The tango, which has already been condemned by illustrious Bishops, and is prohibited even in Protestant countries, must be absolutely prohibited in the seat of the Roman Pontiff, the centre of the Catholic religion.
Cardinal Pompili, 1914
It is everything that can be imagined. It is revolting and disgusting. Only those persons who have lost all moral sense can endure it. It is the shame of our days. Whoever persists in it commits a sin.
Cardinal Cavallari, 1914
Exactly 100 years ago, November 17, 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany forbade his officers to dance the tango while in uniform, describing the dance as “Rinnsteinkind”, (a child of the curbstone). But Argentinean Tango is still pretty much alive, in spite of the uneasy history.
The tango was born in the back streets of Buenos Aires among the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who emigrated to South America looking for a new life. The dance was a combination of the many different cultures and dance styles represented in that mix of backgrounds.
During the later part of the 1800s and early 1900s, Argentina was undergoing a massive immigration. In 1869, Buenos Aires had a population of 180,000. By 1914, its population was 1.5 million. The intermixing of African, Spanish, Italian, British, Polish, Russian and native-born Argentines resulted in a melting pot of cultures, and each borrowed dance and music from one another. Traditional polkas, waltzes and mazurkas were mixed with the popular habanera from Cuba and the candombe rhythms from Africa.
Large scale immigration, most of whom were men, increased the population Buenos Aires. One figure suggests that at one point the ratio may have been about 50 men for every woman.
Men tempted by the idea of a better life and streets paved with gold, instead found a lonely squalid place with muddy streets and poor accommodation. Often they were stranded on the outskirts of the city and everyday became a struggle to survive.
The one trade that flourished above all others was prostitution. A reflection of the hardships endured by the people, a way of survival for some, and a desperate means of earning income for others. It is unlikely the working girls saw much of the money. For many men, owning a woman who earned good money working in a brothel, became a status symbol.
It is here in the brothels and bordellos on the back streets of Buenos Aires, that the Tango really came to life. These illegal brothels, most became known as Academies de Dance, were the massage parlors of their day. The dance had to be simple, so if the police raided the joint (police which hadn't been bribed), there would appear to be "dancing instruction" going on.
It was the rise of the Compadritos and the Compadres who really launched the Tango. Compadritos - the street man, sometimes but not always, small time villains, petty criminals and pimps. Compadres - the local men of some means, sometimes shady dealings, slightly better off than the compadritos who tried to emulate them.
The dance probably started out as some form of acting out of the relationship between the prostitute and pimp. This was often reflected in the titles of the first tangos which referred to characters in the world of prostitution. It must also be noted that when written lyrics began to appear, women were often portrayed as evil temptresses, there to lead men into sin and degradation.
At this time, the dance was totally rejected be the upper class elite of Buenos Aires society, as a dirty street dance. Although, many of the young well-to-do gentlemen, would allegedly visit the ‘Dance Academies’ for instruction.
Around 1880, a new instrument arrived from Germany, the Bandoneon. A difficult instrument to master but its wailing sound caught the very feeling of the Tango. It became inextricably linked to the music of the Tango, from then to now.
From the early 1900, however, a new type of lyric began to appear. One recalling bygone times, often with a sad, melancholia, recalling wasted lives, lost loves, unrequited love, the missing of a mother, the missing of your barrios [district] or street but most all, the love of the Tango itself. The lyrics were written in the language of the streets of Buenos Aires, Lunfardo, a mixture of Spanish, Italian, Native Creole and words strangely twisted.
The change in the Tango lyrics may also have occurred at this time because it is thought that Tango was first demonstrated by the Argentinean playboy Ricardo Guiraldes in 1910/1911 in Paris. It was so different from the dances of the time and considered somewhat obscene. It challenged the conventions of acceptable public behavior of the time. The Comtesse Melainie de Pourtalis stated, upon seeing a demonstration of the dance in 1912, "Is one supposed to dance it standing up".
However, the rapid acceptance by the people of Europe of the dance, invariably meant that it was re-exported back to Buenos Aires. Now it was embraced by the upper classes, who had so vigorously opposed it only a few years early.
The dance was quickly adopted by the high-class Parisian dance salons and took Europe by storm. It became fashionable to throw tango parties and tango tea dances. By the early 1900s, the dance had become so popular that it attracted the attention of many church and government leaders.
Because of its daring character, Cardinal Amette in Paris declared that “Christians should not in good conscience take part in it.” Then Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany forbade his officers to dance the tango while in uniform, describing the dance as “an affront to common decency.” Following the Kaiser's example, the King of Bavaria has put a ban on the tango. A secret Cabinet order of 1914 has been circulated among the Bavarian army officers informing them that his Majesty will look upon it with disfavor if during the coming Christmas festivities officers take part in entertainments at which the tango is danced. "The King," the order states, "regards participation in such a dance as absurd and unworthy of an officer.
Pope Benedict XV complained “An outrageous, indecent, heathen dance, which is an assassination of family and social life”.
The French ecclesiastical authorities appear determined to kill the tango. The Archbishop of Camhrat took the Initiative, and was followed by the Archbishop of Lyons and the Bishop of Verdun. The Bishop of Chalons-sur-Marne has issued a decree condemning the tango as "profoundly dangerous to morals." He enjoined all confessors, especially those living in towns, to combat it with all their influence.
In spite of the bans and public condemnations, the tango spread worldwide throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The dance appeared in movies and tango singers traveled the world. By the 1930s, the Golden Age of Argentina was beginning. The country became one of the ten richest nations in the world and music, poetry and culture flourished. The tango came to be a fundamental expression of Argentine culture, and the Golden Age lasted through the 1940s and 1950s.
The coup in 1955 that ousted General Perón had profound consequences for Argentina as a whole, and for the Tango in particular, launching the country into a kind of modern Dark Age. The new military government was made up of members of the upper classes, for whom the culture of the mass of the population was alien and dangerous. They did not understand the Tango. They did not dance it.
Also they had a knee-jerk reaction that anything Perón had said was good must be bad. Perón was a nationalist and a populist, and Tango was both national and popular. Perón had used Tango and Tango artists for his political purposes, and many famous Tango artists were involved with the Peronist movement. As a consequence many artists were either imprisoned or blacklisted by the new regime.
And large numbers of men meeting every night in the social halls of community or political associations in order to dance together? That would have seemed very suspicious, and an obvious cover for political agitation.
It would have been difficult to ban the Tango itself, although specific songs were banned, and some had to have their titles changed. Some of the measures natural to a repressive regime took their toll on the dance. At various times there were curfews, making things difficult for a night-time activity like Tango. At other times there were bans on meetings of more than three people, making a social dance illegal.
But one very subtle and clever attack was made specifically against the Tango. This story was told to me by someone who ran a number of Tango dances in the mid-1950s. There were laws banning the presence of minors in nightclubs. These laws were rigidly enforced for Tango clubs, but were not enforced at all for clubs that only played Rock and Roll music. So where before the coup the best way for a young man to meet a young woman was in a milonga, suddenly it was much easier to meet a girl by dancing Rock and Roll. Overnight, young men stopped learning how to dance the Tango. There was no reason to spend three years learning how to dance Tango, when the girl you liked was in a Rock and Roll club instead. The generation of 18 years old in 1955 learned to dance the Tango well and with confidence. The generation of 13 years old didn't learn it at all.
“Seize all copies and burn them !” shouted the Bologna, Italy prosecutor, “self serving pornography, that’s all it is” he continued with indignation…to thunderous acclaim, the film “Last Tango in Paris” had been released in Italy on December 15, 1972. Just one week later, police seized all copies and its director Bernardo Bertolucci, its producer Alberto Grimaldi and actress Maria Schneider were arrested and put on trial for obscenity. Following a series of sensational trials and appeals, the fate of the movie was sealed when on January 26, 1976 the Italian Supreme Court ruled all copies to be destroyed. Its director Bernardo Bertolucci was served with a four-month suspended sentence in prison and had his civil rights revoked for five years. It was not until 1987, fifteen years later, that the censorship ban was finally revoked and for the official release of the film permitted.
Despite these bans the tango survived, particularly through the First World War, as people sought distractions from the horror of war. Today the tango is part of any ballroom dancing repertoire, and its effects on “common decency” are no longer feared.
And here is an interesting comparison how the dance has changed over the years. The first clip is from 20s, and the second is modern.
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