125 Years of Tango

National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs

National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs

In the northeastern part of New York State, a three and a half hour drive north of New York City and about halfway to the Canadian border, is Saratoga Springs. Once a popular health resort for the upper class with natural springs and expensive spas, it is nowadays still famous for its world-class horse races which draw a different kind of crowd to this distinguished town every summer, causing the locals to leave their lavish mansions as a playground to the moneyed aristocracy where they can relax after an exciting day at the race track and indulge in the comfort of an old world style atmosphere.

What many people don’t know is that Saratoga Springs is also the home of the National Museum of Dance. It is located in a historic building formerly known as the Washington Bathhouse in Saratoga Spa State Park, just outside town. The neo-classic building houses a substantial archive of photographs, videos, costumes and other artifacts, and in its galleries are three permanent exhibits on display as well as yearly rotating exhibits.

The most recent one is dedicated to Argentine Tango and it is called “125 years of Tango – A Walk through the History of the Dance”. The show is unique and the first of its kind in the world. It includes beautifully displayed memorabilia of famous Tango dancers: their shoes, costumes and various hats worn during performances, together with historic film clips and music recordings. It is arranged in a comprehensive and chronological order, guiding the visitor through more than a century of Tango with lots of inside knowledge and an interesting narration. It starts with early black and white photographs from the end of the 19th century in Argentina when men were practicing the then new dance on the streets and in the fields. It goes on to explain how Tango swept over to Europe and Paris where it became a sensation and then returned to Buenos Aires to finally establish itself as the embodiment of Argentinian dance. The evolution of Tango music is well documented from its early days, through what is now known as the “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s, up to the so-called “Nuevo Tango”, high-lighted by clips of the composer and bandeón player, Astor Piazzolla, who was active during the second part of the 20th century.

Some of the most influential composers and Tango orchestras can be seen and heard in rare video clips where visitors also get the opportunity to watch some of the greatest Tango dancers of all time. One of these is a performance by Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes from the 1960s; another is taken from a formerly popular Argentine TV show, a third depicts dancer Anton Gazenbeek practicing Tango with a stick.

The exhibition explains nicely how Tango started as a dance born on the streets of Buenos Aires with working class men often dancing with men for lack of women, and then how after conquering the salons of the upper class it became a national phenomenon, only to fall into a Dark Age after the ousting of General Péron in the 1950s before achieving a renaissance and conquering the world again in the 1980s — largely through the world-wide success of the hugely popular show “Forever Tango”.

It goes into further detail by emphasizing the relevance of fashion in Tango. At the turn of the last century, when women generally wore long dresses and as a result had to take small steps, the so-called milonguero style was the way to dance Tango. When the hemline rose and women started to reveal first ankles and then knees, eventually wearing mini dresses in the 1960s, it became possible for women to take longer steps which soon led to the style known as “Tango de Salon”. Another example is the so-called “Harem” outfit of the 1920s which became a milestone in Tango fashion and is still dominant in today’s Tango fashion. A number of beautiful costumes from that era are on display.

The exhibition at the Museum of Dance was put together by the owner of this special collection himself: Anton Gazenbeek, a renowned dancer and celebrated performer in the world of Tango. Anton started collecting Tango memorabilia more than twenty years ago when he first became interested in Tango and fell in love with it.

“Most of the items I collected during the time when I lived and studied Tango in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I was looking for the really old stars of Tango: the ones who didn’t perform or teach anymore or didn’t even dance anymore. I wanted to learn to dance from them, and so I tried to find them.” What began as an innocent search by an aspiring young Tango dancer from the United States developed into unexpected connections and friendships. “When I managed to get hold of some of these people, they at first would only agree to talk to me for one hour,” Anton remembers. “Then we started to talk. Eight hours later I would leave their apartments having learned a few steps from them which they all of a sudden remembered.” Along with having learned a new step or two, Anton would also leave with countless stories of the past and usually an unexpected piece of memorabilia. “They would say, ‘Wait a minute, I think I still have this piece that I was wearing for that show, let me find it!’ And they would start digging in their closets, which hadn’t been opened in years, and bring out a hat or a pair of shoes and give it to me.” Anton gratefully took each piece and so started a sizeable collection. “I thought it would be better to show these pieces to the world instead of them ending up in a pile of garbage one day,” he says.

Not only has he assembled many of these items into a neat and respectable exhibition, he also has so much more film and audio material at his home that he is planning to create an interactive website where these clips could be played. “It’s another major project,” he says, “but I’m determined to make all this material accessible and to show it to the world.”

Until this next major project becomes reality, Tango aficionados who happen to be in the area of New York should check out “125 Years of Tango”. The exhibit is on display at the Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs until spring 2016. It’s worth a trip from the Big Apple.

For information about the exhibit see http://www.antontango.net/#!tango-exhibit

For museum information see http://www.dancemuseum.org/exhibits/

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