Monday, December 27, 2004

Book Reviews

A few tango books. Firstly Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, by Marta E. Savigliano (Westview Press, 1995, ISBN 0-8133-1638-3, paperback). Ms Savigliano is assistant professor of dance history at the University of California-Riverside and describes herself as a Latina feminist intellectual and boy does it show. This is definitely not lightweight reading. Here is a sample passage:

Among exotics, exoticism is a way of representing not only cultural uniqueness but also respective exotic conditions. In addition, in marketing the tango, argentinos and Japanese situated each other within the “community of exotics” - in full awareness of the grotesque results. A parody of exoticism? Some drawings from early tango sheet music display the exotic Orient, Africa, and Japan in the figure of the Odalisk, the Tribal King, and the Geisha.

The book deals with the exploitation of South Americans, women, and other have-nots, and their classification as exotic, and therefore harmless - I think. I must confess most of it goes right over my head. There are plenty of pictures, all very muddy and badly reproduced. For intellectuals only.

Tango Nostalgia: the Language of Love and Longing, by Pirjo Kukkonen (Helsinki University Press, 1996, ISBN 951-570-286-0, paperback) deals with the themes of tango lyrics, not the music or the dance itself. The first third of the book deals with Argentine lyrics and the themes of love, death, sadness, woman as madonna/whore, male inadequacy etc. Then follows a brief round-up of British, German, Swedish and other European tangos. Never do a Tango with an Eskimo, as sung by Alma Cogan, gets a mention.The rest of the book deals with Finnish lyrics. The longing for home, the countryside, or for a past which never existed, features strongly, hence the book’s title. Nearly all the lyrics are given in the original language and an English prose translation, though one is translated into Italian and Swedish but not English, and another (the classic Satumaa) is given metrical Swedish and English translations that fit the music so the reader can sing along. A very scholarly book, but I found it easier to get along with than the Savigliano. No illustrations.

The Tango and how to Dance it, by Gladys Beattie Crozier (Andrew Melrose, London, 1913) is a very difficult book to get. After many months, Bristol Library managed to get the British Library’s own copy which I was allowed to take home. I fully expected to have to read it in the library, under the eagle eye of the chief librarian.

A great many figures are described, including the Promenade and the Eight. These do not correspond to the promenade or ocho that we know. 32 photographs illustrate the figures.
There is a chapter on tango music. There didn’t seem to be very much available in Europe at the time. 16 tunes are described, of which the only one I know is El Choclo. I have heard of La Rumba, but never heard it played. The biggest hit of the time seems to have been Chispa, by Maria Gutierrez-Ponce. An extract of the sheet music is reproduced. La Cumparsita was of course four years in the future. Crozier recommends a record with La Rumba on one side and Amampa on the other (orchestra not named) and says one can dance to them in turn for a whole evening. I must say the idea doesn’t appeal to me. The record cost 5/6 - about half a week’s wages for a lot of people. 12 piano rolls were available, of which the most expensive was Myosotis (sounds like a disease, doesn’t it) at 10/6.

A chapter is devoted to places to dance the tango. All of them very aristocratic - if there was anywhere ordinary peasants could go, there is no mention of it. Prices are frighteningly expensive - the 400 Club charged 5 guineas membership, 10/- joining fee, and 6/- at the door. You had to pass a rigorous vetting by the committee as well. I will never complain about modern prices again.

There is a long chapter on what to wear for the tango. Madam Lucile’s seemed to be the place to go for fancy frocks. Prices are not given. Presumably if you had to ask, you couldn’t afford them. Black was the in colour.

Other chapters deal with the tango and fancy dress, children’s tango parties, and tango on roller skates. A very interesting look at the start of the tango craze.

Modern Dancing, by Mr and Mrs Vernon Castle (World Syndicate Co, New York, 1914) is a very elegantly produced volume in blue cloth with gold titling and a tinted photograph of Vernon and Irene on the front cover. The book deals with all ballroom dances fashionable at the time, including the one-step (“the most popular of all dances”) and maxixe (which we know as the samba) The waltz appears in the form of the hesitation waltz, with its frequent pauses. The old-fashioned version with its constant 1-2-3 timing was very passé. The Castles are at pains to point out that one should pause when the music pauses, and not to a strict sequence. The foxtrot doesn’t get a mention. According to PJS Richardson, this first appeared in New York in the summer of 1914 (though I suspect it was known in negro haunts before that), and the Castles’ book would have gone to press by then.

A curious item is the half and half, danced to music in 5/4 time. I thought I knew something of the history of popular music but I had never heard of this. Richardson doesn’t mention it at all.
The tango dominates the Castles’ book. They claim it originated in Spain rather than Argentina, and never mention brothels. They liken it in its elegance and complexity to the minuet. “The only drawback” they say, “is that all teachers teach it differently.” A number of figures are described, including the promenade, which is now recognisable as the one taught in ballroom classes today. There is also a tango variant, called the innovation. The partners stand close together but do not touch. Otherwise the steps are the same as the ordinary tango. I had heard of a tune called Castle Innovation Tango (recorded by the Tango Project in the 1980s) but never knew it as a dance in its own right, although London teacher Christine Denniston used to make her pupils an exercise which was very similar.

Other chapters deal with etiquette, ladies’ fashion, how to organise a tea dance, and a riposte to those clergymen and others who disapprove of the whole idea of ballroom dancing. Plenty of pictures, all full-page and of the rather muddy quality usual at the time. Some of them show the delectable Irene in a diaphonous skimpy little number. A charming glimpse into a world about to be shattered forever.

The History of English Ballroom Dancing by PJS Richardson (Wyman & Sons,London, 1946) is the standard history of ballroom dancing from 1910 to 1945,written by the man who made ballroom what it is today. Plenty of detail onthe various committees and conferences devoted to standardising andformalising the dances (including the tango). Here is an extract:

M. Maurice then addressed the meeting . . . . . .he protested against theadmission of jazz music and dubious steps into decent places, emphaticallyinsisting that they originated in low negro haunts and had au fond aprurient significance.

Can't have that, old boy, what? Essential reading for the ballroom fanaticand not too difficult to get.

I have heard of but not read Masculinities: Football, Polo and the Tango in Argentina by Eduardo P. Archetti which is available from Amazon and to judge from the reviews posted by readers is as impenetrable as the Savigliano. Rather expensive too at 55 dollars.

Now for a novel. Tango is my Passion by the Finnish bandleader M.A. Numminen is the story of Virtanen, who loves tango more than anything. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, which he shares with all and sundry, whether they really want to know or not. He goes dancing every day, but only dances the tangos.

But Virtanen has principles, derived from a reading of Plato’s philosophy when he was 15. These principles demand that Virtanen preserve his virginity until he reaches the age of 36. He is beset by difficulties. Unwanted erections spoil the dance. He has to flee to the men’s room and lash the recalcitrant organ into flabbiness with a handful of birch twigs.

Women cause problems. Once he walked Irja home from the dance and, against his better judgement, accepted her invitation for coffee. She disappeared into the bathroom, came out naked, and made a grab for Virtanen, who barely escaped. But at last Virtanen falls in love with Anja, but he still holds on to his principles.

The dancer’s world is perfectly described: the joy, the passion, the awkwardness, the embarrassment, the humiliation.

Entwined with the story is a history of the tango, sometimes given by Virtanen, sometimes by a third-person voice (identified by a different typeface). Sometimes a whole chapter is devoted to the subject. This can be a bit wearing, particularly when the same ground is gone over more than once. But it illustrates Virtanen’s obsessiveness.

Sometimes I feel desperately sorry for Virtanen: sometimes I find him intensely annoying. Mostly I am horrified to see how much like Virtanen I am myself.

The relationship between Virtanen and Anja goes fairly well in spite of many difficulties, all created by Virtanen himself. But a scant six pages before the end, this pretty little comedy of manners becomes very Scandinavian. It was like a slap round the face. The penultimate chapter is the most harrowing thing I have ever read. I wiped the tears from my eyes, furious with myself. Why am I crying for Virtanen? He’s a figment of someone else’s imagination, for goodness’ sake! Something must be softening my brain: perhaps tango, perhaps Fennophilia, perhaps salmiakki. I wanted to talk to somebody, but what would they have said? “Pull yourself together! It’s only a story!”

In the final chapter the self-pitying and obsessive Virtanen destroys the reader’s sympathy as he has destroyed everything else.

Definitely a different sort of book. If you love tango as much as Virtanen and I do, you will probably enjoy it. Or perhaps not.

There is no official English translation of this book, but I can send a copy of my own translation if anybody is interested.