Tango between Two Shores: Representation in the United States from 1910 to 1930

  • The Two Shores

Argentinian literature on tango has emphasized the notion of the two shores: Montevideo and Buenos Aires as environments of creation and recognition of music from the River Plate region, but taking aside its exploration to different scenes that made it prestigious and changed some of its meanings. In Tangos’ historiography, the city of Paris is portrayed as one of the main locations for exportation, a fact supported by various academic writers and also those who divulge this dance’s history[1].

The canonical version of Tango’s arrival in Europe belongs to the time period prior to WWI and has focused mainly on the thought of it as being taken in by European higher social classes for it being an exotic product referring to their interest for the foreign. The social construction achieved through the comparison with “the other” led to believe that it was the specific contents of the exotic expression that drew attention to it.

We have argued that in the case of tango music, its visibility in Europe was strongly related to the physical and perceptual economy which allowed creating while dancing and permitted physical proximity seldom seen in other beats which became popular at the end of the 19Th century and beginnings of the 20th[2]. Compared to polka, maxixe or shimmy dances, tango offered physical contact, the proximity of embrace and the entanglement of legs that was unusual in other forms of dance. In any case, if this rhythm was labeled as exotic, it was so in so far as this adjective disguised eagerness to dance it and made the experience legitimate. But even if this explanation can be useful in understanding this phenomenon in Europe at the beginning of the last century, it is not a plausible explanation for the case of the United States.

Tango first landed in American high society, for they had access to copies of European fashions and this had the effect of giving a sense of belonging in the group of privileged few that knew the inner workings of aristocracy and could therefore distinguish itself from the rest. When tango came to New York, Los Angeles or even roamed the country, it did so trying to mimic European fashions in opposition to experiencing the exotic as the existence of another. In any case, tango’s eroticism – in the European version of it, that is – drew enormous amounts of attention from people eager to learn and practice it.

In 1911, The New York Times described it as an extravagant fashion in America and pointed out that Mademoiselle Mistingett, an eccentric Parisian dancer, had introduced it to Europe. In April of that year, the same journal referred to a new dance as “almost famous, called tango, brought from the southern land of Argentina, danced in taverns and dance halls”[3]·. Calling it extravagant denoted the required distance between high society’s culture and the unrefined popular world. News on Parisian fashion would arrive throughout that year. It was a known fact that in the French village of Dinard, which was frequently visited by Americans belonging to the upper class, both the “triple Boston” and the Tango were danced in summer: “After a few experiments, however, it was disregarded as the majority of dancers found it to be a bit risqué and more suitable for the dance halls of Montmartre than a private dance”[4].  This interest led the press to give importance to Maurice, for this dancer’s appearance in various shows and dance expos. His persona was particularly prominent in show business, especially in the first two decades of the 20th century. Maurice was American born but had emigrated to Europe at the end of the 19th century only to return to his hometown of New York in 1911 as a well-known Café de Paris dancer, to teach fashionable new dances to the American public. Upon his return, he performed at Mrs. Vanderbilt’s manor house as well as George Gould´s mansion on 5th Avenue and that of Princess Pignatelli d´Aragon and Prince Don Faustino. Renowned New York families hired him to perform a seemingly simple task: give private lessons to a group of between three or four young ladies willing to learn new dances. These being the Argentinian tango, “dandy dance” and Maurice waltz brought to them from the coast of Luxemburg[5]

On July 20th 1912, Caras y Caretas’ reporter Goyo Cuello noted that “not only cereal and livestock or chilled beef are being exported to Europe from Argentina; we can also afford to export customs. Tango, that riverbank dance, has had the privilege of becoming fashionable in European dance  halls[6]. Surely, this journal could not have predicted that the Harvard Glee would give a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music´s concert hall in December of that year, where tango was played amongst other rhythms. Also in 1912, one of the most prestigious shows in New York opened; it was compared to those shows performed at the Moulin Rouge. This show was A Winsome Widow, a vaudeville consisting in different sketches both comedic and musical where tangoes danced by Maurice -who partook in some sketches- stood out. In December of the same year, The Day Book of Chicago mentioned a meeting at the Blackstone Hotel where Stan Field, a wealthy Chicagoan millionaire, enquired “What is that darned tango about?”[7] requesting adamantly that it be a forbidden dance. The dance’s organizer assured him that they had been rehearsing it for weeks and that the young ladies would be disappointed if not allowed to dance. Nonetheless the scandal resulted in tango being banned at that party.

The year 1913 was conclusive for tango’s diffusion abroad. In January Los Angeles Times described the most recent patronal dance where two charming young ladies, after greeting each other saying “comment ça va?” proceeded to tango, it also told readers of a dance in Pasadena, California, where the genuine Argentinian tango was danced. It seemed like in that city people were well informed on the ways and advantages tango provided. Firstly it was known that it came from Buenos Aires; secondly, it was considered a vivacious form of dance with specific postures that had to be assumed with quick pace: “no camera is quick enough to show it”. In this city the couple made up of Oscar and Suzette was in charge of demonstrating the dance; they performed at the Orpheus Theatre and claimed that it was they who brought tango to North America. Judging by their poses in images shown in the newspaper they had little to do with Argentinian tango. On the other hand, their explanation on the dance portrayed it as a kind of waltz: in the first picture, the female dancer was led by the male in a reversed position -with her back to him-; in the second one -and in the last one- she held on to the man’s neck and arms, twirled in a way that left them both “exhausted, and then sat on her partner’s knees and the dance ended with a wild, passionate kiss”[8].

In March of 1913 news on the physical limitations imposed by tango on professional dances became known. Ida Crispi, an English dancer well known in the USA, fell to the ground taking tumbles and broke an arm while dancing with her dance companion, Fred Farren. This was not the only accident in those years. But not only could dancing result in physical injury, that year the murder of tango teacher Mildred Allison Rexroat -who vanished in the company of a possible manager, Mr. Spencer- came to light. The city’s chief of police disregarded robbery as a motive and was leaning towards considering it a crime of passion. The killer had acted with scorn, shooting the victim with a firearm first and placing the body on the railroad tracks where the driver of the intercity train coming in from Chicago could not tell her apart from the rails in the dark and the train rolled her over. Miss Allison was a dancer at Felicita Dancing Club on Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago. The teacher’s landlady declared that the man had called on the phone and arranged to meet but called back later saying that she need not wait for Mildred as she was going East on her honeymoon.

Despite these setbacks that apparently demonized its presence, tango was widespread, an example of this being the charity dance for the New York Blindness Association organized by Ms. Winifred Holt at the Astoria Hotel where four young army officials proved to be “experts on Argentinean tango”[9]. A few months later, professional dancer Evelyn Nesbit Thaw would arrive from England and perform at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop garden charging a high price for a performance that included a “twelve minute dance” where she would show her way of dancing the tango with American dancer Jack Clifford. The New York Times was astounded by the dancer’s pay: four thousand dollars a week[10].

Towards August 1913, the controversy about tango’s decency was triggered. This shot through Paris, Venice, London and New York.  American newspapers reviewed the commotion in the summer ambient in Deauville. One of the most renowned journals pointed out that the French accused the Americans of spoiling Deauville saying that “they were responsible for the abandonment of good taste and manners”, while Sem, the cartoonist, ascribed the libertine lifestyle to the Tango fashion. It was a known fact that the tango craze led women to commit insolent acts; for example, the duchess of Q. had insisted on her dance tutor  introducing her to a young man who danced beautifully. Her wishes were granted: she danced all afternoon with a young Italian with whom she flirted and ended up eloping with. As pointed out by the newspaper: the tango cause had lost one of her best students.

That year Jean Richepin gave his celebrated address entitled “The Tango” at the Academy of Arts. According to the New York Times, Richepin had sustained that “Pindar, Homer, Socrates and Sophocles, were exponents or practitioners of the dance. The Tango´s antiquity could be proved from figures at the British Museum and tombs in Thebes”. When asked on the subject, the Museum´s curator of Greek and Roman antiques pointed out that “to my knowledge, there is nothing in the British Museum to justify such claims, no painting, representation or registry of two people dancing together – particularly closely- that’s not typical of ancient Greek dances”. According to some interpretations, Richepin’s vision could hardly be true. That tango came from Piraeus and ancient Greek dances was hard to accept but one must at least admit that the writer had created an odd and interesting analogy. Other widespread interpretations in the USA taught that tango derived from an old South American dance called chica which was of black origin. Charles D’Albert, author of a noted encyclopedia on dance, had his own opinion: it came from Spanish dances. In the first place, tango had been danced in Cuba and several other Latin-American countries; then it went to Paris, where it was danced in bohemian neighborhoods and, finally, was reconstructed- in the same city – in accordance with social codes, in politically correct, high society networks.

Towards the end of 1913, American newspapers spoke of the impact tango had had not only in London but also in the German capital. Tango had crazed dance goers in Berlin: “everyone, anyone, is taking tango lessons”[11].  This dance’s eccentricity, they pointed out, allowed it to become popular and it was expected that it would also be in fashion the following winter at private dancehalls.

In Berlin´s case some ladies from the high society earned a living teaching people to tango. The demand for private tutors rose and, much to everybody´s surprise, high society young ladies who had never had the need to work agreed to tutor those belonging to their some social stratum. La Correspondencia de España´s reporter wrote from New York saying that “tango teachers make a fortune (…) there isn´t a fancy restaurant in New York that isn’t transformed into a dance hall at night. The entire population has fallen victim to tango mania”[12]. Whether this dance was appropriate for the upper class was in question; however, the wife of the president of Prussia´s Parliament, countess von Schwerin Lowitz held a tango tea at their official residence accompanied by Major Langhorne, the American military attaché, three young German officers, her husband Count of Schwerin and Baron von Platen. The escorts to the dance were a group of American girls. When asked about the absence of German participants, she answered German officers knew American girls were experts in Tango, Turkey Trot and One Step. Major Langhorne explained that German officers had no interest in dancing with their country folk but rather with ladies with experience in tango.  Up until then, tango teas had tried to become as successful in Berlin as they were in London, Paris and New York. A former waiter from the Astoria Hotel, now residing in Berlin, considered including that format in his restaurant. In October 1913 newspapers wrote about tango madness in Berlin, where one of the major stores held tango teas, with half an hour lessons whose prices ranged between $2,50 and $3.75[13]. At that time it seemed like the German Kaiser had become enthused with tango, which was highlighted by the American press as a change in the old empire´s customs even if it was not used to taking on foreign fashions. It had surrendered to tango´s charm: “Every record of the past is promised to get erased by this Argentinian all-conquering dance”[14].

With war fast approaching, the Kaiser was sure to prohibit it. As a matter of fact, the Luxemburg Post announced that it would not take any advertisements related to tango, so any of them including tango lessons, record sales or theatre shows would not be printed. The reason behind the Kaiser’s change of heart was unclear until it became known that his daughter, Princess Cecilie, had taken lessons herself. Her teacher was an American who ran a dance academy in the Empire’s capital. From then on, the chief of State decided to ban officers wearing uniform from dancing it as well as banning tango from government parties. In the midst of prohibition, the American colony in Berlin was forced to change their Thanksgiving party program due to the fact that several members of the diplomacy found out they would have to dance tango. Despite that, the American Embassy negotiated including the new rhythm stating that they would be dancing it towards the end of the party when official guests had already left.

News from London told Americans that despite the Queen’s opposition, tango was a great hit at British dance halls, even the Royal Albert Hall, where aristocrats danced it -Lady Diana Marnnes and the Duke of Manchester, among others-. Queen Mary spoke against that rhythm being introduced in dance halls saying that it would not be included in dances at Buckingham Palace or any respectable home of British nobles. These statements were made to stop tango’s expansion. In February 1914, they criticized the signs of exaggeration of the exotic and “crazy antics of the ways and habits of social life in the British metropolis. Tango is as dead as Queen Anne”[15]. A few months before that, however, a tango tea for 1500 people had been held at the London Opera House to celebrate The Evening News’ 10000th issue. This fact echoed in both the British and the American press. With WWI the Queen changed her mind about tango and finally accepted it. She and Princess Anastasia of Russia had seen people dancing it at a diplomatic party. The Queen explained that Maurice had executed the dance in such a way that she found it to be both charming and amusing[16].

It was in these years that controversy on tango’s rehearsal appropriateness was installed. Several issues were raised by newspaper reviews: on the one hand, knowledgeable dance teachers were needed but on the other hand, tango was not considered suitable for all audiences or to be performed in public spaces. In the semi-public environment of a private party it could be more bearable than in ample dance halls. Tango would find its way into those places where the limit between public and private space was not entirely clear. It was supposed to be a meeting of two people who knew each other or had at least been introduced and were adequate in the social context. An important concern, taking into consideration the likelihood of its success, was that it could become popular as there weren’t any guarantees of control upon physical contact. Regarding that factor, physical proximity had to be carefully evaluated even among people of the same social rank. Maybe that’s the reason why dance manuals introduced a chapter on tango -Argentinian tango to be specific-.

News about tango flooded the press, projecting European customs. The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal printed news and articles describing in detail the impact this new development had in Europe.

Concern over what tango was, where it came from and how it should be danced had been evident since the start of the decade. A reader of The London Times claimed that the dance was based on a well-defined concept: “starting with the image of a reprehensible girl whose life had been modified by fandango. Every gesture is offensive to modesty and any tainted form of innocence can be represented”[17]. While British tradition demanded it be rejected, France looked for any kind of reason to adopt tango. This controversy echoed on the American shore as it overlooked Europe -especially London and Paris- with the kind of curiosity a new society could have while at the same time defying habits from the Old World.  Overtones were expressed in the broadcasting of news depicting European upper classes divided into two: those who accepted tango and danced it and those who opposed it radically, shocked by it.

Negative views on tango did not come only from London. The story of the Count of Abruzzi was well known. When in Venice with a group of friends and a phonograph, he organized a tango contest which he won. It later became known that they danced in bathrobes and that was condemned by society. Some sectors of Italian high society accused him -to the King- of corrupting morals through introducing this dance. A few months after that the Catholic Church excommunicated him. Even so, late in 1913 tango was officially approved by Venice’s courthouse,   whose chief claimed that new dances such as tango and rag could take the place of old ones without any problems and could be danced at cafes or private parties. But people were not allowed to tango where liquor was sold[18].

While tango was perceived by high society as scandalous for being a mix of consumption and pleasure and also because doing it was wielded as a sign of distinction, the problem lay in the meaning people gave to it. Some members of the higher class thought the lower classes would eventually spoil it while the dance would keep its high lifestyle hue if that were to be avoided.

Other chronicles made reference to other, more obscure, happenings such as a new form of stealing associated with tango. The Washington Post printed that Parisian police had successfully identified a band of robbers who took advantage of the dance situation to get a hold of the personal effects of unwary victims. Police investigation resulting from a number of complaints about pearl necklaces and gemstones being stolen led to a band of which all they knew was that they were very good tango dancers. This band consisted of a young lady who was introduced as a Russian princess but was – in fact- a Madam who ran a gang of ex waiters, dancers and circus actors. They all pretended to be Argentinian millionaires who enjoyed the hospitality shown to them by Parisian aristocrats. Their modus operandi was quite simple: while rookie dancers paid attention to intricate dance steps, their partner – a member of the band – was in charge of getting a hold of the naïve rookie dancer’s personal belongings. The newspaper wrote with humorous tone: “We have tango dancing, tango color, tango teas, tango shoes, tango panties and we now have the tango thief”[19]. Robberies where tango was involved not only happened in Paris but also in the United States, told as incredible adventure stories: in the Bronx, for example, eighteen- year- old Joseph Stack was taken to prison for stealing a thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry at Olldorff & Co. The young man was known to be a great tango dancer. Success as a dancer made him pretentious and he wanted to portray himself as a dandy and make his partner look perfect. This was why he robbed the famous diamond shop. At the tango party he attended a man accused him of stealing, making Jack return the goods. He escaped jail and toured the country giving dance exhibitions afterwards. Towards the end of his adventure, he returned to New York, stayed at the Astoria for a few days and police put an end to his escapades. It seemed like tango was enticing in every way: from the physical point of view as well as morally and also in the characteristics people needed to appear to have in order to look as dance royalty.

The fact that some rejected it and others adopted it caused many problems. In some states, tango was considered a forbidden dance making dance teachers face a dilemma: how to serve as a teacher and answer people’s demands to learn tango without breaking the law. In Cleveland, tango was taken to court. Asa Anderson, a dance teacher initiated a lawsuit against Inspector Myers, deputy for the City Dance Hall. The judge, after checking the facts, ruled that the way Anderson taught tango was perfectly moral and could be danced. In order to reach this conclusion, both Anderson and his partner performed for him; after the show he stated: “Every single thing of beauty can be made vulgar, but just because some dancers are vulgar we cannot forbid them all”[20]. This wasn’t the only time professional dancers had to explain themselves to the law. A dance instructor from the Ebell Club avoided paying the tax dance teachers had to pay by stating that since tango was not considered a dance, she was not exercising her profession when she was teaching people to dance it. Police inspector Mac Philips thought otherwise, expressing that instructing it was within laws set by the city where anybody teaching a dance class or directing an academy was subject to tax. The teacher was placed under arrest until she decided to pay.

Controversy ran high and wide across the country. For example, in Chicago every dance move at a café or theatre where tango was danced was performed under the watchful eye of the Municipal Council Tango Committee. In Philadelphia, police were called to intervene when a young swimmer, a University of California graduate, showed up at the swimming pool wearing a swimming suit and performed a tango choreography. Lieutenant Mills of the regional police stopped the act after evaluating it morally inappropriate. At the University of Vermont, by vote of the student council, tango was avoided at student parties.

The cities that took on the new fashion with confidence were usually those with an active show-business life such as New York and Los Angeles. For example, a new comedic musical called The Widow´s Tango delighted Broadway audiences as much as the play The Girl from Montmartre had the previous year when showed at the Manhattan Lyceum. The plot was simple indeed: three widows from Maryland had their own tutor from Chicago. They wore panties, hats and tango shoes among other things. They showed different ways of dancing it: New York, Parisian and California style[21].

Women’s associations who used to patronize high society parties brought on the arrival of tango to American high society. That’s how the Woman’s Alliance Maternity Cottage threw a ball at Mrs. Kendis’ house where they drank tea and danced tango with a tango instructor between four and six in the afternoon. It was such an overwhelming success that they decided to have the same event every week as a fundraiser for various institutions. As we can see, tango could be attractive enough to serve several purposes or maybe any excuse to practice it seemed acceptable. Finally, ladies of the patronage justified themselves by saying they were only imitating the British; some respectable ladies from Los Angeles placed themselves in the avant garde funding a tango club. Waltz was now forgotten and the new club served the purpose of teaching the novel new dance steps. As reviewed by a newspaper, it would always be popular among the male audience. Members of the club were none other than Women`s Alliance members who had organized fundraisers and Mrs. Kendis[22].

From the American point of view as well as the European one, tango was associated with several issues: consumption, art, fashion, taste, crime, the forefront and rejection.

[1]Castro, Donald: The Argentine Tango as Social History: 1880-1955. The soul of the people. The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd. 1991; Dinzel, Rodolfo: El tango: una danza, Buenos Aires, Corregidor, 1994.; Matamoro, Blas: La Ciudad del Tango, Buenos Aires, Galerna, 1982. ; Pujol, Sergio: Historia del Baile. De la milonga a la disco. Buenos Aires, Emece, 1999. ; Savigliano, Marta: Tango and the political economy of passion. Westview Press, 1995.

[2]Matallana, Andrea: Qué saben los pitucos. La experiencia del tango entre 1910-1940, Prometeo Libros, Buenos Aires, 2009.

[3]The New York Times, 23 de abril de 1911.

[4]The New York Times, 20 de agosto de 1911.

[5] The New York Times, 10 de diciembre de 1911.

[6]Caras y Caretas, 12 de julio de 1912.

[7] The Day Books of Chicago, 14 de diciembre de 1912.

[8] Los Angeles Times, 1 de enero de 1913.

[9] The New York Times, 21 de marzo de 1913.

[10] The New York Times, 6 de Julio de 1913.

[11] The New York Times, 28 de septiembre de 1913.

[12] El Corresponsal de España, Madrid, 16 de enero de 1914

[13] The New York Times, 19 de octubre de 1913

[14] Los Angeles Times, 25 de noviembre de 1913.

[15] Times, 14 de febrero de 1914

[16] The Times, 20 de noviembre de 1913

[17] The Times 23 de mayo de 1913

[18] Los Angeles Times, 24 de octubre de 1913

[19] The Washington Post, 1 de Noviembre de 1914

[20] Los Angeles Times, 17 de octubre de 1913

[21] Los Angeles Times, 11 de diciembre de 1913.

[22] Los Angeles Times, 26 de noviembre de 1913.


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