No, Lima did not copy the French tango!

This discussion follows up on the background information found on The Tango Family Tree.  If you missed that page, you can read it first, in order to make more sense of this page.

What happens when someone encounters facts that oppose what they prefer to believe?  They look for a way to discount the new facts, so that they don't have to change their beliefs.  This is typical human nature.  The goal of the brain is to validate what it already believes.

In this case, there are people who want to hold on to their belief that the French changed and "tamed" the Argentine tango, so they try to discount a growing body of evidence that proves otherwise, including Nicanor Lima's tango manual.  They acknowledge that Lima's description is essentially the same as European and American descriptions of tango at that time — that's obvious — so since El Tango Argentino was published around 1914-1916, contemporary with the Parisian tango craze, the claim has been made that Lima's descriptions are similar to the French because he copied their version.  This claim allows those people to hold on to their belief.

No.  There is a great deal of evidence that Lima described the original Argentine version of the tango, not a version modified in Europe.  In his book, Lima organized and systemized the Argentine steps and patterns, more than the average tanguero would have done, but evidence shows that the tango steps and patterns that he described were authentic first generation Argentine tango.

1) Organization versus random sampling.

When the French observed tango steps that were brought over by visiting Argentines, they gathered the steps piecemeal.  The steps and figures were essentially the same as steps described in Lima's Argentine book, but they were collected in a jumbled and fragmentary manner, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  We call the French descriptions secondary sources—getting the material secondhand.

But when a primary source writes about it, the author can present the material in a structurally organized way, from the ground up, as only someone who understands the material firsthand can do, and as Lima did.

More precisely, the French descriptions were tertiary sources, because they got the tango from secondary sources—from Argentinians who usually picked up the tango informally.  Most of these young men learned tango casually, by going out dancing in Buenos Aires, and thus didn't know the underlying logic or structure of tango.  So the French got it piecemeal, from dancers who picked it up piecemeal, and the disorganization of their descriptions is evidence of this, even though the steps themselves were correct.

Lima's book, oppositely, is methodical.  He explains the rules.  When going forward, begin on your left foot.  When initiating a figure by going backwards, begin on your right foot, the same rule for both men and women.  None of the French or English sources mentioned this.  Lima starts with the slow tango steps, Pasos paseos serenos.  Then he moves on to the quick steps, Saltitos.  Next he describes the Pasos de tango acompasados, combinations of Pasos paseos and Saltitos.  Lima was very organized and methodical, as no one else was.

Lima organizes all of the media lunas together, in one chapter.  He defines a media luna (which none of the French or English did), as a short step pattern which is then repeated to the other side with the opposite feet.  The media lunas that the French and English collected appeared to be contradictory, leading the Europeans to wonder which *one* is the true media luna.  Lima shows that they weren't contradictory at all—they were a family of figures, not one, and they all fit the overall definition of media luna.

If Lima had indeed copied the French versions of the tango, as claimed, his observations would have been even more of a jumbled hodgepodge that the French were, being one generation further removed from the source.  All observers only catch fragments of what they're observing.  But Lima was the only author who gave a precise and detailed description the tango, built from the ground up.  That's the clear mark of a primary source — something that can't possibly be faked.

One recent American author, who made the "Lima copied the French" claim, asked in a suspicious way, why Lima wrote his book.  Why not simply accept his own answer?  He said that he wrote his book to tell the world what the true Argentine tango is.  He wrote:
It is these circumstances which have brought me to the publication of this book, to regulate and spread the knowledge of the true Argentine Tango, the one and only, and to point out that there is no 'Parisian tango', and if there were, it would only be a degenerate copy of the Argentine Tango.
Some dance scholars feel that they get 'points' for doubting the veracity of a source, in the same way that movie critics like to find faults in the films they review, but we don't feel that Lima deserves that doubt.  His concluding paragraphs clearly show his passion for the authentic Argentine tango:
Tango Argentino is a completely national dance; it is our soul, and there is no doubt that its spread will efficiently contribute to the formation of our culture.

Let's not forget that our tango is an important dance which has been besieged in our country for many years, and was forced to go away from us, ashamed, taking our spirit with it, to impregnate the cultural centers of another hemisphere [Paris, London, New York] with Argentinism, where songs were sung to honor us. There, strategically situated, the tango lamented our ungratefulness.

I think that considering this, the Argentine society will embrace its tango, even though they are the ones who abandoned it. The entire world will receive the tango in the way it deserves to be received because there is no other dance to surpass it. No doubt this is the dance of the future, which should make us proud.

I think, then, that our society can be proud to hold in its lap its wandering son who on the far side of the ocean is welcomed by the most distinguished societies. Finally one must ask which society is in the wrong — the foreign one who has embraced it, or the ungrateful national one who has rejected this beautiful part of its tradition.

2) Lima's structure still applies to today's tango Argentino. European tango does not.

Lima's steps and his underlying structure describe and explain continuing Argentine tango, for decades after his book, for the rest of the century.  None of the French and English sources do.  Today's Buenos Aires tango still follows the basic structure that Lima describes.

Meanwhile in Europe, their randomly piecemeal jumble of the same steps, allowed the tango to evolve in randomly piecemeal directions in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  But Lima's book explains the tango Argentino that continued for decades after his book, and that would not have happened if he was copying the French version.

For example, Lima emphasizes the importance of Cruces de pies laterales (grapevines), which were a foundation of Argentine tango.  And he says that when you step back, it's onto your right foot, and this can be the man's very first step.

So if you do a grapevine beginning with the man backing, exactly as Lima recommends, then finish with a typical sentada, you have the "eight count basic" that begins many tango Argentino classes today.  That pattern doesn't even begin to evolve from any of the French or English descriptions.  Much of today's tango Argentino is tango according to Lima.

3) Terminology.

Nicanor Lima has a chapter on Sentadas, which were his term for pausing ("sitting" on the rhythm) at the end of a tango phrase.  Every European and American tango description at this time called these Cortes, described exactly as Lima described them, but with a different name.  If Lima were copying European tango, he certainly would have used their term, but he didn't mention the word Corte once in his book.

4) Multiple concordances.

Nicanor Lima was not the only Argentinian to describe or teach first generation Argentine tango.  Many Argentine dancers traveled to Europe between 1911 and 1916 (we know some of their names), usually traveling to France or England, and the tango that they danced was essentially the same as Lima's tango.  These Argentine tango dancers didn't know each other, and they probably didn't know Nicanor Lima, but they all danced the same tango steps, patterns and step timings that Lima described.

The earliest 1911 and 1912 tangos described by Argentines traveling to Paris predated the popular "tangomania" that ensued, so they couldn't have been corrupted by some different style that became popular a few years later.  But that's a moot point, because the earliest 1911-1912 Argentine tango descriptions are identical to the 1913-1916 "tangomania" tango descriptions.  i.e., the European popularity didn't change the tango.  Europe adopted it as it was.  Señor Juan Barrasa (who danced tango on his father's estate in Argentina since he was 12), Raoul de Alvez (who won awards for his Tango dancing in Buenos Aires), Nicanor Lima, and all of the other Argentine dancers described the identical first generation Argentine tango.  Thanks to their clear descriptions, we know what first generation 1911-1916 Argentine tango looked like.  Multiple concordances are essential in tracking dance history, to ensure that a single source wasn't an unusual abberation.

5) Argentine vals.

On his very first page, Lima says something which none of the European sources caught.  He says that the Argentine method of dancing tango "serves as the base for learning different dances without needing the teacher, such as the waltz... incorporating all the movements of the tango..."  Argentines still waltz that way today — doing tango steps in waltz time.  Which French source did Lima supposedly copy that from?  None.  Once again, Lima's Buenos Aires book describes a non-European tradition that Argentines have continued to dance ever since.

These five points add up to mutually supporting evidence that Lima, Barrasa, de Alvez and others correctly described the original Argentine version of tango.  The good news is that Argentinians and tango enthusiasts can take pride in the fact that the first generation Argentine tango was so beautiful that Europeans and North Americans recognized its greatness, and immediately fell in love with it.  It wasn't broken; why change it?

Then what?

All great living dances evolve quickly in their own country.  American swing dancing changed dramatically fifteen years later.  Brazilian samba changed dramatically in Brazil fifteen years later.  Argentine tango changed dramatically fifteen years later because it was alive, not dead.  Watch the 1933 film of "El Cachafaz" and Carmencita Calderón dancing tango, especially after 0:34, when the other dancers join in.  You can see both the continuity from first generation tango, and how second generation tango evolved forward.  Another fifteen years later, Argentine tango had evolved yet another generation forward, and no longer resembled the early Argentine version.  Meanwhile, Europe and North America kept the original Argentine tango mostly unchanged.

Why do some people want to deny all this evidence?

I think it's the same as those who deny climate change: A strong wish to continue believing a pet theory will overcome all facts and statistics.  Some Argentinians and tango enthusiasts have derived great satisfaction from the old story that Europeans changed ("corrupted" "tamed" "bastardized") their tango.  Once we hear the same story dozens of times, we tend to accept it as truth, even if there never was a bit of evidence to support it.  Plus there is the undeniable pleasure in feeling that our favorite tango Argentino is better, more authentic, uncorrupted, compared to what Europeans and North Americans were dancing in 1914.  It's a fun story.  When those two incentives overlap ("I've heard it dozens of times, and I like believing it"), it's almost impossible to change one's mind, no matter how much evidence we see of the true first generation Argentine tango.

That's okay—it's human nature.  Be supportive.  It's nothing to fight about.  Let's save our fights for those who are doing true harm in the world, not for someone who enjoys their favorite theory.

- Richard Powers

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