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 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
[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.]