Tango for Two

footnote, b y Dr. Wu 

The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still encloses,

as does all that which is truthful, a secret.   

                                                                                      Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges




An astute reader posed a perfectly logical question to the Dr. “Why,” this reader asked, “if your hypothesis is correct, did they put a heterosexual couple dancing on the record cover. Good question. The Dr. had considered this himself, and put it merely down to the idea that having the picture of a same sex couple dancing on the cover of the Gaucho album would have been an affront to the sensibilities of the time. However, since questions are the mothers of knowledge, the Dr. decided to forensically investigate. An whoa if it wasn’t quite interesting, what Wu found.

The original mural the Gaucho cover was adapted from was done by a rather obscure Argentinian artist named Israel Hoffman, (1896-1971) The mural is displayed outdoors, on a public wall, as part of the Caminito Street Museum in Buenos Aires. The title is, Guardia Vieja Tango, or Old Guard Tango. In the history of the tango, the Old Guard Tango is a unique time indeed. Here’s what the Dr. discovered.

The Old Guard - Guardia Vieja

The years from 1880 to 1920 form the first period of tango, called Guardia Vieja or The Old Guard. It was dominated by violins, harps, flutes and guitars. Musicians mostly improvised as the tango was danced to rather than listened.

Eduardo Archetti described the Old Guard period as follows:

Urban life in Buenos Aires was rapidly transformed during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Luxury hotels, restaurants, bistros, hundreds of cafés, a world-famous opera house and theatres were built by European architects. This ethnography needs to be replicated in Argentina. This prompted changes in the use of leisure time and created a new environment outside the walls of privacy and home. The appearance of public arenas created new conditions for public participation and enjoyment where cultural life, sports and sexual concerns dominated... Later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the cabaret became a privileged public space for dancing, playing and singing. It has been assumed that originally the tango was only music and was mostly dances by male couples. However, the importance of the ‘dancing academies’ as meeting places for men and ‘waitresses’ or for couples cannot be overlooked.


And further -

No Access To Women

It must be remembered that tango, foremost, was the dance of the poor, the underprivileged - the 'lower class'. This group of people had less access to venues where tango was danced, and furthermore had less cultural 'finesses' or boundaries. As a result of these influences there evolved a culture in which it was acceptable for tango to be danced in the streets. Hence even before tango was danced between men, we must imagine in our minds a culture where it was quite common for couples to dance out in the open. In fact a specific style, Tango Orillero, was even evolved out of outdoor suburban tango dancing.

But in the early 1900s, tango was changed forever by the advent of European immigration. One of the outcomes of this cultural shift was that it became unacceptable for women to dance on the streets. The proximity of men and women in public was considered to be a scandal - even touching slightly, let alone embracing. Many women, especially the young, were not allowed to go to practicas or milongas, except if accompanied with their parents. However men being men, they still wanted do what they men wanted to do - dance! A certain percentage of the men went to venues where it was acceptable to dance, but many others - due to limited means or access - had no option other than to continue dancing in the streets. At that point, if a man wanted to dance in the street, there was not much choice; his only option was to dance with other men, which is precisely what occurred.

The second reason for same-sex dancing is the fact that dancing was seen as a means to a woman's heart. This was further exacerbated by the fact that men outnumbered women in Buenos Aires in the early 1900s, so competition was fierce, and every edge counted. From this perspective, the fact that men could dance with men away from women was actually an advantage: young men could tune their skills for a long time by going to men-only prácticas, until they were ready and confident to enter the floor of couples - where inevitably only very good dancers were accepted. This further reinforced the need for male-only dancing. It should be noted that the process for a man to learn tango would first start with the man going to a practica, and watching. Eventually one of the older men would teach him how to follow. Then when he was proficient, he would be promoted to leading another young man. Normally it would take about a year until a man was promoted to start leading. Then, when the man was ready - and this took often 3 years! - he would finally be escorted with another more experienced man to a milonga for an arranged dance with a woman.



Another interesting snippet -

The earliest pictures that we have of tango are from 1903 and feature a well known dancer, and friend of Carlos Gardel, Arturo de Navas. In the pictures, he is dancing with another man and the dance is labelled “El Tango Criollo.” I would argue that there were many competing styles of tango during this period and that the general term Tango Criollo would have encompassed the styles of Tango Orillero and Canyengue.





The Dr. draws no exact conclusions from these findings. He merely points out that, of all the pictures in the world, the always cryptic Becker and Fagen chose to grace the cover of Gaucho with one of an Argentinian Tango that used to be carried out by two men.

Finally, the Dr. draws the reader's attention to the decidedly unfeminine wrist and hand of the woman in the mural original, Guardia Vieja Tango, and the decidedly masculine boot, (brownish-red, not the bluish-black boot of the gaucho) poking out from under her (?) dress.

Till our next addendum,

Dr. Wu