On a sweltering evening in August several hundred people gathered in a ballroom on Capitol Hill in Seattle for an evening of exhibition...

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On a sweltering evening in August several hundred people gathered in a ballroom on Capitol Hill in Seattle for an evening of exhibition tango dancing.

The audience watched reverentially as well-practiced couples, including professional tango dancers, snaked and slinked across the floor in the sexy, cheek-to-cheek and chest-to-chest posture that is the universal image of the tango. The packed event was repeated the following night.

Didn’t know Seattle was a hotbed of tango? Tango mania has ignited virtually everywhere in the U.S. and many places abroad. What started as a couple of hit Broadway tango dance revues in the 1980s has flamed into a full-fledged affair worthy of note even in The Wall Street Journal, which recently published a front-page report on the permutations of the classic Argentinean tango now spreading through the land like a virus.

For tangueros and tangueras (the Argentinean terms for men and women who organize their lives around the tango), a worthy new book by Robert Farris Thompson should cause them to kick up their heels. Titled “Tango: The Art History of Love” (Pantheon, 357 pp., $28.50), the book is a sociological and historical essay on the development of tango, as well as a highly technical discussion of tango music, tango choreography and the dance’s most famous practitioners.

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The musician and pop-culture interpreter David Byrne has written the foreword, another signal that the tango, with its political and outlaw overtones, is hot.

Thompson teaches African and African-American art history at Yale University. In this book he aims not only to celebrate the tango, but also to explicate his theory that the tango owes much to African influences.

In his introduction he writes: “The comparison with the black music called jazz leads us to the major theme of this book: African and Afro-Argentinean influences are continuous in the rise, development and achievement of the tango.”

Author appearance


Robert Farris Thompson will discuss “Tango: The Art History of Love,” 2 p.m. Saturday, Seattle Art Museum’s Plestcheeff Auditorium,

100 University St., Seattle; $7 for museum members, $10 for the general public (206-654-3100 or www.seattleartmuseum.org).

In Argentina, the birthplace of tango, this is an unorthodox thesis, according to Thompson. He writes that Argentina today defines itself as descended almost exclusively from Caucasian Europeans, despite the fact that African slaves were brought to the country for several centuries.

To show just how much influence Africa had on Argentina’s most famous cultural export, Thompson includes scholarly chapters tracing tango music and dance to the tribal music and dance of pre-20th-century Western Africa.

For readers who may not be conversant on the historical ethnomusicology of Western African vis a vis Argentina, Thompson helpfully provides glossaries translating musical and dance terms from classical Ki-Kongo, the language of 19th-century Congo, to vernacular Buenos Aires Creole, the language of 19th-century Buenos Aires working-class barrios.

Readers looking for a less exhaustive discussion of the tango will more likely enjoy Thompson’s chapters on how the dance has been portrayed on the silver screen as a pas de deux linked to sadness, sex, violence and doom.

Thompson finds the onscreen tangos of such American stars as Rudolf Valentino and Marlon Brando filled with negative stereotypes and unfortunate clichés. Thompson applauds more recent non-American movies, including Carlos Saura’s 1998 “Tango, Never Leave Me,” as films that portray the true passion, pride and cross-cultural history of the dance.

The book also notes that since the tango was first popularized in the mid-19th century, it has been embraced by Argentina’s working class and its politically disaffected. Thompson adds that the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges described the tango as “outrage translated to music.”

Tango aficionados everywhere will find this book a great resource. It even includes how-to chapters describing specific dance steps, illustrated with photographs. Those more casually interested in the tango will want to skim the most technical chapters or wait for a CliffNotes edition.

Robin Updike is a freelance arts writer

and an Internet editor.