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.
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. In October, the talk of the Dancing Congress was the introduction of dances using animal gestures. 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 stunt by M. Leon Robert, a Dancing Master that had been teaching Tango to Mistinguett, and was working on the notes to Francis Salabert's forthcoming edition of El Choclo's music sheet. M. Robert was the head of the Académie de Danse Mondaine on Rue Pigalle, but relatively unknown in Paris. He went on to tell how Tango had been brought by "young high-society South-Americans". Since these youth could not teach it, M. Robert and other Dancing Masters had taken to the task of learning it, encoding its rules, and teaching it to others. He called it original and lascivious, but tres comme il faut (very proper). Tango was danced to "slow, langorous music" (langoreux) that resembled the Habanera. "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.Excelsior followed up with a vivid pictorial featuring Mistinguett and M. Robert. The Excelsior was owned by Pierre Lafitte, a maverick known for his innovations in graphic publications. Across the Atlantic, the news and the pictures were echoed by The New York Times.
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 of 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.
Though there was no Tango dancing in New York yet, artists from Argentina were still traveling to the US and Europe because of a lack of good recording facilities in Buenos Aires. Diego Munilla, Eugenio López and the Gobbis returned to Connecticut, and were busy recording for Columbia through the Winter of 1911. The new Columbia T Series was produced for the South American market from 1910 through 1920 (but it included matrices from the 1906 and 1907 sessions). Researcher Enrique Binda posits that, just like with Gramophone's sessions in 1905, Columbia's sessions were enriched with music scores brought by the visiting artists. These scores were then used by a Columbia "house band" that came to be known as the "Banda Municipal". From these sessions come the earliest known recordings of Lorenzo Logatti's El irresistible.
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.
In Paris, that Summer, the action was slow too, but there was time for a Tango dance contest at the Bal Tabarin. By September, Maurice was back at work at L'Abbaye de Thélème, a restaurant in rue de Pigalle where Ms. William K. Vanderbilt Jr. (née Virginia Graham Fair, aka Birdie), and Miss Katherine Elkins went to see him dance.
Ms. Vanderbilt, a devout Catholic, was in search of someone to teach Tango to high-society folks in New York. The Reszkes had met Ms. Vanderbilt in social gatherings in Paris and Deauville, and introduced Ms. Vanderbilt to Maurice. But even before Ms. Vanderbilt and Miss Elkins returned, the American press was warning of the impending invasion of the new dance in ominous tones. The introduction of Tango, they said, was "a plot to storm the citadel of conventionalities". The San Francisco Examiner's headline summed it all: "Beware of Tango Terror". One M. Balmaceda, a Chilean diplomat in Paris, was quoted: "I could not look at the highly respectable American ladies going through gyrations which in the very country where Tango originated are not considered proper".
On November 1, Gaby Deslys invited the entire cast of The Revue of Revues to celebrate her birthday at Louis Martin's, with the brothers Shubert in attendance. The Shuberts were busy retooling Gaby's Revue. A few days later Gaby had a new show, Vera Violetta, featuring Joseph C. Smith, Dorothy Jardon, Al Jolson, Mae West, and newcomer Harry Pilcer, who became Gaby’s dance partner. For the show, Louis Hirsch composed The Gaby Glide, which became a hit. The Glide dance followed Lefort's Aeronette in a new trend on the stage.
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", the "Argentine Habanera", and Lefort's own version of Argentine Tango. "In consecrating their use, the Academy yields to the public's taste", said Lefort. 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". Around this time, M. Lefort published his own dance manual, which he called L'Art de la Danse.
1. It’s very hard to tell the exact date of publication of "Le Vrai Tango Argentin" or "L'Art de la Danse", the only hard evidence we have only specifies the year, and the links to Clemençeau and the Congress of October 1911 are speculative. But then the question arises as to which set of Tango instructions was published first, Lefort's or Robert's. In short, there's a possibility that Robert's instructions were published after and in response to Lefort's. Salabert followed up with other titles.
2. 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 February 1911, Smith danced with Jardon in New York in 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 in the Revue of 1911 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.
5. Jean Richepin was a poet, playwright, and enfant terrible of French literature, that was admitted to the Académie Française in 1909. Richepin was now a mature writer, but he had not lost his knack for provocation. In his telling of the arrival of Tango, he claimed that Mme. Loulou Christi brought Tango to Paris. According to Richepin, Max Viterbo directed a revue (Excelsior) at the Comédie Royale, where Mme. Christi danced Valverde's Y como le va with Gaston Silvestre. But the evidence shows this revue played only a few weeks starting in mid-December 1910. Intriguingly, La Vie Hereuse published a pictorial linking Richepin to Tango a full year before in October 1909.
6. Full disclosure: Excelsior, from Manuel Sarrablo, was not published before the contest at the Femina in May 1911... and that picture of Joseph C. Smith dancing with Dorothy Jardon is from Madame Sherry, and not from The Revue of 1911.
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. Richard Powers for reviewing this text and providing crucial scans of Lefort's Art de la Danse and Le Vrai Tango Argentin.
4. Jojo for several tracks on this page too.
5. The blog "Stuff Nobody Cares About" (people do care)
6. archive.org for that wonderful Joaquina, and many others.
7. gallica.fr for that wonderful pics of the Femina and l'Abbaye.
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.
4. Une Histoire du Tango
A veritable cornucopia of information on the history of Tango in Paris.
Tango in France, an encyclopedia
Lots of info on Dancing in the first half of the 20th century.
7. Carlos G. Groppa: The Tango in the United States: A History
[my apologies, where is the link?!]
9. Daytonian in Manhattan
I dont even know what Daytonian means, but this blog is awesome!
10. James Gardiner: Gaby Deslys - A Fatal Attraction
Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1986
Éditions Pierre Horay
13. Kevin Smith wrote about Amy Gouraud, the Four Hundred and the Follies Bergére in New York