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Tango in Brothels

Tango was created in the brothels of Buenos Aires...

The brothels of Argentina served as the womb of tango...

When tango became a dance for couples it was only danced in brothels...

Tango inevitably moved into the brothels...
Almost every historical reference to tango declares - with authority! - that the dance originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires. But is that actually true, or is it a myth started by lazy historians that has evolved into an accepted truism?

To clarify this, let us examine history from a critical perspective, ensuring we correlate facts against a number of independent sources.

Supporters of the Brothel Theory

One of the most important proponents of the theory that tango derived from brothels was Jorge Luis Borges (1899 - 1986), a very influential Argentine writer, essayist, and poet who was born in Buenos Aires. In an article on the history of the tango, based around the "lascivious" nature of the dance and some obviously obscene titles of some tangos, he proposed the theory of tango’s brothel origins. He maintained emphatically throughout his life - arguably one of the major reasons that this theory is accepted by so many - that tango's origins were in the brothels.

In Borge's 1930 biography about Evaristo Carriego, he expands upon the conflicting versions of how tango began, but wrote:
Despite the divergences that I have enumerated and that would be easy to increase by interrogating inhabitants of the cities of La Plata and Rosario, my informants concur on one essential fact: the tango originated in the brothels.
Even as late as 1982, in an interview with the New Orleans Review, he said:
But the tango, the tango in Buenos Aires, as most people have written about it, was evolved in the brothel houses about 1880. And the people don't accept it because they knew whom it came from.
Another influential supporter of the theory was Horacio Salas, an Argentinian author. In his book El Tango he wrote that:
The place where tango was usually danced and developed as a musical form and a dance, was in the brothel. In the large patios or halls of these prostitution houses, as a complement to the main activity the women danced with the clients.
He wrote later that
[the tango] at first was danced separately like the candombes; later the dancers came together and transformed the dance into one for partners intertwined, preferably men; thus it passed into the brothels.

Opposition to the Brothel Theory

Against the backdrop of support for the brothel theory, there are many reputable historians and researchers who deny it. For example Ricardo García Blaya, director of TODO Tango and a professional in tango data-keeping, in his piece on the origins of tango, has this to say:
Buenos Aires in the 1880s was a big village, where there were dance halls (academias) and theaters, the only places where you could dance or watch people dancing during a play. The academias, also called "pirigundines", had hired women and were venues that required a permit issued by the authority to work. They were located in the suburbs and in distant areas far from downtown.

In them tango cohabited with other beats like the habanera, the polka, the corrido, the waltz, the schottis and many other airs. There is where it was born and began to develop with that characteristic impulse of popular genres, in a city that grew permanently...

Usually we read or hear that tango had its origin in the whorehouses. Nothing is more absurd and incorrect. First, there were no musicians working at brothels. Only at some places in the provinces there were locals that, under the appearance of dance halls, provided the double service and there not only tango was played, but also polkas, milongas, cifras, waltzes and any tune that would cheer the ambience. In Buenos Aires rent was very expensive, there was much demand, so that would have meant a waste of time and money.

The misunderstanding is owed to various reasons. Some dance halls or academias did not have a good reputation and the attendance was varied and, many times, "non sancta". Tough guys and easy living chicks used to go. But that does neither make those places whorehouses nor anything of the sort. Furthermore, people danced not only to tango there.

Also there were prestigious dance halls where people of a higher status used to go and where tango was the king of dances.

Those who adhere to this version are based on the lascivious titles and the connotation implied in some early tangos. Another mistake. That same kind of titles had already been used for polkas and corridos and their lyrics, if any, were repeated, passing from one air to another.
In her speech regarding the distortion of tango, "The cradle of tango and myths", Alicia Chust (Higher Diploma in Tango, and a graduate of the Center for Cultural Studies Foundation Konex) says [*please excuse this author's edited Spanish translation, which does not do honor to the original text]:
When one seeks to explain the phenomena of popular culture in Argentina, in this case: the tango and attempts to explain its origins and evolution, false assumptions are usually used. Over time, many of these statements are disseminated as postulates which are reproduced and form stereotypes.

One of these statements (which number in the dozens), argues that the tango was born in the suburbs, practiced by pimps in the brothels, prostitutes and unsavory characters, and reminds us that it was then a society with an overwhelming majority of men.

Such a conceptualization, putting forth one of many phrases to articulate the history of the genre, collapses like a house of cards when brought to light in a factual background...

It does not escape us that in the city there were brothels and that from them one would hear the music of the tastes of the clientelle, however we know that there were many other social venues within Buenos Aires where people were accompanied to the tango in the light of day, before the eyes of all... According to what was seen, the suburban cradle of the tango was not based in a society that consisted only of thugs and prostitutes. The picture that emerges, in the majority of the times, is an interesting distortion of the facts (nothing innocent by the way), an ingenuous but false image that depends on stereotypes. This is propagated, without any concern into the truth of the statements as the falsehood is reiterated at each step. This particular way of distortion has no limits, given the way popular culture responds.
Christine Denniston, author of The Meaning of Tango and Dancing Tango - Unlocking the Mysteries and Secrets of the Tango - 1914 has this to say about the subject on www.history-of-tango.com:
There is a cliché that Tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires. However, a more likely explanation is that the brothels were where people of the upper and middle classes first encountered it. Members of Argentina's literary classes - the people who are most likely to leave written evidence - did not mix socially with members of the lower, immigrant classes except in brothels.

Brothels were major places of entertainment for the working classes. The terrible shortage of women in Buenos Aires made prostitution a thriving industry. A shortage of women in the population also meant a shortage of women to work in the brothels. With many potential clients and few working women, the consequence was that there would be queues in the brothels as men waited for the women to become available.

In exactly the same way that a few years later Madams in New Orleans would employ artists like Jelly Roll Morton, at the cutting edge of the new music transforming Rag Time into Jazz, to entertain the men while they waited, brothel owners in Buenos Aires would employ Tango musicians. In both cities, these musicians were playing the music of the poor, and brothels were amongst the very few places in that section of society that could afford to employ professional musicians. So it is not surprising to see that the most important early musicians often spent some time working in brothels before becoming successful to a wider audience. The difference is that the chattering classes and opinion formers in the United States were likely to have heard Jazz for the first time in a nightclub in New York or Chicago rather than in New Orleans, while in Buenos Aires it was in the brothels that opinion formers first heard and saw it.

The idea that it was the prostitutes in the brothels that danced with the men while they waited is an appealing one, but doesn't make logical sense. The point was that the men were waiting because the women were otherwise occupied. Obviously the brothel's income would be maximised by keeping the girls busy at their primary occupation, so certainly at peak periods where the brothel was busiest there would not be women available for dancing. However, if there was music then it seems to me to be a pretty safe bet that the men would have used the opportunity to practice their dancing together...

It was the potential wives and sweethearts that lived in the tenement blocks - conventillos - that they were hoping for a chance to dance with. A prostitute took money from a man in return for her favours - a clear and simple transaction. To win a sweetheart in the real world took something more, and being a good dancer helped a lot.

It was not in the brothels that Tango was born, but in the courtyards of the tenement blocks where the poor lived. With so many people living together in one building, it was very likely that someone might play the guitar, perhaps someone else might play the violin or the flute, and that from time to time they would get together to play the popular tunes of the time. And other people in the building would take the opportunity to dance, to have a moment of joy in what might be a terribly hard and lonely life.
The bandoneonist Arturo Penón, as related by the Argentine author Javier Garcia Méndez, also refutes the theory:
Here lies the origin of the belief that the tango was born in the brothels: One of the most fervent defenders of this theory was our great writer Jorge Luis Borges. During the brief period of his interest in popular culture, Borges wrote an article on the history of the tango.

This article began with a refutation of the "sentimental version" of that history, according to which the tango's origins lie in the working class neighborhoods, and proposed instead - drawing from the writer's own personal recollections [a half-century after the period he was writing about] and referring to the essentially "lascivious" nature of the dance - the theory of the tango's origin in the brothels.

As if diametrically opposed recollections didn't exist; as if lasciviousness was the sole privilege of the brothel; as if Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes and so many others didn't tell bawdy tales without being considered as having written from the gutter.

It's paradoxical that the Borgesian brothel theory has become transformed with time into a veritable axiom. The majority of articles written today, by those who have arrived rather late to the study of the tango's history, start from this blueprint - which is reality no more than the ruling class's image of the tango during the first decades of the century. It is the theory of a social group that can see the working class neighborhoods only as an immense brothel.

It is symptomatic, for example, that Blas Matamoro, one of the writers who adopts this theory uncritically, can write "...the middle class, poor like the workers but decent like the rich..." It is this kind of thinking, absolutely ignorant of the complexities of reality, that has allowed the theory of the tango's brothel origins to triumph.

It's interesting to note how this theory presupposes direct links between poverty and indecency, and between wealth and decency. It is the version of those who, at the turn of the century, shut the tango out of their lives... The patrician's aversion to the tango was less a product of their prudery than it was a smokescreen, shielding their classist sensibilities from the trend's real origins. To have allowed the tango into their exclusive gatherings would have been the equivalent of inviting those who created it into the sacrosanct dominant culture.
The famous orchestra director Osvaldo Pugliese, said this about the the subject:
It was not that the brothel per se generated tango, but that the brothel was a place where the tango musician could earn a living, playing tangos, among other music.

The Conclusion?

That tango originated in the brothels: a myth, repeated so often that it has become accepted as truth by many.