In April 1913, 90-year-old Henry McHenry walked out of the Chelsea Old Soldiers Home, telling his friends he was going to town – which they assumed meant Boston – and he didn’t come back. Three days later, word arrived that he had surfaced in New York City with a pocketful of cash.
McHenry pointedly told police, who wanted to send him home, that he would leave when he had seen what he came for. What enticed this cantankerous Civil War veteran and retired stonemason to travel all the way to New York? He wanted to see this new dance phenomenon everyone was talking about: the tango.
The year 1913, the writer H.G. Wells noted, was “the year of the tango.” This new dance where couples danced cheek-to-cheek, legs and arms pressed close against each other in an erotic embrace, had everyone’s attention.
And New England was no exception. Just like controversial dances today, the tango in 1913 gave rise to fascination, longing, disgust and fury – depending, of course, on your age and point of view.
Tango Travels to America
Where the tango originated is open to debate. But it took firm root in Argentina. Poor people danced it in the slums. At the time, Argentina was a wealthy nation (seventh richest in the world), but there were tremendous inequalities. So while the wealthy danced their sedate steps at fancy balls, the poor danced the tango in bars, brothels and dance halls.
Among the young and wealthy, the tango became a fascination, and they would slip into the ghettos for a taste of the dance craze. As these young people went to Europe to polish their education, they brought the tango with them.
In 1909 and 1910, the dance began popping up. But in 1913, it took the entire world by storm, first sweeping Europe and from there to the rest of the world, including the United States. Among the non-dancers, curiosity turned to outrage as soon as they got a firsthand look at the new dance. It was disgust at first-sight.
Rushing headlong into the First World War, the nations and religions of the world didn’t seem to agree on much. But the tango proved an exception. The people loved it; the leaders did not.
Germany’s Kaiser banned the dance. And England’s Queen Mary also ordered it kept out of any palace functions.
In the United States, ministers, priests and rabbis began speaking out against the immoral dance. The more strident labeled it “unwholesome degeneracy.” They were especially angry at the hordes of adults who tangoed, making it seem acceptable to children. The more moderate clergy saw it as a passing fad; an evil, but a temporary one.
In the summer, towns throughout New England began waking up to the fact the tango being performed in their midst. Town officials began issuing directives to local dance committees to ban it from town and benefit dances.
Banning the Tango
In Lebanon, N.H., the selectmen announced that people attending dances at the town would be expelled for dancing the tango. But it had little effect. The students of Dartmouth College were singled out as the offenders, but the dancing continued until the selectmen finally voted to ban dances altogether.
In the popular summer destination of Nahant, Mass., the police chief learned the dance halls of Bass Point were promoting tango exhibitions to lure customers. He ordered all the posters for the event torn down and announced the police would stop any such dancing.
Opponents also expanded their battleground. “Medical authorities have lately expressed the opinion that these objectionable dances are nerve-wracking, and if persisted in must undermine both health and morals,” they told the newspapers.
And one newspaper editorial bemoaned the state of affairs where citizens would ignore the bills from their dentists and butchers to instead pay for tango lessons.
U.S. Vice President Thomas Marshall, speaking to a Methodist camp meeting in August of 1913, denounced the dance craze. The tango, turkey trot and slit skirts, he said, were all signs that the churches were losing their hold on people: “It is high time that the people were waking up.”
Finding Popular Support
The tango had advocates as well, mostly among dancers, dance instructors and young people. These factions tried a multipronged approach to making the tango acceptable. First, they tried to calm people’s sensibilities. They pointed out that new forms of dance often excited outrage. The polka, they noted, had been widely criticized when first introduced.
Similarly, the waltz scandalized people when it was introduced in America. It was known as the Boston, and a variation was known as the Boston Dip. Both were abhorred by moralists. But both were eventually accepted as proper. The tango was no different, its defenders said.
This line of reasoning did little to persuade the anti-tango factions.
Advocates reached out to their own medical experts, who pointed out the tango helped people lose weight and stay in shape.
But most of their efforts focused on convincing tango dancers themselves to embrace a more modest form of the dance, one that didn’t involve so much physical contact and flamboyance. And no dipping, they instructed. At least not “deep dipping.”
Banning the Tango
In October of 1913, Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald upped the ante.
The Boston Musician’s Protective Union had announced its opposition to “freak dances” that involved “glides, slides and hugs.” While the union didn’t pledge that its members would not play music for these dances if directed to, they would discourage it.
Fitzgerald put the force of government behind their opposition, and he announced a ban on the tango at all city dance halls:
“The prohibition includes all the so-called animal dances such as the turkey trot, bunny hug, bear dance, etc. also the kitchen sink, tango and other extravagances,” the announcement said.
The new rules further stated:
All dancing would stop at 11:45 on Saturday nights.
“No moonlight or shadow lighting effects. The hall must remain fully lighted.”
A police matron would be assigned to each dance hall, and have charge of the ladies room. A police officer assigned to the hall would have the authority to stop the music if necessary.
In November, Pope Pius X declared the tango immoral and off-limits to Catholics. If they partook in the dance, they were instructed to include it in their confessions and would need to do penance. Supporters of the dance fabricated a story that the pope had witnessed a demonstration of the dance and recanted his opinion, but the Vatican quickly shot that down as a falsehood.
With New England’s large Catholic population, the edict had weight. But not enough to kill the tango.
Social and country clubs and hotels came under great pressure to eliminate the tango from the popular dances and “tango teas.” Some did, others did not. And people boycotted charity balls that banned the tango, which prompted a satirical cartoon in Puck magazine. Wellesley College vacillated, first banning the dance and then reversing course.
In the Massachusetts Legislature, Rep. Lewis Sullivan introduced a bill to outlaw the tango across the state. Like Henry McHenry, he traveled to New York to see a tango firsthand. He saw a sedate version of the dance. But he remained opposed to the dance in its more expressive forms.
By now, however, public opinion moved in the direction of the tango as people saw that it did no harm. With little remaining popular support for banning the dance, Sullivan’s proposal died in legislative committee.
The tango soon became much more mainstream in the United States. Then it faded, only to be popularized again by Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 film, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Vice President Thomas Marshall would haul out the tango once again for political purposes. When a rival attempted to replace him on the ticket in 1916, rumors spread that the Missouri rival liked to dance the tango.
And in Catholic circles the dance remains controversial. When Pope Francis told reporters that he had danced the tango as a young man and still enjoyed the dance, his critics saw red and called him a weak successor to men like Pius X.
This story was updated in 2020.