The Gateway City is hip on tango

St. Louis, the gateway to the west of lore, is hip on tango! But how did this happen and how does an American city far removed from the origins of the dance sustain a fandom nearly 100 years after the Golden Age of tango…?

In the beginning

Tango Festival Rio de la PlataAs a formalized dance form, tango gradually evolved in the Rio de la Plata Basin encompassing the Montevideo and Buenos Aires areas in the 1700s and 1800s, ultimately solidfying into the modern form in the last quarter of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1880s, a concerted effort was made to export the form to countries and continents beyond Argentina and Uruguay.

The first official appearance of tango in the U.S. was made on Broadway, Manhattan, in 1921. At that time, St. Louis enjoyed an international reputation as a world-class city, and why not? Playing host to the 1904 Olympic Games and the World’s Fair had placed the city in the prestige conversation with Paris and Rome and, well, New York. At the time, America’s 4th-largest city by population, St. Louis was fairly well historically destined to succumb to tango fever.

And, hoo boy, did it. Like most of the U.S. east of the Gateway, tango instantly captured the imaginations of the public and was sensationalized breathtakingly – plus lots of illustrations – by newspapers on a daily basis – no exaggeration. The first reference to tango as a dance in a St. Louis-area newspaper appears to date to May 11, 1913, when a Post-Dispatch report noted that dance clubs had been experimenting with trendy stuff like Tango, Texas Two-Step and the “Horse Trot.”

Within a month of the New York performance, on October 31 of ’13, reportage of a “New Tango Tea Dance Event” noted that the dance of “Rollicking Steps and Lots of Questions of Proper Attire.” The same show had the St. Louis Star and Times describing the city as “delighted.”

Despite the predictable concomitant would-be moralistic cries against the debauchery – a Post-Dispatch editorial of November 16 sniffs at the outrageous dress of the dance and haughtily proclaims tango to be “Masquerading Under the Name of Dance From Argentine (sic)”. These cries were drowned out by those enjoying a sneak peek into the amusement of the forthcoming Roaring 20s.

Tango on the St. Louis TV show

The mercifully short-lived TV show On Our Own debuted on ABC in 1994. Set in St. Louis, On Our Own was heavily dependent on the cute factor in featuring six minors as main characters; On Our Own was a combination of two well-worn tropes: Deceased Parents Are the Best along with that classic dating back to Shakespeare and beyond, Disguised in Drag.

In any case, the protagonist of OOO (that is the acronym, is it not?) is, in episode 2, kinda sorta forced into going out dancing with a social worker dude. Yeah, this is real high concept stuff. In any case, the episode is inevitably titled “Last Tango in St. Louis” – thus its inclusion in this suddenly rather stream-of-consciousness article – and is a virtual how-not-to tango. Actually, the dancing is better than the dialogue…

Here’s where the complex plot for the episode is set, beginning with the good ol’ Gateway City icon and skipping past three minutes’ worth of “previously on On Our Own”, one throwaway gag and the title intro. Trust Gateway Tango here: If you’ve never seen it before, we’re doing you a favor.

And here the dancing bit. Amazing this thing didn’t last another season…

The popularity of tango in St. Louis today

You bet your culo de muñeca! Several Facebook pages and a couple of websites are devoted to spreading news of tango lessons, classes and events, of which something is happening in the public sphere at least six times a week.

And St. Louis is just wacky enough to every so often play host to “hit-and-run tango,” a guerilla-theatre version of the dance, as in this clip from April 2009. (Come on, dancing tango in springtime, that’s hardly fair…) Performed in public, this particular Gateway tangoing makes the dance feel more like a celebration of life than ever – even if the skill level leaves something to be desired. Bravi, St. Louis tango dancers!