The metaphoric adjective known as “chicken-and-egg” is used to describe situations where it is not clear what event came first, or what was its cause and effect. To me, this does not apply to tango. It is clear that the dance came first. Moreover, that women were (both) the cause and effect for the socio-artistic enigma that followed. Men of course were instrumental (pun intended) in tango’s future development, but men did not initiate or conceive tango.
Gustavo Benzecry Sabá recently published a book: “Los Legionarios del Abrazo. Historia del Tango Danza 1800 – 1983“. In English: “The Quest for the Embrace – The History of Tango Dance 1800-1983“. (C’est déjà disponible en français aussi.) I have not read his book so I’m not sure what Gustavo’s claims are, as to the origins that date back to 1800. His chosen date for tango’s inception precedes (by 50 years) any other renditon I’ve encountered, yet it is in line with the proposition I present here.
If we accept the long-held premise that tango was first revealed in the brothels of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, then there is only one feasible conclusion: women conceived this dance in brothels where they were (both) the proprietors and operators. Over time, those midwives and nurturers subsequently encouraged men to participate in its further development.
Obviously men were sufficiently stimulated by their initial encounters with these women that they enthusiastically sought to repeat and (then) romanticize the events. Men contributed effusively to the music, poetry, song, dance and its general culture (for example Lunfardo). Tango didn’t have a name at the time of its inception; I believe it got its moniker in the early 1900’s. Recording devices in the early 1800’s were limited to cerebral memory, word-of-mouth, urban ‘folk tales’, artist renderings and the written word. (Photography began to be available after 1850.) Imagine this: if Benzecry is accurate in his origins timeline, Carlos Gardel was more than a hundred years away and the “Golden Age” of the great dance orchestras was even further.
Let’s examine another fairly obvious fact, although I’ve never seen it proposed anywhere: women spawned tango in brothels operated by women. Their ‘nouveau pas de deux’ was purposefully conceived in order that their brood learn how to treat women with respect and dignity, specifically during the time (before-and-after) the available services were tendered. I imagine that as the operators of a brothel women related to their service providers on an instinctual basis. Effectively, all the women involved in this enterprise wanted to realize two objectives: 1) making money, and 2) achieving the #1 goal in a pleasing, cultivated environment. That’s herstory; simple yet multi-faceted, elegant yet entrepreneurial, adaptable yet goal-oriented. (Also mindful, compassionate, generous and prescient.)
History shows us that in brothels operated by men women are demeaned, derided and degraded. Women are treated as chattel, sex slaves, and made to suffer the most primal impulses of the (male) clientele in a debasing, often abusive manner. I imagine that the entire ‘services’ aspect of brothels run by men is simply based on a ‘get-in, get-out’ premise. That’s history (in this case). Forceful and self-serving, uninventive and obsessive, undignified and short-sighted. (Also contemptible, ignoble, amoral and intolerant.)
The proposition here is that we accept there were specific elements at play during tango’s inception: men and women, desire and need, enterprise and sociology, music and dance. Other elements, the most romantic and nostalgic of all, progressed in alignment with women’s directives of the era; hence its prose, poetry, art and song that, combined with the music and dance, formed the socio-cultural roots of tango that many hold so dear today.
Please note that I am not a historian or sociologist of any kind, and I don’t pretend to be. And I imagine that tango’s original setting is not the first time in the human experience when women devised this music and dance prelude to ‘the sale of goods’. After all, it has been one of the roles of women throughout time and across the globe to inspire men to behave in a civilized, refined manner, at least while they are in the company of women. It’s simply the nature of things.
THE SEED – let there be music!
What is the most cultivating element or endeavour ever conceived by humans? After language, I would suggest that it’s music.
Many of us have musicians as friends or family members. Sometimes we witness them exploring new hybrid rhythmic forms while they’re just ‘playing around’ in search of a new avenue of inspiration or discovery. Tango musicologists will likely tell us that this was part of the process (of human curiosity and creativity) that developed into the form of music we now know as tango. The original inspiration came from somewhere though, and that inspiration was surely the new movement and etiquette quest that was playing out before their eyes.
Tango music is written in 4/4 time. But so is blues, salsa, swing, tons of jazz, a mountain of classical, as well as many other styles/forms of music. I invite you to ask a tango musician what makes a tango tango.
In any case, dance and music are undeniable primal forces within us.
A FERTILE COUPLING, THE NEED – embrace the moment!
Before it was given a name and evolved into a socio-cultural entity, the tango was mothered by ‘professional’ women of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Apparently the ratio of men to women in those cities (for a certain period of time in the latter half of the 1800’s) was astoundingly lop-sided, something like 8 to 1. So women were a precious ‘commodity’ (if you’ll excuse the term) and were purposefully treated as such. And I’m certain they would insist upon this respect and recognition in an environment or enterprise of their own making.
Social partner ‘touch dancing’ is relatively new in the human experience. It first became known to peasants in Germanic countries around 1750, via variants of the waltz. So it’s feasible that as early as 1800 knowledge of how to approximate a physical movement relationship with a woman in a social setting arrived in Buenos Aires and Montevideo during the first half of that century. But the big economic and building boom of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, where we see the influences of the great cities and cultures of Europe taking form in the architecture, fashion, music, industry and business developments, took place much later in the 1800’s. The overall energy within these emerging cities must have been tremendously exciting, despite the political and economic turmoil of the first part of the century.
The fundamental elements of the dance tango are to move in elegant harmony with someone, in a close embrace. To be sure, the men being inspired in these settings were not aristocratic dandies. They were companions of the diverse tradesmen building the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Imagine the natural gait of those men; it had a characteristic purpose specific to their lot in life, their trade. Elegance in movement was not a quality innate in them. However it became a learned and sought-after skill when a woman showed them why, how and when this ability would be useful to them. Women introduced them to a sophisticated ‘ritual’ that could touch upon their basic needs and indeed their very souls!
Such is the power of tango, its embrace. Such was the vision of the midwives and nurturers of the dance that became tango.
THE FRUITS OF LABOUR – romance me ’till the end of time!
Many women seem to possess an inherent aptitude for movement in dance. They also possess an intrinsic ability to recognize the needs of men and how to couple those needs with their own. So it’s not surprising that they would create a social dance activity that is overtly intimate and sensual. One that, in the grand scheme of things, responds to women’s needs first, and then acknowledges the needs of men in its enactment. Brilliant!
BIRTHRIGHT, IDENTITY, AUTHENTICITY
Milena Plebs gave me and Danielle Sturk one of our most cherished compliments: “You have a very authentic tango”. The year was 1995; we were in a private session with her, and following her and Miguel Zotto in a public tango congress in Evanston, Illinois (just outside of Chicago).
We understood what Milena meant with her comment. She meant that we were true to our individual selves while dancing together. We had connection and communication without pretensions or distractions. We had respect for the general form of dancing tango, as well as individual and combined creativity that complimented our dance artist backgrounds.
Not everyone in tango is as thoughtful, talented or open-minded as Milena. For some, “authenticity” means that you must be a) Argentine; or b) imitate a particular style, or era; or c) that you categorically fit in with their particular definitions of what is “real tango”. Some Argentines view it as their birthright to impose a tango identity on others. OK. I won’t deny them their point of view. I have my own.
Over time however, when reflecting on authenticity in tango as a dance in the actual, physical sense, as opposed to the literal cultural sense that some are consumed with, I considered at length what it must have been like when tango music and dance were spawned in the brothels of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The above text represents some of my thoughts on this matter. If you got this far, I thank you for allowing me to share those thoughts with you.