Battle for the AgesOn May 6, 2020 by Elyse
In the early years of the 20th century, an epic conflict was fought on battlefields across the globe. It would ultimately impact millions of lives.
I refer, of course, to the clash of morality vs. the tango.
Put on your dancing shoes, and get ready to rumble! In this corner, we have the upstanding, waltz-dancing stalwarts of society. In that corner, we have a dance described as “obscene,” a spreader of “moral looseness” and a corrupter “of all humanity. . . its wanton barbarity was only emphasized by the fact that it was celebrated on Broadway.”
Like any hero—or villain—the tango has a suitably dramatic origin story.
The infectious dance was born and bred in the Argentine Republic, in the capital city of Bow-Knees Aires. One day it crawled aboard a banana steamer, bound for New York. The boat swayed to phonograph music all the way.
After evading the customs officials, the tango germ got to Broadway. In a few weeks the fever had spread the length and breadth of the country, and when Wilson was sworn in last March, he became president of the United States of Tangomania.
But if old President Monroe had ever dreamed a thing like the tango was coming out of South America, he never would have written the Monroe Doctrine, either words or music.– Gene Morgan, the Day Book, August 13, 1913
Other sources suggest alternative, equally facetious theories for the birth of the tango.
Everybody knows that sun spots regulate dancing: and as it is a critical period of solar activity none may hope—and few would desire—to keep folks from being charmed by rhythmic movement. . .
The sun’s periods of eleven years, its maximums of thirty-three years and grand maximum of once a century correspond very perfectly to the waltz of 1812. . . the polka of 1845. . . the cancan of 1869. . . the cakewalk of 1902 and the tango of 1913.– The Sun, February 1, 1914
Regardless of how it came to be, in no time at all, hardly any aspect of daily life was safe from the tango craze.
Not even the upper echelons of society were spared.
Paragons of virtue around the world quickly mobilized to prevent its pernicious spread.
The Catholic church turned its thumbs down on the tango and it had an immediate effect in New York. About the same time several Irish peeresses, who are among the leading London hostesses publicly announced a boycott of the dance.
Several weeks ago the tango was given a nasty cut in the north of Europe when the Kaiser ordered it suppressed wherever the German army officers danced, and this was followed by an attack in the south of Europe that while not so vigorous was equally effective.– Carlton Ten Eyck, the Daily Star-Mirror, January 19, 1914
The tango, it seems, has attained the dignity of a sociological problem. Mayor Harrison of Chicago has appointed a committee of the City Council to frame a tango ordinance, which will decide what is good in the modern dance and what is of the devil, so to speak. . .
If the tango is vulgar and shocking to modesty and good form, it should be suppressed. The dignified waltz and quadrille of our fathers and mothers should be good enough for their sensible self-respecting sons and daughters.– The Caucasian, November 9, 1913
Chicago in particular recognized the threat posed by the tango ahead of many other municipalities and acted decisively.
The ban applied only to restaurants, but later that year, Mayor Carter Harrison IV—archnemesis of anything fun—sought to pass similar legislation for dance halls. Clearly, he’d never seen “Footloose.”
Alderman Pretzel announced that he is preparing an ordinance to limit the tango dance, eliminating the “dip” and providing that dancers keep at least four inches apart. The alderman says that no woman can do the tango “dip” in the present styles of tight skirts with any degree of modesty. The dance hall investigation is said to have originated at the suggestion of Mayor Harrison.– The Prescott Daily News, November 18, 1913
Talk about social distancing. It’s unclear if the dance hall legislation was ever passed, but the ban on tango dancing in restaurants was quickly challenged and overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. Civilized or not, at least Chicagoans can rest, or rather, dance easy.
Some saw a middle ground between immodest dipping and legal prohibition.
But where’s the fun in that?
It wouldn’t be the 20th century if the tango didn’t cause panic about a horrific new disease.
[Chiropodists] have declared that women who indulge in society’s latest dance are letting themselves in for a painful affliction known as “tango toe,” which is alleged to develop after a few months of tangoing and to cause the unhappy tangoer much torment.– The Day Book, August 14, 1913
If tango toe weren’t bad enough, the dance was also blamed for causing the First World War.
The tango has suffered many attacks. It has been blamed for much. It received the bitterest blow of all, however. . . from the pen of the Norwegian writer, Theodore Caspari, who, “after profound meditating,” has solemnly declared that the tango was to blame for the European war. It was “the frenzy of the tango,” according to Caspari, that produced the psychological situation from which developed the frenzy of war.– The Day Book, November 16, 1914
As the Homeric battle—morality vs. the tango, not World War I—wore on, some tried to keep the situation in perspective.
Molehills often have been made into mountains, and in this serio-comic age tempests in teapots are of hourly occurrence, but certainly never before was there a greater hub-bub over a more insignificant matter than all this hue and cry after the tango.
The poor old tango is being talked and written to death. And why? Nobody seems to know. Nobody ever yet was kidnapped, dragged by the hair onto a ball-room floor and made to dance the tango. Those who do not like it are at liberty to let it alone.– Carlton Ten Eyck, the Daily Star-Mirror, January 19, 1914
Others drew valuable lessons from the past.
Years ago when the waltz chased the square dance off the floor, an Omaha preacher denounced it as a menace to morals because the waltzers got so close together that a silver dollar could not drop between them. Nowadays the waltz is esteemed a highly proper back number.– The Omaha Daily Bee, November 5, 1913
Perhaps we’ll say the same about Miley Cyrus-style twerking someday—although at risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, I hope not.
Opposition from the high and mighty didn’t stop the tango from marching onto dance floors across the nation.
It is safe to say that not a performance is given in any one of New York’s hundred-odd vaudeville theatres that there is not at least one dancing number on the program that includes an exhibition of the tango. It is an even safer assertion to say that there is not one restaurant in the thousands in the greater city where a cabaret is maintained, that the tango is not danced.– Carlton Ten Eyck, the Daily Star-Mirror, January 19, 1914
As the tango became accepted by society at large, the elites wasted no time in preserving their place in the hierarchy.
Fashion designers capitalized on the craze, too.
The winner of this round is clear: Tango, 1; Morality, 0.
I, for one, can’t wait to see which new, outrageous, “obscene” dance will compete against morality during the next solar maximum. Get those telescopes ready.
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.