Author: Wei Zhang

Program of Study: Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), Division of the Social Sciences (SSD)

The Rhythm of tango in the City of Chicago

Big cities attract immigrants, searching for a “promising Eden”( Yanes, Gonzalez). In the late 1800s, Argentina’s government depicted such an enchanting picture which drew people living in Europe to this continent without considering the amalgamation of distinctive cultures, values and living habits. People in poverty from Europe travelled oversea to Argentina for its prosperity but most of them ended up living at the margin of the city. Women were “entrapped by organizations of pimps”; men left their families and were striving for a life on their own (Franklin, 2006). At night, they met up in isolated groom allies. They could not speak each other’s languages and did not understand each other’s cultures. Dancing thus became the only way through which they greet and communicate.

Tango is a celebration of sadness in this sense. Strangers in each other’s embraces improvise, expressing the unintelligibility through movements. People’s creativity makes the hopeless hopeful, makes the sadness joyful, makes the bitterness sweet.

Chicago is one of those big international cities that attract foreigners and immigrants searching for wealth and fulfilling life dreams. It went through a Great fire in the 1870s, reborn in ruins and landfills, carrying bitter memories from the past and hope for prosperities in the future. In Grant Park, different generations witnessed the historical moment of the condolence of Lincoln’s death, the debut of International Aviation Meet, the celebration of the “Queen’s Landing” and the selection of Obama as the first black president in the American history. In exotic restaurants, travelers drop by for the assorted flavor of foods brought in the city by immigrants. In museums, artists added some colors to the history by depicting the struggle between individual growth and social development. Tango has its improvisation elements through which people reminisce about their past and building some hope for their future; it is a creative way of communication. For those who carry stories and create stories in the city of Chicago, they are luckily immersed in diverse music genres and special architects that this city offers to express and improvise.

Tango Music

Tango music has evolved tremendously since its first invention in the 19th century. It traditionally used guitar, piano, violin, double bass and bandoneon to perform. Theis constitutes a type of band called Orquesta Tipica. In the 1900s, tango was introduced into Europe, Africa, Japan and America and its music started to integrate those regional elements (Tango History). The fusion of the jazz into tango music is an interesting one. It slowed its dancing rhythm and transformed the genre of the music into a novel experimental style. Watching those performances in unexpected places of a city refreshes people’s minds. Both jazz and tango are a creative form of art. They are born out of the heaviness of life but express the lightness part of it. They show the audience such a kind of calm and casual attitude after experiencing solitude, sufferings and disciplines.

Chicago is a city of music, in particular with respect to jazz. Its immigration composition with a large proportion of black people have contributed to the birth and growth of jazz and blues music in this city. Jazz and blues have added some swing elements into the improvisation of tango movements (Franklin, 2006). Their relaxing and soothing notes have smoothed the emotional expression and colored the dancing with some free-styles, reminding people of these quiet and solitude moments of sitting in a musical bar with a cup of whisky, listening to the saxophone. Today, dancing in Northern American mostly happens in indoor spaces, different from Argentina where you may find tango dancers in open markets, center of a plaza and small allies. Thanks to the popularity of music in the city of Chicago and the numerous recreational parks located within the city, people have many options of holding public dancing events for tango dancers.

One milonga— Tango Guerilla — takes place in the Spirit of Music Garden in grant park on a weekly basis (Tango Calendar of Chicago). It could be more demanding for tango DJs to choose music in public spaces if they hope to create a beautiful scene for passing pedestrians besides satisfying dancers only. It is a delicate art to integrate the creative spirit of those on the dancing floor and the curiosity of people passing by in a comfortable way. For instance, playing some soothing tones can release the nerves of those who seldom dance publicly, and adding some joyful notes can light up the mood of those walking in the garden. I’ve seen passers-by audience get attracted by either the music or dancers, sitting hours next to the dancing floors, taking videos, or simply get indulging in the atmosphere without doing anything.

Today, tango music has evolved into many diverse genres, more than those traditional three genres of waltz, milonga and tango. DJs sometimes improvise to play alternative music to which people can dance. Because of its 2/2 and 2/4 simple composing styles, many music genres are mutable on tango’s dancing floor. This has left people enough space to create and improvise in the city of Chicago.

Spirit of Music Garden
Photo Credit – Chicago Tribune

Places to tango

Tango, back in the 19th century, was only seen in those slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was first introduced to the US in 1910, until 1913 it arrived in Chicago (Franklin, 2006). Since tango had left its origin hometown, it had started to also become popular among the middle class and brought up to high-end performing theatres. Along it history, it has experienced many ups and downs, once shining on the stage of magnificent theatres, once being forbidden to dance publicly. Famous Argentina super star Carlos Gardel “officially” introduced tango to the global stage, but some political conflicts have also temporarily transformed it into a taboo for decades (Franklin, 2006). We could say that tango has its own story and it also has a nomadic soul.

In the city of Chicago, tango can be found in many different places. The diversity of its locations somehow reminds people of the turbulent history of tango and the reason that it would become popular among immigrants since the very beginning. Among those tall erections and skyscrapers, it would be interesting to see dancing performances by strangers here and there, reminding people of the places where they come from and giving people a spot to take a rest from busy city life. Some weekday milongas happen in local restaurants. Two interesting ones are in La Tasca Tapas (a Spanish restaurant) and Alhambra Palace (a Mediterranean restaurant). They have some pretty internal decoration and a soothing atmosphere, based on those published pictures on their online websites. I cannot visit these places in person due to the pandemic across the world, but these restaurants are on my to-do list for the upcoming academic year.

One interesting aspect of holding milongas in a restaurant is that both dancing and the restaurant can market to each other. The dancing becomes mysterious and charming in the eyes of some customers; the restaurant becomes popular through the world of mouth by those dancers traveling around. The fact is that people tend to be more relaxed while having dinners with their families and friends; they are more willing to patiently watch some improvised tango dancing in such a soothing mood. Restaurants thus become a perfect location where people get to know tango as a novice. Some of them may afterwards decide to attend some classes to get to know tango better. For dancers, they could become some potential customers to the restaurant due to their emotional attachment to the place where they “perform”.

Tango clubs in schools prefer to hold milonga events in nearby museums or study halls for the sake of convenience. For instance, the tango club of University of Chicago has milonga organized in Logan Art Museum on a regular basis. Mostly it is students who held milonga events in this museum. The inside of the dancing hall is more spacious and carries more artistic elements. This kind of locations would escalate the dancing to a high-end level, adding more disciplines and elegance. Logan Art Museum has given on-campus students a convenient platform to practice and perform given that most of the time they are far away from the well-established and populated downtown area (New Americans in Chicago, 2018). The information about these tango sessions held by Uchicago tango club is accessible through its Facebook page.


Alhambra Palace Restaurant
Credit : USA Today

The city of foreigners

Chicago is a city of immigrants and foreign residents. Immigrants and foreigners bring in new culture, new habits and new values which have been constantly shaping the spirit of this city. The interaction between the history and the present of these people have left tracks in every corner of the city. People bring here old stories and create new ones. They do not have to merely rely on languages to elaborate their stories and their thoughts; tango could be a venue through which they express their feelings for life and express their thoughts for the world. They do not have to abide by a specific discipline to complete a predesigned movement; they can use their creativity and experiences to write a script of their life. Tango, fundamentally, is an improvised communication between two individuals. It delivers the unintelligibility that words cannot help express; it gives the body a chance to speak and it allows two souls to face each other respectfully. Each tanda[1] is an improvised fifteen minutes inspired by the music, the scene and the life experiences of dancers.

Immigrants and foreigners constructed and built up this city and this city provided a stage for them to perform the show of their life. Art and music exist in every corner of the city to help people elaborate their stories. Their popularity gives every individual an instrument to improvise their own tango. Each idiosyncratic movement contributes to the rhythm of this city. Soon I will become a foreign resident in the city of Chicago, if life in general is an improvisation, let it swing with the music.



Steve Franklin. Immigrant Chicago: How immigration shaped a city. Chicago Stories. March 10, 2006.

Manning, Erin. Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Yanes, Marianella, Gonzalez, Mike. Tango: Sex and Rhythm of the City. United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, 2013.

Tango History – Origin and Characteristics of Tango. Dance Facts.

Weber, Marek, Heinz Huppertz, Robert Gaden, Ludwig Rüth, Oskar Joost, Barnabás von Géczy, Adalbert Lutter, and Otto Dobrindt. 1999. German tango bands 1925-1939. East Sussex, England: Harlequin.

New Americans in Chicago. New American Economy. December 2, 2018.

Tango Calendar of Chicago.,IL+Lake,IL+Du_Page,IL




[1] A turn of dancing, usually consisting of three to five pieces of music.