Before The Twerk, There Was The Tango


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04iht-retrospective-tango-art-blog480About 100 years before some New Yorkers were shocked by the sexually-provocative twerk during the 2013 MTV Music Awards show on television, other New Yorkers were shocked by the tango.

After it first appeared in Paris, London, and Berlin from its starting place in Argentina, the tango soon came to New York where it became wildly popular in 1913. The tango’s rhythm has been described as “exciting and provocative” and the dance steps as “hot, passionate and precise.” Women often wore slit skirts when they danced the tango and there was full body contact with their partners, upwards from their upper thighs and pelvis. Routinely, the dancers’ hips were thrust forward and sometimes their legs were intertwined and hooked together.

By 1914, the tango was well on its way to taking the Empire State by storm. A seven-column headline in the New York Times read, “All New York Now Madly Whirling in the Tango.” According to the columnist who wrote the story, there had been such an explosion of music and dancing in the city that “we have the luncheon dance, the tea dance, the dinner dance, the supper dance, and the dance that begins at 1 o’clock in the morning and keeps going as long as people want to stay up.”

Tangomania alarmed public officials and the clergy. Mayor William Jay Gaynor said that because some of the tango dances had become “lascivious orgies,” all public dance halls needed to be licensed and their hours regulated.

Ban the TangoRoman Catholic Church officials went even further than the mayor and said tango dancing presented a moral danger to society and was “positively indecent.” The Roman Catholic Bishop of Albany stated that dancing the tango “would be unbecoming of Christians and conducive of immorality.” The pastor of the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Fairport, Monroe County, condemned the tango from the pulpit. In Rome, Italy, a cardinal representing the pope, issued a pastoral letter that denounced the tango for perverting the soul and being representative of the “new paganism.”

Protestant and Jewish religious officials applauded the Catholic Church’s vilification of the dance. A Baptist pastor described tango dancing as “a form of nervous degeneracy.” An Episcopal pastor said that by becoming so absorbed in “corrupt forms of dancing,” young men and women were sinking “lower into sensuality…love gone insane.” A rabbi condemned the tango for its “vulgarity” and “indecency” and a speaker at one synagogue warned tango dancers that they had “no right morally to mar the lives of [their] unborn children.”

Not everyone wanted to reign in or ban the tango. The New York Times reminded its readers that in former years, similar criticism had been leveled at the waltz and the polka. The Times said the tango was not immoral nor was every dancer “a satyr or a hilding.”

The Tupper Lake Herald editorialized that if the tango were danced properly, it could be as pleasing as the waltz, but unfortunately, many dancers don’t know how. The Malone Farmer agreed and gave some dance tips to its readers who wanted to dance the tango the right way. “Don’t wiggle the shoulders; don’t shake the hips; don’t twist the body; don’t flounce the elbows; don’t pump the arms; don’t hop or glide; and avoid low fantastic acrobatic dips.” If its readers thought that the dance tips were as “insipid” as the Farmer suggested they might be, the paper proclaimed, “Bring on the old-fashioned Virginia reel and a six-measure hoe-down.”

In June, 1914, news from the court of King George and Queen Mary of England helped convince more Americans that perhaps the tango was not so bad after all. The royal couple saw the tango performed for the first time by two professional American dancers, Maurice and Florence Walton, during a one-hour dance exhibition put on before a ball the king and queen were hosting for members of the English and Russian royalty. Queen Mary, who had censured the tango the previous year, smiled and applauded often during the dancing which she described as “charming.” She said, “I don’t see why people find anything wrong in these dances.”

As the year 1914 came to an end, the Times reported that hotels which had barred the tango during 1914 New Year’s Eve celebrations were expected to welcome it for 1915 New Year’s Eve festivities. In fact, the paper stated that hotels and restaurants were expecting the 1915 celebrations to be the biggest the city had ever seen and that dancing was going to play a bigger part in them that it had the previous year.

With this news, the verse that the Times had originally printed in defense of the tango at the start of the year, took on a sharper bite:

Said the Rev. Jabez McCotten,
“The waltz of the devil’s begotten!”
But Jim made reply,
“Never mind the old guy,
To the pure almost everything’s rotten.”

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