically passionate embrace. This is known as show tango, and can be witnessed in both countries in a multitude of hotels, restaurants and bars specially catering to the curious visitor.
But the original tango, danced in milongas – traditional tango dance halls – is far less frenzied, waltz-like, and enjoyed by everyday folk both young and old.
Up until very recently both Argentina and Uruguay have vied to be recognized as the birthplace of this sultry dance. Argentineans claimed it emerged from the working class, inner-city slums of Buenos Aires, while Uruguayan nationals swore the dance was invented on their side of the River Plate, in Montevideo, by immigrants.
Whichever the case, it is safe to say that this blend of Spanish, African and central European rhythm and its associated dance evolved within the bordellos and slums of the port neighborhoods in and between Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the mid 19th century.
As often happens with subculture art, tango was eventually taken up enthusiastically by the middle and upper class in both countries and around the world, and by 1913 the wildly popular dance was found in elegant dance houses, no longer confined to the shadier sides of town.
Around this time folk singer Carlos Gardel recorded his famous first tango song, Mi Noche Triste, and cemented the now common association of tango with feelings of tragic love, as revealed in the lyrics.
Recently, with the possibility of safeguarding the traditions of tango against change or falling into obscurity, the two countries have learned, quite poetically, it takes two to tango. Recognizing their common cause, the nations cast aside their differences in favor of a united bid to UNESCO.
“While it’s good that tango is spreading around the world, alterations invariably begin to creep in. There are certain original elements that need to be preserved,” as Eduardo León Duter, director of culture for Montevideo’s city government, explains. “Obtaining UNESCO status implies a determination by both countries to implement preservation policies, such as training, diffusion and cataloguing.” On their unified front for the bid, “The dominant factor is that tango is something we share.”
Now that the passionate dance has been granted this protected cultural status by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee of Intangible Heritage, both countries are eligible to apply for financial assistance from a special UN fund for safeguarding cultural traditions. It also means both governments will be able to justify using public funds to help promote and preserve one of their most famous exports.
Catch The Tango During Your Argentina Vacations
Travelers to the region have long since been taken by the tango. The pedestrian-only street of Caminito in the multi-colored La Boca district of Buenos Aires is famous for featuring spontaneous tango demonstrations along its stone walkway. Here, visitors can stand back and admire the dancers, pose for a picture with them, and purchase tango-related memorabilia, along with wonderful pieces of art by Boca resident Benito Quinquela Martín who spent years repainting the street’s houses in the vivid colors that they are now known for.
There are also numerous authentic restaurants and bars throughout the city, usually tucked into non-assuming venues that betray the sultry glamour of what goes on inside them.
Bar de Roberto, on the corner of Bulnes and Peron in Almagro is frequented by seasoned aficionados and hosts impromptu gigs by guitarists and singers on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays after midnight.
At out-of-the-way bar/restaurant called Bar El Chino (Beazley 3566, Nueva Pompeya), heavily made-up divas strut their stuff as you dine on delicious Argentine steak.
One of Buenos Aires’ most attractive cafes, the historical Cafe Tortoni (Avenida de Mayo 829) comes alive with excellent shows of singers and bands on most weekends.
Dabble in wine tasting while you admire tango and other music style gigs at the Club del Vino (Cabrera 4737, Palermo Viejo), where the quintet led by maestro Horacio Salgan also performs on Fridays.
Travelers not content to simply sit back and watch can strap on their dancing shoes and head to one of the many milongas, or tango dance halls, for lessons. Don’t let the dingy exterior of San Telmo’s Centro Cultural Torcuato Tasso (Defensa 1575) deceive you; – fantastic dancing takes place here almost every night and gigs range from old-style orchestras to Daniel Melingo and his quartet.
If searching for a slightly hipper alternative, La Catedral (Sarmiento 4006, Almagro) is ideal for dancers of all levels, and host Omar Viola is a tango maestro.
Finally for those on a tight schedule, consider booking an evening Tango dinner and dance excursion with a good Argentina tours operator.
Whether you’re looking to admire from a distance or personally partake in the experience, almost countless opportunities exist to enjoy tango during your Argentina vacations. And thanks to the joint effort by neighboring countries Argentina and Uruguay, and the subsequent protected status bestowed by UNECO, visitors to the area will be able to find this dance in its most authentic form for many years to come.

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