Carlos Rojas, one of our Tango instructors, says that Tango began in Buenos Aires as a human mating dance. Much as birds and other animals do, males had to compete for a limited supply of desirable females.
Dancing Tango demonstrated to a woman what kind of a mate a man would be. So Carlos likes to say that Tango is simple: “It’s just a gentleman walking with a lady so she will fall in love with him.”
Just as Carlos told us last night, Christine Denniston explains that in the late 1800s there was a massive influx of single male immigrants to Argentina. Women were scarce. The cliché is that Tango originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires, giving the men some entertainment while they waited for the services of a prostitute.
But Denniston points out that if all the prostitutes were occupied, leaving a bunch of men in the waiting room, then no woman was available to dance with the patrons. So it is unlikely that Tango was prostitute-inspired. However, it does appear that Tango was practiced in the brothel waiting rooms.
This is Denniston’s theory, which was echoed by Carlos in our Tango history lesson.
There were really only two practical ways for a man to get close to a woman under these circumstances [of lots of men and few women]. 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.
Well, so far for Laurel and me our two-hour classes aren’t so romantic. Tango is a difficult dance to learn. Often we’ve got frowns on our faces as we try to figure out why a move isn’t working for us.
Every move is led and followed in Tango. We’ve been taught the eight basic steps, and quite a few other moves, but no pattern is intended to be repeated mechanically. It’s a template for improvisation. Life isn’t predictable. Neither is Tango.
Leading and following is still a challenge for us. Often I’ll be leading away then realize that Laurel has taken over. She’s doing her own thing and I’m following. After sixteen years of marriage I’ve got a lot of practice in that.
It made me feel better to read about a beginning Tango couple with the same problem.
Memories aside, by the time our regular teachers, Esteban and Nadia, return, we realize that we have a problem. In tango, the man leads and decides all the moves, with his partner following and receiving signals for the eights, double eights, turns, and so on, all the so-called figuras that catch most people's attention when they watch tango. This is difficult for me, since, like many wives, I am used to being the one who feels she should make all the important decisions.
Well, for a couple of hours a week, I figure that a woman should be able to suck it up and be the follower for a change. So we Tango on. With me leading. Mostly.