Argentine tango is perhaps the most mysterious and alluring of all the social dances. Its basic structure – made up of walking steps – is simple, allowing great creativity in the movements and musical interpretation as well as requiring a deep connection with a partner. It is difficult to describe the intimacy and expression that Argentine tango allows, and yet many writers try to capture its essence in words the best they can, savoring this existential experience.
Christine Denniston succeeds in capturing some of this magic in The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Dance. Although the author focuses on the history, culture, and technique of the dance, she manages to do so in a way that does not divorce the important facts and figures from the “story.” Instead of offering an academic analysis of the dance’s history, Denniston attempts to demonstrate what the dance meant to those who danced it and how that meaning shaped the development of the dance itself.
Denniston’s information and inspiration comes from dancers who learned during the Golden Age of the tango in Buenos Aires – from about 1935 to 1955. Their experiences with the dance provide an interesting inside look into the history of the tango. Offering few dates and figures and more themes and anecdotes, the author weaves together an enticing portrait of what the tango meant to those who danced it and how their experiences shaped the technique that tango devotees spend hours learning and practicing today.
After providing an overview of some of the basic elements and relationships found within the dance, the author breaks down the fundamental techniques of the dance itself, from the embrace and basic walking steps to the cross and turning steps. Each technique is explained in simple language, emphasizing how the technique contributes to the meaning and purpose of the dance as explained in the context of history. Denniston places special emphasis on the connection between the leader and follower and how each technique contributes to that connection.
From the history and culture of Argentine tango to the relationship between meaning and technique, The Meaning of Tango offers an enjoyable read for complete beginners as well as tango enthusiasts. The book’s one major weakness is that although the author interviewed many Golden Age dancers for a unique perspective on the dance, she does not offer a single direct quote or experience from any of them. Hearing from these Golden Age dancers in their own words would have made the author’s message come alive even more. Despite this, however, Denniston offers an excellent devotional book on the history, the technique, and the meaning of the tango.