Harmon’s Histories: Missoula seduced by ‘immoral’ tango

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

It’s “perverting souls,” and has to be stopped!

Good Catholic parents were warned to protect their children or “be guilty before God of failure in their most scared duty.”

It was denounced as a keystone in the “the overwhelming immorality of the new paganism.”

So, what was this threat to goodness, morality and virtue in the early 20th century?

It was a new dance craze from Argentina called the tango. Its impact was immediate and worldwide – touching even the tiny burg of Missoula, in western Montana.

The etymology and origins of the tango are blurry – perhaps the name is African, the dance Uruguayan or Argentinian. Whatever the case, it was controversial. That’s because forms of the dance were popularized in low-class areas and snubbed by society.

Cardinal Pompili, representing Pope Pius, ordered the tango banished in Rome. The Archbishop of Paris followed suit.

In Albany, New York, Bishop T. M. A. Burke went even further, saying, “I trust that no Catholic in the diocese of Albany will take part in any such dance as the tango, bunny hug, turkey trot or grizzly bear.”

The New York Tribune reported the ban immediately cost Catholic Charities an estimated $25,000 when they were forced to cancel the Emerald Ball, an annual fundraiser.

New York suffragists, however, successfully used the tango to get men to sign pledges backing their cause. The Sun reported, “By merely signing a little slip of paper (from) a vision in yellow and white he will be entitled to dance with one of the ten prettiest suffragists in town. No signature, no dance.”

In Montana, reporters asked Bishop J. P. Carroll for his take on the tango. He said he hadn’t actually seen it, “but he had heard it had a tendency toward immorality, and therefore the church would be opposed to it, as it was to all things possessing similar tendencies.”

Within a few weeks, though, a Paris newspaper reported the Pope had removed the ban after viewing “a princely Roman couple” perform the dance for him. He was quoted as saying, “Persons of your age must dance. But why adopt the ridiculous and barbarious contortions?”

In Missoula, dance instructors promoted the tango and the local Bijou Theater booked “Barton and Balle, tango dancers extraordinary” who would perform “all the latest dances.”

Missoula stores began selling tango shoes, tango beads and tango hats.

The local paper ran an extensive story in its Sunday society section in February 1914 announcing that, “Missoula has at last yielded … finally won (over) by the seductive … Tango Tea.”

According to the Missoulian, “Private (dance) classes have increased in membership amazingly during the last few weeks,” with “lately-won enthusiasts” offering, in their defense, that the tango “abounds in terms of art.”

The society writer minimized the controversy over the “suggestive and immoral” new moves, allowing that the criticism was “perhaps justified” initially, but only because of poor execution of the dance. New forms of the tango are now “stately and graceful.”

In fact, the local critic went so far as to say, “in no figure of the tango is it correct for the gentleman to come in closer proximity to his partner than three or four inches. Hugging may be permissible at times and places, but it forms no part of the tango gracefully and rightly danced.”

By March 1914, the tango had enveloped our nation’s capital and, it seemed, even Montana Rep. Tom Stout.

Splashed on its front page, the Missoulian reported, “Tom Stout is taking tango lessons – sly as he has endeavored to keep it. Accused of it, the Montana representative indignantly denies it – but blushes when he says it.”

Indeed, capital reporters had discovered that ‘ol Tom had been making regular trips to a local theater at odd hours. They confronted the resident dance instructor, who delightedly described the talents of his new charge.

The article speculated that when Rep. Stout returned to his home state in the fall, “if anybody hopes to put it over on Tom with the sagebrush slide, the greasewood glide or the Treasure State trot, they’ll have to go some.”

Soon enough, though, the new terpsichorean expressions became widely accepted, as would be their successors – Charleston, Rock n’ Roll, Disco, Hip Hop – each, with its accompanying dose of controversy.

Perhaps our musical history is trying to teach us – in the words of Sheryl Crow – that we should just “lighten up,” and, perhaps, “have a little fun before (we) die.”

But, I’m uncertain if that should extend to “a good beer buzz, early in the morning.”