Teaching Argentine Tango in New York, 1914.
Mrs. and Mr. Vernon Castle
he Tango is not, as commonly believed, of South American origin. It is an old gipsy dance which came to Argentina by the way of Spain, where in all probability it became invested with certain features of the old Moorish dances. The Argentines adopted the dance, eliminating some of its reckless gipsy traits, and added to it a certain languid indolence peculiar to their temperament.
After Paris had taken the dance up a few years ago, its too sensuous character was gradually toned down, and from a rather obscene exhibition, which is still indulged in by certain cabaret performers, it bloomed forth a polished and extremely fascinating dance, which has not had its equal in rhythmical allurement since the days of the Minuet. Beyond doubt, the Tango correctly practised is the essence of the modern soul of dancing, the autocrat of the up-to-date "soiree dansant." For it is not only a dance, it is a style; to master the Tango one must first master its style, absorb its atmosphere.
Among the many points in its favour, not the least is this: that it not only commands grace, and especially repose, but it develops and even creates these endowments. The only drawback in America to this lovely dance lies in the fact that nearly all teachers teach it differently. A variety of steps which do not belong to the dance at all nor to the ball-room, for that matter-have been taught and practised by inefficient teachers. In order to give the dance the absolute popularity it deserves it must be "standardized."
The Argentine Tango is unquestionably the most difficult of the new dances. Perhaps that is why some people still maintain that they "do not like it." Others, never having seen it, declare it "shocking." On broad general principles it is human to disapprove of that which is beyond our understanding or ability. We like best the games we play best. And so for a long time society looked askance upon the Tango. Here and there in the corners of ball-rooms one saw a few hardy couples tripping a tentative measure. But usually as soon as the music slides into the wailing, seductive notes of the South American dance everybody developed a sudden interest in supper! Moreover, it was rumored that the. Argentine Tango was composed of one hundred and sixty different steps. Enough to terrify the most inveterate dancer!
There may be one hundred and sixty different Tango steps, but I doubt it. I have never seen so many, and Mrs. Castle and I do not dance anything like that number. For the average ballroom Tango a knowledge of six fundamental steps is quite enough. One may work out variations of these. But you will find that when you once have mastered the Cortez, the Media Luna, the Scissors, the Promenade, and the Eight Step you can dance with any exponent of the Tango you are apt to meet.
Nor is the Tango as difficult as it was at first supposed. More difficult than the old-fashioned Two Step, yes. Certainly more difficult than the One Step. But once you get into the swing and rhythm of music more alluring than a Viennese Waltz -well, you are lost. You have become a Tango enthusiast. Personally I believe the Tango and the Maxixe Brésilienne are the dances of tomorrow. The Maxixe is described in the next chapter. More and more people are becoming proficient in the variations of both these South American dances. In the smart ball-rooms of New York, London and Paris the One Step and the Hesitation Waltz lead the dances this season. Next season it will be the Tango and the Maxixe.
I would like to add a word of warning to those who take lessons in the Tango, and that is: Take your lessons, if possible, from some one who has danced professionally in Paris, because there are so many good dancers there that anybody who can dance the Tango (and get paid for it) in Paris must really be a good dancer. American teachers go abroad for a few weeks, take a few lessons in the "Abaye" or some of the other places which live on the American tourist, come back home, and, having forgotten all they learned coming over, start in teaching. There are others who go to one of our seaside towns, such as Narragansett, and read of a new dance and begin teaching it. There is, unfortunately, no way of stopping these people. You can only pay your twenty-five dollars an hour. If you don't learn the dance, you get a little exercise and a lot of experience.
The most important thing about the Tango is its tempo. You must, before you can dance at all, understand and appreciate the music, and the best way to learn this is to walk (with or without a partner) in time to it. By doing this you impress upon yourself that it is a slow dance, and that it should be simple, and not full of jerky and complicated steps.
This walking to Tango time is not as easy as it may seem; it should be practised frequently, so as to make it smooth. The shoulders must not go up and down, the body must glide along all the time without any stops. It is correct either to walk on your heel and toe or just on the ball of the foot; but the Argentines nearly all seem to walk flat-foot, or else they step out on their heel first. I advise dancers to do what is the easiest for them, for when one is walking comfortably it is easier to do the steps naturally. The first step to master, and one of the most difficult, is the Cortez.
The lady's part of this step is, of course, just the opposite. She pauses for two counts on her right foot, going forward, her feet following the gentleman's as closely as possible treading on him.
You must not be discouraged over this step. It is very difficult to do smoothly, and you will not get it without a great deal of patience and trouble. Indeed, many good dancers have never mastered it at all, and probably never will. But that is because they do not appreciate its difficulty or are unwilling to give the necessary time to the step. It can be done, and done well, by any one who has patience enough to learn it. To get it perfect you should do several steps of the Cortez and then walk, and then go back again into the Cortez. If you can do this you have practically mastered the Tango Argentine.
THE EIGHT STEP
The much-talked-of Innovation is nothing more or less than the Tango lanced without touching your partner. This is naturally very difficult, and can only be done by good dancers. However, a word of advice may help those who would include it in their repertoire. First of all, the man must learn to lead with his whole body; by this I mean he must convey his steps and direction to his partner by means of head, eyes, and feet. The steps should be broader and more deliberate, and the dancers should travel at the same pace all the time. If by any chance the lady does not follow, and goes into the wrong step, don't stop dancing, but get as closely together as possible, and the man must do a plain walk backward.
When both are ready the man must try to convey the step in a better way. If, when mistakes happen, you keep on dancing, in nine cases out of ten no one will know about it but yourself. On the other hand, no one can miss your mistake if you get confused and stop. The lady should not look at a man's feet in this Innovation, but rather try to get a general view of her partner, so that she may see what he is doing without actually scrutinizing the steps. The hands may be either kept behind your back, on your hips, or in your pockets, look at yourself in a mirror and decide which position suits you best.
From the book "Modern dancing", chapter V, by Mr. and Mrs. Castle Vernon. New York, 1914.