History

Clichés about Tango Origins of the Dance

by Christine Denniston
Christine Denniston is author of Dancing Tango – Unlocking the Mysteries and Secrets of the Tango – 1914

There is a cliché that Tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires. However, a more likely explanation is that the brothels were where people of the upper and middle classes first encountered it. Members of Argentina’s literary classes – the people who are most likely to leave written evidence – did not mix socially with members of the lower, immigrant classes except in brothels.

Brothels were major places of entertainment for the working classes. The terrible shortage of women in Buenos Aires made prostitution a thriving industry. A shortage of women in the population also meant a shortage of women to work in the brothels. With many potential clients and few working women, the consequence was that there would be queues in the brothels as men waited for the women to become available.

In exactly the same way that a few years later Madams in New Orleans would employ artists like Jelly Roll Morton, at the cutting edge of the new music transforming Rag Time into Jazz, to entertain the men while they waited

BA Obelesque 1

, brothel owners in Buenos Aires would employ Tango musicians. In both cities, these musicians were playing the music of the poor, and brothels were amongst the very few places in that section of society that could afford to employ professional musicians. So it is not surprising to see that the most important early musicians often spent some time working in brothels before becoming successful to a wider audience. The difference is that the chattering classes and opinion formers in the United States were likely to have heard Jazz for the first time in a nightclub in New York or Chicago rather than in New Orleans, while in Buenos Aires it was in the brothels that opinion formers first heard and saw it.

The idea that it was the prostitutes in the brothels that danced with the men while they waited is an appealing one, but doesn’t make logical sense. The point was that the men were waiting because the women were otherwise occupied. Obviously the brothel’s income would be maximised by keeping the girls busy at their primary occupation, so certainly at peak periods where the brothel was busiest there would not be women available for dancing. However, if there was music then it seems to me to be a pretty safe bet that th

e men would have used the opportunity to practice their dancing together.

At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century Buenos Aires had been little more than a village at the furthest corner of the Spanish Empire. In the middle of the Nineteenth Century the British arrived to develop the railway network across Argentina. This opened up this practically deserted country, and made accessible its potentially huge wealth. It made possible the transportation of agricultural produce for export, and also the exploitation of mineral resources. The only thing missing was the workers necessary to make the landowners rich.

The Argentine government decided to advertise in Europe for workers. They offered accommodation for a man’s first w

eek in Argentina with very generous rations, and sometimes subsidised passage. Immediately an avalanche of immigration began. Unlike the immigration to much of the New World, which might include families or whole communities hoping to start a new life in a new land, much of the immigration into Argentina was economic – people hoping to work for a few years, make some decent money, and then go back home to their families. So the overwhelming majority of the immigrants were men. And by the beginning of the Twentieth Century the overwhelming majority of people in Buenos Aires were immigrants. This meant that there was an enormous lack of women.

Not only did the majority of the immigrants not get rich, and so never go home, but they also had very little chance of creating a family for themselves in Argentina. There were simply not enough women for all the men who might have wanted to settle down and have children to be able to do so.

BA photo 1

There were really only two practical ways for a man to get close to a woman under these circumstances. One was to visit a prostitute and the other was to dance. With so much competition from other men on the dance floor, if a man wanted a woman to dance with him, it was necessary for him to be a good dancer, and being a good dancer only meant one thing. It didn’t matter if he knew lots of fancy steps, or if the other men thought he was a good dancer. The only thing that mattered was that the woman in his arms had a good time when she danced with him – because with so many other men to choose from, if she didn’t enjoy dancing with him she wouldn’t do it again, and neither would her friends.

This meant that it was necessary for the men to practice together in order to be good enough to dance with the women. It is important to remember that this was a time before recorded music was available. The only kind of music was live music, and there would have been very little of it. So if a group of men heard music playing they would jump at the chance to dance to it. In the brothels there would be live music and other men waiting. So it seems to me quite obvious that the clients of the brothels would have danced together while they waited, making the most of the opportunity to practice, not because they wanted to dance with a prostitute, but because they wanted to be able to dance well when they got the opportunity to dance with a woman who was not a prostitute.

It was the potential wives and sweethearts that lived in the tenement blocks – conventillos – that they were hoping for a chance to dance with. A prostitute took money from a man in return for her favours – a clear and simple transaction. To win a sweetheart in the real world took something more, and being a good dancer helped a lot.

It was not in the brothels that Tango was born, but in the courtyards of the tenement blocks where the poor lived. With so many people living together in one building, it was very likely that someone might play the guitar, perhaps someone else might play the violin or the flute, and that from time to time they would get together to play the popular tunes of the time. And other people in

Dancing tonight sign

the building would take the opportunity to dance, to have a moment of joy in what might be a terribly hard and lonely life.

The music and dance became a common language that united people from many different cultures. It was here that the different music and dance styles brought by immigrants from different countries, and by the people already in Argentina, blended together, and what emerged slowly became Tango.

Another cliché of the origins of Tango is the men dancing on a street corner. This certainly must have happened. People relied on live music to dance, and there were buskers in Buenos Aires, as in any city, making a living from playing for passers by. One of the most popular instruments for buskers was the barrel organ, or organito. Without a doubt, men hearing a busker playing a tango would have been keen to take the opportunity to practice, and buskers would have found it profitable to have a few tangos in their repertoires.

The men practicing together, looking for the best ways to please a woman when they danced with her, preparing for that rare moment when they actually did have a woman in their arms, were the people who created the Tango as a dance. It evolved and became Tango, unique and glorious, under these very special and unusual circumstances.