Monday, 14 January 2013

Tango in Punch in 1913

Happy New Year. It's only as I started writing this that I realised; 1913, that's a hundred years ago. During my family Christmas, I spent an hour or so leafing through a book that belongs to my sister, containing a few hundred cartoons from Punch, the well-known and long-lived, but now long-dead, satirical magazine.

I found three representations of social dancing, and I'll post them all. Interestingly, although only this first one specifically mentions "tango" in the caption, all three of them resemble what I know as tango in some way. The cartoonist in this one is Lewis Baumer, and the date is 1913. I'll make it as large as I can, but you can click on it to make it a little bit larger. Text below.

The Tango in the Ball-Room - Punch, 1913
The title reads "THE TANGO IN THE BALL-ROOM".
The top picture caption: "AS LETTERS IN THE PAPERS FROM AMATEUR SOCIAL REFORMERS WOULD HAVE US IMAGINE IT"
The bottom picture caption: "AND AS WE HAVE ACTUALLY SEEN IT".

Obvious notable facts include that this is twenty years before the 'golden age' of tango recordings. Recorded music from this era doesn't survive, as far as I know [see comments for information on what does], so we - or, rather, I - know little of what it sounded like.

Here's another one. The bottom picture - "As we have actually seen it" - could be half the cast at any London milonga in any given week, a century later. It's very accurate and convincing representation of what tango looks like when danced badly, with that particular combination of tenacity and incompetence. You could easily point out the couple in the middle, and probably the ones on the right. And, actually, the ones on the left. I saw them on Friday.

The people represented in the lower picture are certainly having some kind of fun, but not nearly as much fun as the ones in the top picture.

And here's the most interesting thing. The top picture is clearly exaggerated. The central couple are moving much too fast to be dancing tango, with both pairs of feet off the floor. The other couples have exaggerated poses and expressions, serving the cartoonist's point; the allegedly scandalous nature of what's going on, and the improbability of that allegation. But otherwise, if you dialled it down just a little bit, it would look very, very close to tango being danced well. Technically, they don't look bad at all, just overexcited and rather insane.

And all of them are having a ridiculous amount of fun, without being properly punished by catching something or getting pregnant or arrested, at least not immediately. And that's kind of the point.

It doesn't look quite like the real thing ... but it's instantly recognisable. And you can also find some people in London doing that real thing. They're somewhere in the other half of the cast, and you have to look a little more carefully. But it's totally there, and it's a lot more common than it was when I started this blog.

So here we are. The upper drawing represents bad tango in the sense that it is imagined by someone (not necessarily the cartoonist) to be threatening to the social order. It also looks rather like good tango, in the sense of being well done and therefore extremely enjoyable in way that genuinely is, in my opinion, sort of subversive and capable of freeing people from some of the arbitrary limitations that are otherwise imposed by their ordinary lives. The lower drawing represents good tango in the sense that it is no threat to anything or anyone's role in society; and incidentally, it looks exactly like terrible dancing.

I wish I knew to what extent the cartoonist thought the same as I do. How much tango had he actually seen, what was it like, did he dance it himself, and what did he think about it? In particular, what were his real sources for each picture?

Finally, let's compare the rather vaguely-represented dress of the lady left of centre and middle-ground in the upper picture, left, with Lady Sybil's marvellous harem trousers in Downton Abbey, right, modelled on an outfit by Poiret of around 1909.

Detail of above cartoon
Downton Abbey publicity shot
I don't watch soaps, but this costume was brought to my attention. I don't wear harem trousers either, because they don't suit me. But many do, and I think she looks wonderful. Here is a discourse on Poiret from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with pictures of other works from the 1910s, which I also think is worth your attention. A lot of people go for a structured, Forties look for tango, but I prefer a softer one.


[Update: see the comments for some remarks on the nowadays-relationship with jive (and it's possible role in producing things that look like the lower picture) and  whether the fast-moving couple could be dancing quickstep. And see All Things to All Ranks for a query about the differentiation between dances in terms of content and technique in the Twenties.]

11 comments:

Joy in Motion said...

Wow, interesting. Thank you for sharing! I also noticed that in the second image partners are more distanced from each other, as opposed to the partners in the first image who are draped all over each other. Perhaps these images are partly a statement about respectable distance on the dance floor.

Carole Edrich said...

fascinating - and while I agree with what you say (it fits the period) that second picture could also be people dancing the lindy-hop/ jive family of dances (which doesn't fit the period) well.

That in itself I think explains some of the dissonance in today's milongas (and presumably other dance conventions as well), as people who come from one dance discipline often perform their interpretation of the steps while discounting the social niceties of the dance form they are visiting.

msHedgehog said...

@Joy - well, yes, exactly. That's precisely what the social reformers were interested in. And precisely what makes it look so bad as dancing (tango).

@Carole, that's a really interesting point. They seem to me to be moving slowly and looking rather solemn, so jive or lindy hadn't occurred to me, but the technique is not far off!

Simba said...

Nice post. If you haven't already read it, I suspect you would enjoy the Collier et al. tango book. It looks like a coffee table book, but contains a lot of interesting information, for example about the "tango trousers" and the "tango colour" of that era.

msHedgehog said...

@Simba, I haven't, that sounds interesting. Trousers are considered more directly in another cartoon I'm going to post.

Tangocommuter said...

Many thanks for the pictures, and for the thoughts about them. Fascinating, and really curious that the artist has suggested something that really does look a bit like good tango. As you say, it's recognisable.

Early tango recordings do survive from 1913: I've heard tracks from that far back, but can't remember offhand where to find them. It's music that sounds very distant and plaintive; guitar, flute and violin. It's also curious that whereas the first drawing suggests, say, Troilo, the music of 1913 doesn't really suggest either drawing. It's rather simple and folk-like.

Cherie Magnus said...

Super interesting! Thanks for posting.

It looks to me like nothing has changed in 100 years, in that bad tango is still danced in the same manner all around the world. What shocks me the most is the awkward, blatant heel leads of the men that the cartoonist is making fun of.

Iain said...

The label El Bandoneon publishes a CD series called "Homenaje a La Guardia Vieja Del Tango" devoted to early tango music - it's easy to find on Amazon and not expensive. As Tangocommuter indicates, the musicians played in small groups like trios, quartets and quintets, so the sound doesn't have the richness and complexity of the golden age music. The fidelity isn't great either so I wouldn't play them for dancing, but it's incredible to me to hear them because they're so recognisable, even though the music is one hundred years old or more in the recordings. I'm thinking of music you'll know like Yunta Brava (1907), Hotel Victoria (1909), El Caburé (1913), Una Fija (1914), Lágrimas Y Sonrisas (1914) etc.
Let me know if you'd like a sample.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the central (fast-moving) couple in the top picture look a lot like they're doing the quickstep. A number of those couples look more like they're doing ballroom than Tango. Nevertheless I think your point stands, and it was really fascinating to see this. Thanks for posting it!

msHedgehog said...

@Anonymous, yes, that's a good point, it does look more like quickstep and several of the poses are closer to the vase-of-flowers ballroom look. I think it's possible that these different dances and techniques were much less clearly differentiated then, than they are now, which I discuss in the next post.

MOCKBA said...

Iain, the teachers of British and American tango of 1912-1914 never learned from the Argentines - they went to Paris, or sometimes to summer French resorts, for their tango education. Argentine music never entered the pictire either; instead they could have tangoes to Tres Mutard, or to the tunes of the popular ragtime composer Peter Mintun (such as Tangoland, dedicated to Vernon and Irene Castles, then the top-notch tango teachers and the authors of a fairly profound Modern Dancing textbook. A simpler textbook, supposedly penned in London in 1914, and listing the fav tunes of the year, is available at Verytango