Campus News

From Tango to Salsa: How Ballroom Dances Evolve from Sinful to Sophisticated

Story posted February 28, 2003

As hard as it may be to imagine today, the waltz was once considered scandalous.

Easier to fathom is the wicked reputation enjoyed at one time by the tango, a dance which, in its earliest incarnation, was exotic and overtly sexual. (The tango is personified for many by a smoldering Rudolph Valentino maneuvering around the floor of a smoky nightclub with a sultry female partner clutching to him.)

To today's audiences, however, even the tango seems tame. Other dances have long replaced it as the "dirty dancing" of their day: the rumba, the samba, the merengue, salsa.

How did the tango evolve from "public evil" to respectable ballroom dance?

Joanna Bosse, instructor in the music department, is doing a historical case study of the tango, and shared her findings at a recent faculty seminar titled "'Man Killed by Tango!': Modernity, Exoticism, and Polite Society."

Bosse's research explores the hierarchical valuation of partnership dances, with reference to the "level of perceived sophistication" within categories and subcategories.

In the world of competitive ballroom dancing the level of a dance's sophistication is measured by several criteria, including physical and visual perception, complexity, music, duration, and emotion.

A ballroom dance must be beautiful and controlled, as well as physically demanding and precise (especially those dances that don't look hard to do, but are). Throughout its genre's history, the dance must have undergone a degree of stylistic modification. Furthermore, the dance music must be instrumental, never "popular" songs.

For a very long time the waltz has been considered "the crown jewel," said Bosse. "It epitomizes all that is good about ballroom dancing."

At the other end of the spectrum are "social" or "street" dances, which are learned by the masses in clubs and bars, and are danced to the beat of popular tunes (think the hustle). More importantly, street dances are characterized by emotions simply not found in the ballroom dance: passion, sex, exuberance, and unrestraint.

The tango started out as a street dance. But over the course of the first few decades of the 20th century it made its way up the ladder of respectability. Now the tango, too, finds itself planted firmly in the arena of sophisticated "ballroom."

Bosse has found during her fieldwork that while ballroom dancers eschew street dances, they are nonetheless drawn to them because the dances are different and exotic. "I want to find the Latino in me," she has heard dancers admit, despite their reluctance to tap into something contradictory to the ballroom aesthetic.

How can they embrace the "differences" they find enticing in street dancing, without being disloyal to ballroom? Could they filter out the seamier elements of the street dance, and make it conform to their own high standards?

That is precisely what happened with the tango. "It's more or less divorced now from its street roots," Bosse said. Those very gestures in the tango that were sexual in nature became "so stylized they are not considered sexual" anymore.

The tango came about in the early 1910s, when New York socialites learned new dance steps during their travels through Europe. They found the tango in Paris at such cabarets as the Pleasure House of the Assassins.

When the dance made its way across the pond, Americans saw it performed in theatrical productions and nightclubs. Rudolph Valentino made it famous in the film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Tango lessons became all the rage...and very profitable for its instructors, "who carved out a real niche for themselves," said Bosse.

It wasn't long before "The Tango Debate" broke out across the U.S. Was it sinful, or was it artistic?

Opponents focused on the tango's "dangers": its imagery was dark; the costumes were strangely exotic and often featured weapons; its movements and gestures suggested sexuality and male domination.

Newspapers trumpeted headlines like "Public Dancing at Cabarets a Growing Evil in New York," "Man Killed By Tango," and "New York Girls Trace the Tango To Its Lair." Massachusetts legislators proposed a $50 fine for a first tango offense; a second offense meant jail.

The tango became respectable thanks to the husband-and-wife dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. Hugely popular celebrities and doyens of fashion, the Castles headlined Vaudeville, ran a dance school franchise called Castle House, wrote dance books, made movies, and defined trends.

"They promoted a style of elegance and grace," said Bosse. The chic Irene made a particular impression on high society women, who copied her style, wardrobe, and makeup. When she spoke out about the spirit of beauty, art, and health in the dance (yes, dancing could even be a healthy pursuit!), high society listened.

And the Castles danced the tango.

But when they tangoed, they didn't dye their hair black, or cover their skin with rouge. Vernon was elegant in his tuxedo, Irene fashionable in her loose gown. Instead of exchanging lustful glances, the couple looked away from each other. Gone, too, were suggestive lunges and controlling holds.

The Castles refined the dance. "This appealed to the upper class clientele," said Bosse, clearing the way for wider public acceptance.

"Their style was most closely embraced by amateur ballroom dancers," said Bosse. Dancers were now free to tango without shame.

By the 1930s the tango had become a "prestige" dance.

Taking its place as the hot new "street dance," prompting cries of "sin," was the rumba - which has since earned its own badge of respectability.

Today's version of the forbidden dance is salsa dancing, said Bosse. Where the ballroom dance is characterized by "rules for the brain," salsa is "without rules for the body." It is described as "earthy," "spontaneous," "natural," and "sexual" - the very things that keep it from being accepted by the ballroom dance community.

To serious ballroom dancers who aspire to master the beauty, grace and control of the waltz and tango, salsa is considered nothing more than "vertical sex."

As happened 80 years ago with the tango, will the appeal of salsa's "differences" help it overcome its sordid reputation and be accepted into the ballroom universe? Perhaps all it needs is a Vernon and Irene Castle for the new millennium.

« Back | Campus News | Academic Spotlight | | Subscribe to Bowdoin News by Email