Almost every time an elder habitue of the milongas in Buenos Aires goes “on tour” (insider euphemism for passing away) a perennial myth is recycled . The one about this or that dancer [who] “began dancing at age 14.” Assumptions about a teenager making the rounds of the milongas and beginning to show a talent that many years later would be discovered by some American with a movie camera are immediately part of the awkward folksy tales told by people dealing with the death of someone they really didn’t know.What is missing in all the stories that attempt to establish some historical context in the wonderful world of tango fantasies is the concept of time, chronology and the living testimony of people who lived through the period and still remember the moment in time when all these wonderful happenings were supposed to have occurred.
In 1950, when someone born in 1936 would have been 14, boys wore short pants with their legs beginning to show the darkened hair of puberty. The long pants would only become a rite of passage at age 16. Two years later they would qualify for military service, voting and admittance to X-rated movies and admission to a milonga. The few who would actually be welcomed at these places for adults were limited in their dancing to sisters, cousins and the occasional dancing with the wife of a mentor. None of the romantic and exotic quixotic images that modern day experiences try to attach to life in the past really existed. The world of the milonga has been, was and to a lesser extent still is cruel and cold when it comes to the motives and expectations of those who become revelers of the night.
Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the popular music of Buenos Aires coexisted in the great dance halls with foreign rhythms such as the foxtrot, bolero, rumba, and jazz. Above all, the rhythm of the tango and its lyrics were always present on the airwaves, at the theater, in the movie houses, in the printed media, at the downtown tea houses, at the cabarets, at both grand and modest neighborhood clubs, and of course at the exclusive hangouts called milongas where patrons listened to and danced only tangos, valses, and milongas.
Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s the recording companies were back in force and the tango began to languish. It was replaced by a succession of dances coming from pop music and rock ’n’ roll. Until then, the recording companies had been making money reproducing the sounds that people sang in their homes and wanted to hear on records they bought. That applied equally to classical and popular music. Once the recording labels exhausted everything that could be remembered, improvements in technical quality kept making money for the companies without adding anything in terms of novelty. Soon more improvements such as long-playing records (LPs) came to satisfy listeners, but the recording industry eventually ran out of material and it set out to invent a form of music that could be repackaged in a variety of ways with a massive marketing campaign aimed at the younger generations.
The priority of the industry being focused on ways to rake in profits seems to be the reason that recording executives ordered the destruction of master recordings of all the tangos that had been recorded at the studios of RCA Victor of Buenos Aires.
Around 1956, the recording industry created the new wave, la nueva ola. It was a massive marketing campaign that resulted in the sly conversion of the long-standing tango and jazz clubs into extra-large concert venues. Nobody could dance there because space was at a premium. Acho Manzi, a veteran popular poet, commented with sarcasm on the subject: “They even did away with our carnival celebrations, in addition to silencing the whistling from the streets.”
The nineteen fifties were marked by the generation of so called “petiteros” and “caqueros” born in the cribs of the upper class but immediately imitated by the adolescents of the middle and lower popular classes to the point that “caquero” almost became a synonymous for “adolescent.”
The “petiteros” were reputed to be anti-Peronist. In those years, the late 40s and early the 50s, whenever there was political turmoil, the Peronists went to the Petit Café on Callao and Santa Fe and broke its windows. The petiteros were on one side of the social equation, boasting of modernity, Yankee-fication, compliance with the latest fashions, and plenty of disposable income to follow those trends. On the other side were those who imitated them wearing the Oxford gray pants, blue jacket with two vents, the hair slapped with brilliantine (like a cow’s licking, as they used to describe it), the essential yellowish beige moccasins shoes, and striped tie. The social milieu of the youth was split in half.
The petiteros were one step above the high echelon of society with the best clothing, and with other music, far from the tango. The rest, the ones who tripped on their Oxford trousers and poured a bottle of brilliantine Glostora on their heads, gave away their origins because they couldn’t imitate the peculiar well-to-do accent, the very accentuated letter Y instead of the LL, and a way of speaking with the mouth almost closed, through the teeth, that was instilled from their cradle in the Barrio Norte homes.
One thing they all had in common was that nobody considered going to a tango dance hall conceivable. The true caqueros did not go to dance to the clubs, not even in carnival time, because besides the jazz (as they called the characteristic orchestras playing all rhythms), the musicians in the clubs played those tangos, milongas and valsecitos that splattered their gabardine trousers and Elvis-in-the-Army style of shirts with epaulets with “low class grease ”. They went to ‘asaltos’ where it was guaranteed that, except for some party crasher, everyone there were ‘people like us.’
Rich or poor, everyone who claims to have began dancing in the 50’s went to “asaltos,” a sort of home invasions at somebody’s home where they danced on a tile, with arms stretched downwards, keeping the beat more with the shoulders than with the feet, and you sweeping the floor dragging our brown moccasins imitating the caquero style. The caquero only danced foreign music, such as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Elvis Presley and others, nothing national. The middle and lower class kids learned the caquero codes from those whose parents sent him to the private schools of the well-to-do hoping for a better future.
Thus it was learned that narrow trousers and pointed toe, tall heel shoes with clasp to the flank were out of fashion. That when going to an asalto one should begin with the finger sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres because the cream cupcakes were for dessert. Not to ask for mints, to sip the pineapple gin fizz being served, and to transfer their Kent or Saratoga cigarettes to Chesterfield packs.
Half way through the 1950’s things began to change for the country of Argentine. Following the overthrow of the Juan Peron government in 1955 successive military governments began to gradually subvert individual liberties and eventually ruled for years under a state of siege. Almost an entire generation was lost to dancing, tango and otherwise. Much later, when the aging caqueros returned to the downtown clubs and began to apply their caquero style of dancing to a renewed interest in tango music, another legend says that people asking who were those older men who danced with young women hanging from their shoulders, someone said, “they are milongueros.” People who until then had a clear understanding of what classic salon tango looked like began to ask scornfully, “What is it that they’re dancing?” Some woman in combat boots seriously explaimed, “Close embrace, milonguero style.”
Reference: Gotta tango, Human Kinetics, by Alberto Paz and Valorie Hart