Argentine tango is not only famous for its affectionate embrace and sensual synchronization between dancers and the music, tango is also celebrated for its poetry by lyricists such as Homero Manzi and Celedonio Flores.
Tangos are written in Spanish, yet many famous songs have examples of Lunfardo, a unique slang language developed by immigrant prisoners from Lombardia, Italy during the late 19th century. Many words, which you can find on this online dictionary, have multiple meanings that describe a diverse socioeconomic class of men and women from the barrios and campos of Argentina. Lunfardo encapsulates all there is to love and hate about our neighbors, friends, family, and lovers. In the last several generations, Lunfardo migrated from the impoverished classes of Buenos Aires to the upperclass, where today terms like Quilombo, Che Boludo, La Posta, Re Copado, and Boliche are commonplace in the language and distinguish Spanish speakers from Argentines.
A friend of mine recently asked me what it might mean to dance slang in tango. We shared how musical connections with particular dance partners may generate in the moment a blues cadence or a syncopated shuffle of the feet, which we may have seen at some time in a live tango performance, YouTube video, or friend’s wedding. Unscripted, dancers somehow magically generate these movements or sequences that we can hardly recollect afterwards, let alone reproduce. But we both know that something outside the norm, outside of any tango lesson or seminar just crossed our paths like a shooting star where we both want to blurt out: Did you see that?!?!
Why do these moments surprise us? Is it really that different from the tango language we have learned from our maestros? Is it slang or is it tango? When we think about slang languages like Lunfardo, Black slang (e.g., da bomb, bling, funky), and texting lingo (e.g., LOL, Keep it 100, Basic, Tea), we have to remember that historically, “slang” has been a pejorative way to describe language use by disempowered social groups (i.e., immigrants, minorities, teens, and people of color). Slang is really language functioning as a verb, always working, morphing, and adapting to local and macro contexts, information communication technologies, social pressures, economic systems, and political institutions? We can talk about language as a noun once we pledge allegiance to a set of rigid rules and structures, which may serve a valuable purpose for those who want to defend the status quo or strengthen extant social hierarchies. Tango is no different in that dancers may subscribe to particular schools of thought, which all claim to teach the “correct” version of tango. They sell their tango like it’s pristine bottled water, when in reality, they all share from the same faucet. Tango is Lunfardo, the dynamic process of borrowing from different schools of thought or dance forms, constantly morphing and adapting to our dance partners and others on the dance floor. We dance not to defend the status quo or some legacy, but to experience the primeval purpose of language–to be understood and accepted.