& the winner is... (are) Irene and Man Yung, of course. Un abrazo grande is on its way to you, to be used within one month of the date of issue at a milonga of your choice!
Not all tango dancers practised on street corners. In the 1940s, some of the leading lights of Buenos Aires tango met three times a week at El Club Social y Deportivo Nelson to practise, led by the tanguero known as Petroleo, and by 'El Negro Lavandina', 'the black bleacher', whose daytime job seems to have been whitewashing. Mingo Pugliese was invited to join the Club Nelson group at the age of 12, in 1948: it's his description of the dancer who 'held tightly onto his partner and had her do a headfirst somersault'. He says the dancer was Salvador Lorenzo Piazza. (Robert Farris Thompson: Tango: the art history of love p. 254.)
(Have you seen that move yet at your local milonga? Do let me know.)
Petroleo himself was a bank clerk by day who wrote accounts of tango for his bank's newsletter: tango was respectable by now. Thompson claims that Lavandina and Petroleo 're-thought tango', and he lists 23 tangueros who met regularly at the Club Nelson to practice amongst themselves, and to develop the dance. They all had nicknames, their tango identities: one, Roberto Marcos, was called La Biblia because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of tango moves.
It's too bad Thompson completely ignores the tango of the sophisticated Buenos Aires crowd of the late 30s and 40s, and instead focuses entirely on what's usually called 'fantasía'. The fantasía dancers were the exception: they danced (according to Thompson) at dance floors where there was plenty of room, which was where Copes and María Nieves practised and found the material for their shows. Extravagant tango was an old tradition. Thompson points to descriptions of competitions: in the 20s and 30s El Cachafaz danced competitions against all the best dancers of his day, including José Méndez, who later opened a studio where he taught Mingo Pugliese in the early '50s. This kind of dancing wasn't the smooth intimate dance of the confiterias: it was a competitive display of skill, the dance of a country that had also influenced the way football was played.
José Méndez also appeared in films. I found this clip from the 1951 film, Derecho Viejo, about the life of the musician Eduardo Arolas. This is the kind of tango that was danced in the 1930s; this is old tango!
There's a kind of assumption that 'milonguero' is the old style, the old people's style, and that the dance of display and competition, 'nuevo', is new, but this doesn't seem to be the truth. The dance that is 'más nuevo', the real innovation, seems to be 'milonguero', the close-hold dance that developed in crowded clubs. Until another Thompson researches it, its exact point of origin is probably a mystery. I can only think that it is more of an emotional innovation than a physical one. It's about that union with the music and a partner that is so unexpected and overwhelming every time that we have to keep returning to it, week after week, and never get tired of it (I hope). Just when was this discovered?
Another pointer to how revolutionary this was might be found in the accounts of the dancers on the Practimilonga blog. It's clear from these accounts and many others that this kind of dance, the one all the kids wanted to get into, was strictly protected by bouncers, and under-18s weren't allowed in. Of course they all tried to cheat their way in, and tall guys were at an advantage, but it sounds serious. & of course they all wanted to be there! We've heard the descriptions of the grim 'barrio milongas', where the guys stood in the middle of the room and the girls and their mums sat round the periphery, fanning themselves and deciding who was worth dancing with. Who wouldn't want to get away from that! To get out of the barrio and into a downtown milonga, where men and women eyed each other across the floor, and danced close...
There are so many questions. Thompson does a great job, just by talking to many people and gathering memories and stories, and by digging into archives, in uncovering the African influences in the growth of tango, and his book is an enthusiastic history. Wouldn't it be great if someone could do the same for the origins of milonguero tango? It might not help us dance better, but it's useful to know where and how it began, and if no one studies it soon, it'll be beyond memory. When and where did it start? Who have been the great dancers of the milongas? Was it exclusively close-hold? The bouncers at the door: was this city regulation, or was it just because the dancers expected it? Who were the women who turned up at the confiterias to dance? Was there a generation of women then who could go out unaccompanied and choose a dance partner at will? (For that matter, who were the women who danced with the Club Nelson dancers?) Various people have mentioned clubs and confiterias: it would be great if someone could get a list, and a history of them. & so on. There are so many questions.
But anyway, I don't buy the view that 'nuevo' is new. The real 'nuevo' is milonguero.