NARRATOR: The title of this work tells us that this couple is dancing a tango—but it’s an American tango, without the passion and sex of the original. The tango began in the brothels of Argentina around the turn of the century. It pantomimed the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp; the slinky, close-hugging movements were charged with menace and a smoldering sexuality. When the dance was imported to America around the time of the First World War, it was toned down for the ballrooms of proper society. This couple in evening dress is not actually touching. Ladies in America sometimes wore “bumpers”—rather like fenders on a car—to avoid too much contact during a tango.
Despite such protective measures, religious leaders were still horrified by the craze for tango. One wrote: “We condemn the dance imported from abroad known under the name of the tango, which, by its nature, is indecent and offensive to morals, and in which Christians may not in conscience take part. It will, therefore, be the duty of confessors to take notice of this in the administration of the sacrament of penance.”
The smooth, rounded figures may remind you of American folk art. When artist Elie Nadelman moved from Paris to New York in 1914, he was delighted by all forms of American popular culture, including jazz, movies, the circus, and vaudeville. Here, he borrows from folk art to make a sophisticated, gently satirical observation of high society.