IT is said to have originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires, as a sort of dirty waltzing for the girls and their waiting clients along the mighty Rio de la Plata, while its musical and stylistic roots came from both the African and European immigrants who lived in the city in the late 1800s.
And by the turn of the last century it had arrived in Paris, taking Europe and the rich middle classes by storm. Now the tango is getting Edinburgh more than hot under the collar. For the sexy dance has become the latest way to spend the evening. Forget ballet or ballroom, all over the city people - with or without roses clenched between their teeth - are taking up the steamy South American moves.
"Tango is becoming amazingly popular," says Morag Deyes, artistic director at Dance Base in Edinburgh, which runs classes in the louche moves. "It is an intense, sexy and sultry dance where you move quite slowly and hold your partner very close. One of the most beautiful things about it is you are meant to dance with your heart touching your partner’s and it’s done to wonderful gypsy-style music.
"There has been a massive upsurge in interest in tango recently as a result of the film Moulin Rouge. In one of the scenes which features a re-working of the Police hit Roxanne, the dance routine is based on tango and it was beautifully choreographed." In fact, so popular is tango, that it’s overtaken the other South American dances such as the salsa and the merengue, which had captivated Edinburgh’s movers and groovers for some years. It’s even being used by the BBC in its new "dancing" segments in between programmes.
Morag says: "It’s a gliding, walking dance where you slide across the floor and then the woman will entwine her legs with the man’s. It’s very different from salsa which is far more jerky and fast and not nearly as laid back. I think of it as the grown-up sexy aunt of salsa which is more like a little child with lots of energy."
Of course, the tango is also one dance where the man is the most important ingredient - indeed Argentinian dance teachers will tell pupils the "woman is slave to the man and the music."
Ricardo Oria, who teaches the dance all over Scotland, is not so sure. "Tango is all about freedom of the mind, body and spirit," he says. "There are no rules, it is all improvisation. It is magical as from a few basic steps you can create amazing movement with your partner."
Ricardo first learnt to tango at the age of 13 and nine years later he left his hometown of Buenos Aires, where he studied at the University of Tango, to come to Scotland. He now teaches weekly classes and even performed for the Prince of Wales (who has said he loves to tango) at the opening of Dance Base’s new building in the Grassmarket in October 2001.
However, his main claim to fame is his slot on the BBC where he struts his Latin stuff alongside other tango experts.
He says: "I love everything about tango. All dancing is fun but with tango there is always something new to learn. There are over 12 million people living in Buenos Aires and I think that about three million of them tango regularly."
The best thing about the tango though, according to Toby Morris, the man behind the Edinburgh Tango Society, is that you don’t have to be a great dancer to enjoy it, as it’s essentially a walking form of dance where the body stays erect and the legs do most of the work.
He believes the social aspect of the dance is also what draws many people to signing up - it was, he says, what inspired him and his wife to get involved six years ago.
"By the time our children got to the ages of 12 and 13 we found ourselves sitting in the house waiting for them all the time, so we decided to find a new activity to try that wasn’t a sport," says the 53-year-old who works in computing at Edinburgh University. "Tango is nothing like the pre-determined steps of ballroom dancing. It’s much more fun and a great way to enhance your social life."
Since then, he has gone on to launch the society, whose classes he says are becoming increasingly well attended. "We are extremely well organised and managed in Edinburgh and our society run six classes a week in the Counting House above the Pear Tree bar in the Southside," he says.
"The length of classes depend on ability, as does the charge, but some are completely free. We do charge a 10 subscription fee and that includes a CD of suitable music with which to practice. We have hundreds of subscribers and we also organise regular dances which are sort of like tango ceilidh."
Dance Base also runs three tango classes per week that cater for all abilities and attract in excess of 100 people. Unsurprisingly, with the upsurge in interest all the classes are currently full. However, the new term starts in April and costs 40 for a ten-week course with each class lasting an hour.
According to Morag, another reason for tango’s popularity is the general trend in people using dance classes to replace a trip to the gym. Rather than sweating it out on a treadmill staring at a TV screen, they would rather keep fit and do something pleasurable at the same time.
"Dancing is a great alternative form of exercise," Morag points out. "But it helps you develop as a person too, not just a body. You are being sociable and experiencing new cultures plus getting fit at the same time. And it’s very addictive - once you see how good you can feel after dancing you’ll be hooked."
Carol Ann Stephenson, a radiographer at the Western General Hospital, is also a dance teacher with Edinburgh University’s Hispanic Society and helps organise its monthly Fiesta Latina, a night of music and dance held at the Teviot on Bristo Square.
"Tango requires co-ordination and is just as good for your muscles and heart as a workout at the gym.
"Dancing is especially good for your legs and bottom and it helps you to de-stress and unwind at the end of a hard day. It also gives you a healthy social life," she says.
But besides all that says Ricardo, tango gives you passion in your life. "Tango is not just a dance. It is a connection between two people in a beautiful pas de deux."
For more information on tango classes call Dance Base on 0131-225 5525 or click on to edinburghtango.org.uk. Or call Cuba Norte on 0131-221 0499
History of the tango
IN 1880, Buenos Aires had a population of 210,000. By 1910, that number had risen to 1.2 million and it was during those years that the tango is believed to have been born.
New railroads brought livestock off the vast pampas, to be slaughtered and refrigerated in the (mainly English) meat-packing plants in Buenos Aires. These boom days brought European immigrants - chiefly Italians, Spaniards, French and Germans - in droves to settle on the edge of the city.
The fencing-off of the pampas, and the mechanisation of livestock transport, brought displaced gauchos, or cowboys, to the city. The immigrants, uprooted from their home continent, and the cowboys, met in Buenos Aires. The cowboys brought their guitars and their music of Spanish origin, while the new immigrants brought their ability to read and write music, a broader array of instruments, and Italian opera traditions. At some stage the bandoneon arrived from Germany, and the instrument for playing hymns was turned into something more expressive.
Gradually, the tango spread from the urban fringes, through the suburbs, to the centre of Buenos Aires. It was helped on its way by payadores - street singers with barrel-organs. Initially men danced together - there were few women on the streets where dancing took place - but tango inevitably moved to where they could be found, in the brothels. It is said the women could chose their clients by their dancing skill - the man had three dances to prove himself!
The dance and music gradually moved up the social scale, being picked up by the sons of the rich who preferred to spend their time in the less salubrious parts of their city.
Soon, these sons of Argentina were making their way to Paris, centre of the cultural and entertainment world. They introduced the tango into a society eager for innovation, and not entirely averse to the raunchy nature of the dance, especially as taught by the dashing, rich Latin boys who brought it. In 1913, the tango had spread from St Petersburg to New York
By the start of the First World War, the tango was beginning to push out other popular styles of dance. Between 1910 and 1920, 5500 records were issued, half of them tangos.
Now, the tango is reviving again. Daniel Melingo, one of a younger generation of tango musicians, says: "Throughout its history you hear that tango is finished. People talk as if it’s their own youth that’s over. That feeds the nostalgia for tango, and in turn generates new expressions of dance, music and song. Tango will never be finished."