The impetus for this article arose from stumbling across one of the most beautiful tango videos I have ever come across - containing two men (brothers no less). The fact that it is tango milonga is already a big plus, as that genre is my favorite... but I digress. Before this topic is discussed, I attach the said video for your viewing pleasure.
Enrique and Guillermo De Fazio dancing to the Reliquia Portenas
The myth of how men started dancing tango with men has two variations; both around the theme of bordellos - aka 'prostibulos' - most likely because this theme sounds so damn good. The first variation relies on the boredom factor, a la whilst men were waiting to be 'serviced' they had nothing else to do other than to refine their dancing skills. The second variation (only slightly less fanciful) has bordellos providing the waiting men with tango bands for their casual dancing amusement, while they waited.
The sad truth is that whilst both variations undoubtedly did happen, it does not account for the large numbers of men who danced together, nor for the wide-scale acceptance of same-sex dancing, which is quite rare in other dancing cultures.
The Origin of Him-and-Him
So indeed, what is the principle origin of men dancing tango with each other?
In fact there are three completely separate reasons - which interestingly worked together.
Reason 1: No Access To Women
The first reason derives from where tango was initially danced. It must be remembered that tango, foremost, was the dance of the poor, the underprivileged - the 'lower class'. This group of people had less access to venues where tango was danced, and furthermore had less cultural 'finesses' or boundaries. As a result of these influences there evolved a culture in which it was acceptable for tango to be danced in the streets. Hence even before tango was danced between men, we must imagine in our minds a culture where it was quite common for couples to dance out in the open. In fact a specific style, Tango Orillero, was even evolved out of outdoor suburban tango dancing.
But in the early 1900s, tango was changed forever by the advent of European immigration. One of the outcomes of this cultural shift was that it became unacceptable for women to dance on the streets. The proximity of men and women in public was considered to be a scandal - even touching slightly, let alone embracing. Many women, especially the young, were not allowed to go to practicas or milongas, except if accompanied with their parents. However men being men, they still wanted do what they men wanted to do - dance! A certain percentage of the men went to venues where it was acceptable to dance, but many others - due to limited means or access - had no option other than to continue dancing in the streets. At that point, if a man wanted to dance in the street, there was not much choice; his only option was to dance with other men, which is precisely what occurred.
Reason 2: Courting
The second reason for sam-sex dancing is the fact that dancing was seen as a means to a woman's heart. This was further exacerbated by the fact that men outnumbered women in Buenos Aires in the early 1900s, so competition was fierce, and every edge counted. From this perspective, the fact that men could dance with men away from women was actually an advantage: young men could tune their skills for a long time by going to men-only prácticas, until they were ready and confident to enter the floor of couples - where inevitably only very good dancers were accepted. This further reinforced the need for male-only dancing. It should be noted that the process for a man to learn tango would first start with the man going to a practica, and watching. Eventually one of the older men would teach him how to follow. Then when he was proficient, he would be promoted to leading another young man. Normally it would take about a year until a man was promoted to start leading. Then, when the man was ready - and this took often 3 years! - he would finally be escorted with another more experienced man to a milonga for an arranged dance with a woman.
Reason 3: Suppression of Tango
The third reason for men dancing tango with men is that tango was considered immoral by the upper class and the authorities. So much so that there was a formal initiative to close all cafes and ban tango music from being played on the streets. For example, in 1916 a law was passed in Buenos Aires that banned dancing between men in dance establishments. An attempt was made to slowly eradicate it from Argentina, and we find an account in 1919 by Joaquin Belda, who in his visit to Buenos Aires for 6 months wrote that most of the cafes were either closed or empty.
This of course resulted in even further reduced access to couples dancing tango, so to dance tango, men had to to dance with each other.
Rudolpho Valentino and Vaslav Nijinsky
Vladimir Vereshchagin and Vladamir Mahalov
Lalo and Luis at Tokyo
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