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DeVos: The immoral grizzly bear

Jon DeVos
The Friday Report
Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

Anytime I can weasel the word “turpitude” into a column I congratulate myself. It’s a fun word that allows you to scowl and purse your lips in disapproval as you say it. It means extreme wickedness.

Morality changes with each generation despite our thinking that it shouldn’t. We pass laws and opinions that just look silly a hundred years down the road. Wickedness and turpitude, for instance were a lot different then.

Parents of teen-age children have a lot bigger things to worry about today than cheek-to-cheek dancing. Not so back in 1914 when Pope Pius X pronounced the tango to the height of moral turpitude, declaring that its practice was unforgivable without remorse and complete repentance. A Catholic Cardinal, equating it with adultery, said, “It (the tango) is the worst that can be imagined. It is revolting and disgusting. Only persons who have lost all moral sense can bear it. It is the shame of our days.”

The tango grew out of the frustrated squalor of Argentinian slums. In 1900, Argentina was the seventh wealthiest nation in the world. Like most wealthy nations, there was enormous income inequality. Maybe that explains twerking in America. Anyway, Argentinian elite waltzed whilst touching fingertips in palatial mansions as the poor were gyrating in bars and brothels, lost in the tango’s erotic embraces.

Like so many fads and fashions, the tango was early-adopted by the young and embraced by the wealthy. By 1913 it was sweeping Europe and headed for America. Parents looked on in horror as their children experimented with the tango and its numerous offshoots they despairingly called the “animal dances,” like the Fox Trot, the Camel Walk, the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. Over-thirties were aghast.

Germany banned the tango outright. England’s Queen Mary ordered it out of the palace. In America, preachers, priests and rabbis aligned to root out the “immoral degeneracy” that was swallowing their kids. Towns across New England closed their dance halls lest people succumb to evil thoughts that arose among other things as young men and women grappled sinuously while dancing the Grizzly Bear. Grrrrr.

Dartmouth College first expelled students who dared tango but it became so widespread that the selectmen simply banned dances altogether. In the vacation town of Nahant, Mass., the police chief announced he would arrest all tangoing tourists and close any dance hall where these obscene perpetrators congregated. Massachusetts legislators hurriedly crafted bills to ban animal dances throughout the state.

Tango-haters threw doctors into the fray, stating, “… these objectionable dances are nerve-wracking, and if persisted in must undermine both health and morals.” Newspaper editorials bemoaned conditions where people ignored their butcher’s bill to pay for tango lessons.

U.S. Vice President Marshall called on Methodists in 1913 to denounce this indecency, claiming slit skirts were a sign that churches were losing their grip. That same year, President Woodrow Wilson canceled his inaugural ball over rumors that political foes were planning to embarrass and scandalize his administration by dancing the Turkey Trot. Musician’s unions refused to play at these “freak” dances.

But public opinion was starting to tap its toe to the tango’s beat. Sometimes a dance is just a dance and folks began to realize it didn’t lead directly to moral decay and depravity. Its role was solidified by Rudolph Valentino and Beatrice Dominguez dancing pelvis to pelvis in the 1921 film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The bombast and rhetoric about the morality of the tango sound alarmingly like our arguments today about abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and religious freedom. Someone’s desire to do something clashes with somebody else’s moral indignation at the thought of their doing so.

All to provide silly footnotes a hundred years from now.


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