China and Argentina: It takes two to tango

Li Qian
Though tango is an icon of Argentina, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma once called it a "combination of many cultures." That is certainly true in the land of his heritage.
Li Qian
Shot by Li Qian and Jiang Xiaowei. Edited by Li Qian. Subtitles by Li Qian.

Think tango and Argentina automatically comes to mind. Or perhaps Uruguay, Havana or even Paris. But China?

No wonder then former Argentine cultural attaché Juan Manuel Cortelletti stopped in his tracks in Beijing's Ritan Park several years ago when he came across a group of older women doing a Chinese-style line dance called guangchangwu.

"It was very similar to the tango in style," he said.

Guangchangwu, sometimes also called Chinese line dancing, is actually a hodge-podge of dance styles that are very popular, especially with millions of Chinese "grannies" who do outdoor dancing in parks and squares.

"It's so incredible," Cortelletti wrote in the preface to "El Auge del Tango in China," by tango researcher Ou Zhanming. "Argentina only has 40 million people. That is to say, people who may be dancing the tango or some variation in China – including those not conscious of the connection – outnumber our national population!"

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Guangchangwu, or Chinese line dancing, is actually a hodge-podge of dance styles that are very popular, especially with millions of Chinese "grannies" who do outdoor dancing in parks and squares.

The parallel could be just coincidental, but China indeed has embraced the dance, according to Ou, a Chinese researcher at the national tango research institute of Argentina.

"It's the Year of the Tiger, and in Chinese culture the tiger is associated with daring exploration and regal dignity," Ou told Shanghai Daily. "That might describe the tango."

He noted that renowned Argentine tango bandoneon player Eduardo Arolas is known as the "tiger of the bandoneon."

Argentine tango dancer Juan Martin Berthier finds similarities between the tango and tai chi, the ancient Chinese exercise system, citing a common mindset and feeling.

Chinese photographer Zhao Hui, who exhibited his images in Buenos Aires in 2018, compares the tango with Kunqu Opera.

"Both Kunqu Opera and tango are important pieces of cultural heritage and have great artistic power," he stated. "Kunqu Opera is graceful and restrained, while the tango is passionate and untrammeled – highlighting differences in cultures and lifestyles."

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Ti Gong

A tango festival in Beijing in 2021

The tango, a seductive dance that dates back to the late 19th century, started in working-class neighborhoods in the Rio de la Plata region between Argentina and Uruguay. Its popularity has since spread globally, as have its many variations.

"The way you feel is the way you dance," Berthier said. "Everyone can dance to the same music in different ways."

Tango music has been variously described as provocative, sad, nostalgic and a lament for lost love.

"Argentines watch soccer games when they are happy, and listen to tango music when they are sad," Ou pointed out.

He shared a video clip of late soccer legend Diego Maradona singing a classic tango piece called "El Sueño del Pibe," or literally "the Dream of the Boy." It tells of a country boy's ambition to become a soccer star.

"Soccer and tango, to a large extent, shape Argentina," Ou added. "Only if you understand both can you really know this country."

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Ti Gong

A screenshot of a video clip of late soccer icon Diego Maradona singing a classic tango piece.

Perhaps the tango also gives insight into the Chinese people who embrace it – and not all of them are elderly.

When Shanghai resident Hou Fang visited Argentina in 2012, she said she planned to give the tango a try while there.

"I never would have guessed how such a short trip would change my life," she told Shanghai Daily. "I just found it hard to tear myself away from the tango."

Hou quit her job at a Fortune 500 company and studied the tango for four years at the National University of Art Institute in Argentina, becoming the first Asian student in the major program.

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Hou Fang / Ti Gong

A tango dance party in Buenos Aires.

After graduation, she became a dance teacher at local tango studios and opened a WeChat account to promote the tango to Chinese people back home.

To her surprise, she quickly attracted many followers. Seeing big market potential, she returned to Shanghai in 2018 and opened an Argentine tango studio called MiTango. It is thriving.

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Ti Gong

Hou Fang at a tango dancing social gathering in Buenos Aires.

"I witnessed how the tango is rooted in Chinese culture," Diego Guelar, former Argentine ambassador to China, stated in Ou's book. "Who would have thought that? Just 15 years ago, the tango was still very foreign to the public, with only few enthusiasts. Now it's quite a different story."

According to Ou, the tango really took off in China after the 2013 World Tango Championships in Argentina listed China as a sub venue. Today cities across the country have permanent tango clubs and parties. In Shanghai alone, there are nine clubs, and tango parties are held somewhere in the city every day.

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Ti Gong

Hou Fang teaches tango to Argentine students in Buenos Aires.

The dance's surging popularity comes despite the fact that it can be hard to master.

"It's not a simple dance, though it looks simple," Hou explained.

"And there is a cultural difference. The tango requires two dancers in sensual proximity, which is not always acceptable here. However, Shanghai is always at the forefront of Chinese culture, so it's not hard to accept the tango's embrace. We love to try new things."

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A tango dance party held at Hou Fang's studio in Shanghai.

Indeed, the tango first made its Chinese appearance in Shanghai.

An article entitled "Tango Tears for Shanghai," published in the "North-China Herald" on March 7, 1914, read: "The tango, or a version of the same, is no stranger to Shanghai, but the famous dance may be said to have been introduced with all due formality to the public at the Astro House on Monday evening."

Ou suggested that the tango was popular in Paris at the time. Shanghai was known as the "Paris of the East;" Buenos Aires, the "Paris of South America."

"It is Paris that connected Shanghai and Buenos Aires," Ou revealed. "After Argentines popularized the tango in Paris, it spread to Shanghai. Since then, the tango has remained a fashionable dance in Shanghai."

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Ti Gong

The 7th Shanghai Tango Festival.

A Serbian expat who asked to be identified only as Vok said he fulfilled his dream to dance the tango when he came to Shanghai. He is taking lessons at Hou's studio.

"The tango community in Shanghai is huge," he said. "There are a lot of very skilled dancers."

Famed Shanghai writer Cheng Naishan, in her book "Shanghai Tango," said in the preface that "Shanghai life has the rhythm of tango …. so vivid, exquisite and flirtatious."

In 2009, tango was listed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. Like China's panda or Peking Opera, the dance has become a cultural icon for Argentina.

China and Argentina: It takes two to tango
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Serbia's Vok takes tango lessons at Hou Fang's studio.

The two countries will soon celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

"Ties between China and Argentina have entered a new level," Ou stated. "I believe the tango will grow more diversified and localized in China. Some of our composers have even started to create Chinese-style tango music."

Last October, China's Central Conservatory of Music, in cooperation with the National University of Art Institute in Argentina, established the Tango Art Research and Practice Center in Beijing, the first professional institution of its kind in the nation.

Sabino Vaca Narvaja, Argentine ambassador to China, said in a speech that the new center will play an important role in cultural exchanges in 2022. After all, he noted, culture and art are always the best bridges uniting two countries.

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