Tango: Resistance and Transgression

  • From: El Tango entre dos Américas. Andrea Matallana

News arriving from Europe spoke of the King of Italy prohibiting tango with the Catholic Church’s inflamed rejection of it supporting him. By the end of 1913, the Pope himself condemned tango, seeing in it an expression of a “new paganism” and requesting members of the clergy to safeguard the “sanctity of Christian customs from the dangerous threats and immorality of it”[1]. Even with this condemnation people in Rome danced tango. For some, forbidding it did nothing but provide it with public notoriety; for others, it was a way of sheltering devoted Christians.

However, the press made known that several Protestant pastors and Jewish rabbis had expressed their support of the Pope’s decision to ban it. That was the case of Rabbi Jacob Nieto of the Sherith Israel Congregation who had criticized it even if he believed it to be “beautiful when danced by cultured people but for those of low social class it was vulgar”. Reverend Eaton sustained “it is crazy, a form of degenerating the nerves. People seem to have abandoned common sense, their sense of self and, in some cases, their morals”. Confrontation between tango and the Catholic Church reached the point where two members of one of the most renowned catholic families requested a Papal audience with Pope Pius X and danced tango.

“Is this tango?” – He asked.

“Yes, Your Holiness.”

“Well, my dear children” -said the Pope- “you couldn’t possibly find it charming”[2].

The Supreme Pontiff concluded that declaring it a sin would be cruel and allowed people to dance it on the condition that the name be changed. A reporter from The New York Times analyzed the situation saying that an old man, unfamiliar with whatever was in fashion in the world, if shown tango steps in a discrete way, would conclude it to be tedious and unsightly rather than immoral. In the Pope’s case this conclusion was correct, tango could not be considered a sin taking into account that what he had seen was surely nothing like the real porteño tango.

A movement against this dance began in Paris. The Bishop of Verdun requested it to be prohibited on grounds of it being deeply dangerous and immoral. The Archbishop of Lyon labeled it an abomination while others insisted on it being prohibited for Catholic parishioners. Voices raised against tango’s immorality made The New York Times desire to poll readers on who was for or against tango[3]. Without a doubt religious plurality justified the poll. Out of over fifty questioned, sixteen Bishops of different churches answered about the new dance: only two voted in favor while the rest voted against it even when they had no evidence supporting their unfavorable opinion. At least seven of them asked to be excused from taking the survey stating that they hadn’t had a chance to see what the dance consisted of. Others, such as J. S. Lyons, moderator at Kentucky’s Presbyterian Church stated that tango entailed indecent attitudes and moves, and clearly backed prohibition. The bishop president of the Reformed Episcopal Church stated that it had to be banned because it was one of the worst things ever to arrive in the USA. It had been described to him as: “many of the dance steps are practiced to artificially increase the dancer’s sexual nature”. To the bishop of Texas`s Corpus Christi Church it was dangerous even as an artistic expression because regular people couldn’t make the art of it prevail over the sensual tendencies, therefore making room for their inflamed passions. The bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church of St. Louis spoke against all modern dances saying they were offensive to good taste. Finally, among most opinions collected, we’ll point out two that can be considered moderate: the first is that of the Bishop of St. Joachim’s in Fresno, who claimed that it was likely that the problem was not in the dance steps but rather in the dancer´s intention. The second one belonged to the Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Oklahoma who thought of tango as a passing rage, a phase in time soon to end and be replaced by a new one being born. Of course, the dance in itself was grotesque but it was to be understood as a step leading to a better place[4].

Appreciations made by ecclesiastical representatives were in direct opposition to those made by members of the European high society. Princess Murat held that tango was a dance that made those who danced it feel rested, while Andre de Fouquieres did not disapprove of it as long as danced with decency and distinction. The Duchess of Rohan did not view it as indecent and claimed it could be danced without any shame like many other dances; these views were not shared by people who belonged to the high society. It was the celebrated Count of Fouquieres who taught tango steps to the wife of Mr. William Ellis Corey, America’s steel tycoon. In January 1913, the European nobleman -a distinguished dancer– seized the opportunity of a soiree in New York to show his talent in this dance taking Mabelle Corey, the tycoon’s wife, as his dance partner. Their performance was astounding and got excellent press reviews. However, despite this critique, President Wilson’s wife left tango, turkey trot and bunny hug out of the list of rhythms danced to at White House parties. Monsieur Poincaré, the French President, also decided not to include tango in any diplomatic soiree or party[5].

A few days prior to publishing the survey, The New York Times printed a lengthy article on new rhythms in fashion where they reviewed a Broadway musical called Tango or Burst! Describing the leading male dancer as an average man, chubby and sweaty, who dragged his dance partner across the entire dance floor. She appeared fascinated by the stroll from beginning to end. At a given time he stood on center stage while dipping her to the floor, then stood straight while looking at the audience in defiance as if to say: “Can you top his?”[6]. There was a difference in distinction and class, the dance was one thing in the body of European noble folk or sophisticated members of the wealthy classes and a completely different one in a sweaty man in a public performance.

As the music industry grew and music could be enjoyed in different ways and various places, tango had an impact on several social stratums even if not in the same fashion. Lower classes were far from British courtesy and good manners of the cultured class: for example, in July 1913 some two hundred female workers from Mississippi Pearl Button Company refused to work as long as sailors on steamboats played tango. They would rather listen and dance to the music than perform their task. The company claimed to have sustained losses of 5000 dollars due to the workers’ peevish attitude.

In 1914, Oregon’s The Evening Herald wondered if tango would be able to survive the blows delivered by the ecclesiastic and traditionalist resistance. From the reporter’s point of view the fact that the South American dance portrayed a serious threat indicating the age’s decay could not be denied and that was why both the Church and the State manifested themselves against it[7].

Upon comparison with tango’s heyday in Europe it was some people’s opinion that Americans were ignorant as to the meaning of tango and it was also likely that they were the worst dancers. But this was not enough to stop “tango mania”. As a matter of fact, they boasted about London’s super tango tea organizer, Jack May, being an American agent for Arthur Murray’s Academy. The event consisted in new modern dance exhibitions, bands playing live music and a parade of models sporting the latest Parisian fashion. Dancing was not compulsory and paying a seventy cent entry fee allowed the guest to enjoy tea and toast while watching a lavish display. The show’s closing act was original and unexpected: a band of black musicians played “God save the King”[8].

Tango’s presence was hybrid to such an extent that at one point it was considered a disease, for steps, embraces and physical contact were thought to portray physical and mental decadence. Columbia University’s head professor of Neurology stated that many people had enquired about pain in their feet and after extensive medical examination doctors concluded that it was due to malformations caused by new dance steps like tango and called it “tango foot”. It was also said that it was a disease diagnosed by German doctors who claimed it was commonplace among dancers. It manifested itself like a kind of rheumatism resulting from unnatural postures dancers made with their ankles and the bridge of the foot while performing tango stunts. As long as the fashion was contagious, socially speaking, it could be seen as a social epidemic. This kind of chaos, said experts, had taken place in Aachen in 1374 and Strasbourg in 1518 with the only difference being that in the past exhaustion resulting from dancing was linked to religion, witchcraft and people being possessed. In 1914 people could hardly speak in these terms even if various opposed tango.

Even economists criticized it: to Alfred D. Woodruff, manager of the Bureau of Food Supply of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, both teas and bridge games –commonplace amongst ladies belonging to the middle class as well as the upper class– did nothing but keep a high cost of living and therefore recommended using that energy on household chores that would lower the cost of living.

In 1915, Los Angeles Times echoed tango´s arrival in the USA saying that the new dance came from Latin America but had been reconstructed in Paris to be performed by the high society and had then become popular with lower classes because dancing was done socially in those days[9]. The influence tango had on public opinion was shocking. While some people saw it as a pleasant distraction and way to interact socially, others focused on the harmful effect it had. Tango was to American society more than the enticement to the exotic; it was an ongoing evaluation of what was going on in Europe. That explains two important facts: one, the impact of fashion and the reason why the press explained in detail every event, opinion and characteristic or feature of the new dance and how it was to be practiced. Two, how America’s viewpoint was not that of Europe as boundaries seem to fluctuate. Newspaper reviews focused on Europe’s respectable people’s opinions even if they valued more the opinion of liberals than that of conservative people. In a broad sense, Americans reinvented Europe.

In any case, analyzing newspapers cleared the fact that not only did America copy Europe, but they also wanted to better it. This worked as a legitimation mechanism in two ways: on the one hand, by legitimizing America’s bonds with its origins (Europe in general, England and London in particular) and on the other, as a thriving nation upping the ante on ways and customs. If the British resisted foreign ways, Americans would try to integrate them but first had to mimic them. This way of taking on fashion worked as a way of approaching England and differentiating themselves from it by adopting a style and this also allowed a two-way bond: imitation and multiple strategies for being told apart. If avant-garde British noble ladies did it then the ladies of New York and Los Angeles’ high class were sure to follow. In that sense, dance sponsors –members of clubs and associations of various sorts- played a fundamental role in the testing, rehearsing and practice of tango. In their eagerness to expand spare time and extend social bounds, organizing these kind of events –tango teas– as fundraisers for different causes provided an opportunity to prove what came from abroad. This showed that if Europe did it, so could the United States while showing how permissive and democratic they could be when speaking of polemic subjects. Americans saw that if in England tango was a craze and in Paris, an obsession, in America it could be a mix of both.

Cultural products consumption as well as substance were fundamental in depicting a standard of city life and belonging to a certain part of society; tango was found where these joined during this time. To high society tango was only practiced in private and, as it gained room in the public eye at dance halls, it began to be questioned as immoral and it was then that guardians of good manners had to intervene. Such was the case with the Police Committee in Chicago. This dance among honorable, well-behaved people could not be more than an amusement with both grace and refinement but if made vulgar it could be used for purposes other than becoming legitimate in Europe’s eyes: it could be practiced to bring forward physical closeness in a careless manner in a mock dance. Hence the search of law as a mediator and Justice`s intervention in deciding whether it was a dance or not. Once more, in the case of the dance teacher who refused to acknowledge tango as a form of ballroom dancing; law reappeared: if it was –which seemed to be the case despite its moral stand point– then the corresponding tax needed to be paid. It was not to be mistaken for physical exercise on anything of the sort; it could no longer be disguised[10].

If tango had a hidden meaning, and that showed in public, that was only so because of dancers’ irrationality; but if it was considered to be a formalized modern dance it could be performed in public risk free. From a conservative point of view, what derived from this issue was that this dance together with social changes of the time implied not only physical abandon (carelessness and indolence so vastly talked about) but also the social place it took, which was why high society young ladies were to avoid it, for it diminished their social condition. Those ladies, far from having a worthy position in society, ended up sliding down on the social ladder by doing things considered to be vulgar. Tango seemed to be the one to blame for anything that implied transgression: passion, irrationality, loss of social aura, crime, robbery, physical deformation and abandonment of religion.

[1] The New York Times, 16 de enero de 1914.

[2] The New York Times, 28 de enero de 1914

[3] The New York Times, 4 de enero de 1914.

[4] Todos los testimonios corresponden al  The New York Times, 1 de febrero de 1914.

[5] Los Angeles Times, 17 de enero de 1913.

[6] The New York Times, 18 de enero de 1914

[7] The Evening Herald, Oregón, 28 de Julio de 1914.

[8] The New York Times, 26 de abril de 1914.

[9] The New York Times, 20 de marzo de 1914.

[10] Veblen, Thorstein: Consumo ostentoso,  Buenos Aires, Miluno editorial, Pág. 106.


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