by José Manuel AraqueIn late July 1908, almost a year after the landing of La Morocha in France, the Dance Masters of Europe and the United States were invited to a Congress in Berlin sponsored by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to discuss the new dance scene in a World transformed by the Gramophone. “The beautiful traditions are lost, we don‘t know how to dance anymore”, said M. Jules Givre, master choreographer of Paris’ Opera. The head of the Academy of Dancing Masters of Paris, M. Charles Lefort, decried “the decadence of the Art“, when referring to the new dances coming from America, the cakewalk, the maxixe and the Tango. The Congress decided, among other things, to employ French as the lingua franca for choreographic terms. And they chose a small list of dances that had their seal of approval, to be introduced in the upcoming Fall and Winter seasons.
M. Lefort was a sculptor too, and a man of strong opinions, for years he was hostile to Tango. With his wife he ran a Dance and Physical Education studio on Boulevard St. Denis. Lefort spoke of the high days of the Royal French Dances, the pavane, the gavotte. In his telling of the History of Dance, things took a turn for the worse in 1860 with the import of the Polka. For the first time, men were holding women by their waists and, according to Lefort, this “added a certain je-ne-sais-quois to the pleasure of dance, that incited passion”. Lefort believed in Dancing as exercise and therapy, and considered Dancing as much an Art as a Science. He even shared a list of “the correct beats per minute per dance" to make his point.
Researcher Rafael Mandressi posits that Tango's introduction of breaks in the dance ("the rejection of perpetual motion"), was the source of much controversy. A Tango dance is an improvisation, and breaks are used to add figures, color. But in the view of some, breaks led to rubbing. In the September 1909 issue of La Vie Heureuse, a humourous piece about the new dances already highlighted some of the issues. It read:
In April 1910, the Théâtre Apollo premiered the operetta Rève de Valse, but there was barely any Tango in sight in either the Apollo, or the French Press. The talk of the Dancing Congress in October of that year, was the introduction of dances using animal gestures, like the Turkey Trot. Lefort himself introduced his Chanteclerette, and the Five Step. But many were already dancing Tango in Paris. Jane Marnac danced Tango at the Folies Bergère, Mistinguett and her partner Luis Bayo danced it at the Marigny. Tango was then associated with both the Brazilian, and the Argentine communities, where it was danced in private parties along with the maxixe.
Then suddenly, on January 10, 1911, the newspapers Le Figaro and Gil Blas, and others around France, reported on the arrival of Tango, la danse nouvelle. The news may have been a coordinated stunt by M. Leon Robert, a Dancing Master that had been teaching Tango to Mistinguett. "Professionals don't always dictate fashion; many times they must submit to the will of the public", he concluded. Lefort was blindsided by these news, the Academy's authority was now in question.
The position is that of the Boston and does not change throughout the dance. At no time does the lead separates from his follower to move in front of her or around her. The tango consists of seven figures. The first is a "promenade de pas marché”: the lead leans back slightly and the follower is leaning slightly forward. The second includes sliding steps on the right side, then on the left side, with American-style arm movements marking the cadence. More gliding steps, then a walk from right to left, with movement of bodies separated and brought together like a fan that opens and closes; an imitation of the two-step followed by a slightly varied repetition of the first figures, and the dance ends with a slight sway back and forth of the most graceful effect.
While Paris was living its Belle Époque years, the United States was living the end of its Gilded Age. It was now a first-rank economic power, and its wealthy class looked at Paris for clues about culture and fashion. But there were cautionary tales about this relationship: the previous year, the Café de l'Opera, a venue that tried to bring Parisian-style Cabaret to New York, had become a high-profile failure. The Opera was opulent, it occupied all 8 floors in a small building behind The New York Times tower in Times Square. It had operational problems to be sure, but it was its insistence in a particular dress code that soon became the object of derision.
In Paris, on March 28, the Excelsior announced a Dance Contest that would take place on May 26 at the Théâtre Femina. The Femina was also owned by Lafitte, and was located in the same building as the newspaper on Champs Élysées. The event would include a competition for Tango professionals, and one for amateurs. The other categories were the Boston, the valse-chaloupée (Apache), and the "salon dances". The following weeks, the Excelsior followed up with news about the event, its rules, its prizes, and the people involved. Adults were taking dancing lessons, the whole town was excited. Mistinguett, credited with popularizing the new dance, would be in attendance, of course. Luis Bayo, would be in the competition.
In New York, the show at the Winter Garden had morphed into The Revue of 1911. Among the featured acts was Al Jolson, of latter fame in the talkies; and Dorothy Jardon, a renowned composer and singer. In a letter sent to The New York Times almost 3 years later, Joseph C. Smith claimed that he taught and danced the Tango with Jardon in the Revue of 1911. Smith had been to Paris in 1910, where he presumably picked up the new steps, just like he did 3 years earlier with the Apache.
M. Lefort did not relent. In October the Congress met "and as the agenda of the meeting did not include any question relating to the Arab or Negro dances, the best agreement never ceased to reign". In fact, the Tango question was always in the air, the Congress proposed new dances yet again: a modern mazurka, a "valse-menuet Louis XV", and the "Argentine habanera", apparently a direct effort to replace the Tango. "In consecrating their use, the Academy yields to the public's taste", said Lefort when introducing this sanitized variant of the Tango. He explained: "These Argentinian dances are gentle strolls (sic), embellished with graceful poses, rather than dances; performed to melodious tunes of tango, but above all of habanera, they offer variety in our evenings and break (musically) the monotony of polkas, valses, etc". In Argentina, the newspapers lamented the events in Paris: "progress killed [our] Tango".
1. In his book, Art of Dancing, Maurice claimed that he brought Tango to New York in October 1910. Maybe it was a typo, the correct date is October 1911. Joseph C. Smith's claim about The Revue of 1911, points to Tango being introduced in the US as a stage dance, rather than the presumably popular dance it was in Paris. In April 1911, Smith was in New York with the musical Madame Sherry, and then went to Buffalo and other cities. In August he was in the Midwest where he produced Miss Nobody from Starland. If he danced with Jardon as he claimed, it must have been some time in May or September, but not a single newspaper noticed it, he is not named in any ads, and we found no evidence in the Shubert Archives to back Smith’s claim.
Chapter 2: Argentine Tango travels North
1. Mark Swartz from the Shubert Archives for the pics of the Winter Garden, and precisions about Joseph C. Smith and the 1911 Season.
2. Henri Chamoux for several tracks on this page. Chamoux is the inventor of the archeophone, a cylinder player. He runs archeophone.org and phonobase.org, dedicated to preserving audio material from the Belle Époque.
3. Jojo for several tracks on this page too.
4. The blog "Stuff Nobody Cares About" (people do care)
1. Rafael Mandressi: Dancing with “le sexe”. Eroticism and exoticism in the Parisian reception of tango (1907-1914).
Translated by Héloïse Finch-Boyer.
A thorough study of the sexualization of Tango in the early days of Tangomania in Paris.
2. Une Histoire du Tango
A veritable cornucopia of information on the history of Tango in Paris.
Tango in France, an encyclopedia
4. Sonny Watson's StreetSwing.com
Lots of info on Dancing in the first half of the 20th century.
5. Carlos G. Groppa: The Tango in the United States: A History
6. Odille Fillon's awesome video on the history of Tango in Paris, the Apollo, Charles Seguin
[my apologies, where is the link?!]
7. Daytonian in Manhattan
I dont even know what Daytonian means, but this blog is awesome!
8. James Gardiner: Gaby Deslys - A Fatal Attraction
Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1986