Those who have written about the tango and its origin, usually have not been interested in the popular aspect, only in the marginal, ‘forbidden” part. That makes all their body of work historically irrelevant for not being representative of the entire porteño society. As a consequence of quoting each other in their perpetuation of tales and misconceptions, the stories of the tango and its origins have been based in myths that have made it into the fertile imagination of those who seek the passion and exoticism of a foreign culture. One is the tale about illiterate musicians who played by ear, whistling into each other’s ears tunes that became the foundation of the tango music. Another is about men dancing with men. Another is that the often mentioned academias were places where dancing was taught.
The Archivo General de la Nacion, Argentina’s National Archives is an amazing place on Avenida Leandro Alem, a few blocks from Casa Rosada, the government mansion. There are records of publications, city council meetings and police reports all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is the right place to spend plenty of time for anybody interested in finding out where people danced, what they danced, who were the dancers and the musicians, and when the tango made its appearance. The first reality that strikes the researcher is the realization that there was a full fledged living society in nineteenth century Buenos Aires.
Entering the decade of the 1880 there was still no evidence of anything particularly called tango being danced at the public dances. The most popular source of music for dancing was the organ grinder with a repertoire that included valses, polkas, schottische, mazurkas, habaneras, milonga, gato (a folk music from the interior of Argentina). The organito was not really an instrument but a mechanical reproducer of music previously programmed, sort of player-piano, whose use goes back at least to 1837. It did not need a musician, just somebody who transported it and made it work turning a handle. Programing the organitos required qualified musicians, the kind that graduated from conservatories and who very likely played with the many symphonic orchestras at the opera houses.
Dancing was high among the main sources of entertainment for dwellers of the city and the outskirts. People of all social backgrounds danced at legal and clandestine academias and cafes. The negative consequences of theses activities were public inebriation and rowdy behavior. That upset and annoyed the families who lived in the neighborhood. City ordinances were promulgated to prohibit, fine and tax public dances that served alcoholic beverages. The hardball police efforts to enforce the edicts, gave place to the proliferation of clandestine places for dancing.
In the September 27, 1880 issue of La Patria Argentina under the heading of Gresca chistosa or Funny fracas, there is a conclusive police report recommending the closing of one of those clandestine dance places, quoted from El tango en la sociedad porteña by Hugo Lamas and Enrique Binda.
“The prohibitions, fines and taxes with which public dances have been hit by the Municipality, have had the consequences of creating an original method of catering to the merriment of the populace.
Generally, the establishments where the clandestine activities take place are the cafes. On dirty windows, painted white, illuminated from behind by the inside lights, stand out in big black letters the name of the Cafe So and so…
In the first room, closest to the street, there is an actual coffee shop with relatively ugly waitresses. The back door is closed and the noise in the room is the typical sound generated by the voices of the patrons and the nature of the service. Suddenly somebody gets up and disappears through the back door for a considerable amount of time. Sometimes the back door opens and a tired looking character walks in to the counter and orders a refreshing glass of French wine and soda water, that strange concoction that the Italians drink when bowling.
Each time the door opened, it could be heard from the other room the noise of feet shuffling on the floor as if many people walked dragging their feet. Behind that door there was a great salon where people danced some quite original dances.
On the far wall of the salon there was one of those organ pianos, covered with a mattress. The mattress had the purpose of preventing the sounds from reaching the street, or even the room in front. The muffled hits of the instrument’s hammers evenly marked the rate of the piece that was being danced, with a strange noise, something like an instrument of percussion on wet wood.
With that strange music they dance in the salon. And they dance with two, three, or four women who are hired by the owner as dancers. These unfortunate women dance all night long. Every night, without resting, they go from the arms of a Creole dancer who twists them in a milonga, to the arms of a British guy who shakes them dryly in a jumped vals, or the arms of an Italian who dislocates their bones with a peringundin.
The salon is packed with dancers and since the women are few, the rest dance man with man to take advantage of the song that somebody has paid for. At the end of the song, somebody shouts, “Lata!” That means that he gets to pick the next song. He approaches the organillero (organ player) to request his favorite tune, he pays for the song and he gets a tin token for the piece that he requested. And the dance continues in a warm atmosphere because the room is closed, the smoke of the cigarettes clouds the air and the brushing of the feet on the floor is the dominant noise. Everybody is quiet; nobody speaks; because there they dance for the sake of dancing. There are no chairs in the salon to discourage loitering; those who enter, must dance or leave.”
No specific mention of the dance of tango is ever made until 1886 when a newspaper article refers to “the famous masked dances in the theaters where Army officers, violating rules and regulations, their own honor and the dignity of the uniform, swayed exaggeratedly their bodies to the rhythm of a tango milonguero.”
By the end of the nineteen century dancing reached the street corners of busy tenements. Entrepreneurial young men hired a couple of organ players and taught young girls to dance in exchange for the girls paying the organ player for each piece of music. In many neighborhoods, it wasn’t unusual that the lack of gender balance lead to bread with bread practicing, that is people of the same sex, going through the learning process in anticipation of getting ready for the real dances at salons, recreation centers, private clubs, and cafes and restaurants.
It is evident that people then had a notion of the meaning of the word tango as a musical genre, but they didn’t leave any messages buried in capsules to be opened at a future date explaining what it was or how it sounded.AS THE