The history of Tango: How to reclaim a story for yourself

I call Melissa to tell her my newest discovery. I gear up to lecture her about Tango and the Jews. “Do you know about them?” I ask. “I won’t be fun if you already know.”

She says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

It starts with the Spanish Inquisition. The Jews were traipsing around Europe looking for people who won’t kill them. In Germany there were organizations that shipped Jews to help build Argentina. The Jews were skilled in reading Torah, but this was not a skill in high demand. However there were very few women in Argentina, so the Jews were able to fill one important vocation of a burgeoning nation: prostitution.


“I’m getting there. Are you bored? Don’t get bored. Please. I’m so excited. I stopped planting bulbs for three days to obsessively read about this. Pay attention.”

Melissa says she has something to tell me.

I think I should not have started talking about the bulbs because Melissa got the idea that there was an opening in the conversation to talk about something she wants to talk about. She talks about NFTs. Melissa wants me write some hard-hitting piece about the fascinating world of NFTs. But Melissa has a husband and a house and a kid, and she won’t let me write about her, which makes everything boring, including her anonymous tips about NFTs.

Don’t be thinking you’ll get a picture of her kid, okay. The only pictures of Melissa I can publish now are from when she was so young she thought it was cool that a blogger was writing about her.

I have to settle for bugging her at bedtime to edit my posts. I talk to her quietly while the baby goes to sleep in her arms. If I talk about things I care about I get too loud so I tell her I looked at NFTs on and I thought for sure talk of NFTs would put the baby to sleep but Melissa says she has to call me back. I have to control myself because I’m always one step away from doing that thing where I can’t get off the phone til you say one more thing because everything I think of to say is so so so important it can’t wait.

Which brings me back to the Jews in Buenos Aries who mixed with freed African slaves. Early Tango music is a mashup of klezmer music from European Jews and Candombe music from African rhythms. Upper-crust Argentinian boys danced tango with Jewish prostitutes, but the music was considered too raunchy to be heard anywhere but the streets.

Then Black composers from Argentina traveled to Europe. Their Jewish teachers heard klezmer rhythms in that stickdreck tango and rewrote schmaltzy slides into something more stage-ready with a bissel foxtrot so tango could go back to Argentinian high society.

Melissa didn’t hear any of that. Because she called back and talked about her NFT purchases and her NFT friends then I talked about how I could NFT this blog post about Tango and her husband laughed. He never laughs at my jokes so I got excited and asked what’s so funny.

“He’s laughing because you think you’re so sneaky but you are so not sneaky.”

Okay. Fine. It’s true that I’m the person who is always trying to turn the conversation back to the topic of my choice. But sometimes I think I’m not so bad at being sneaky, because Melissa is my editor, so she had to listen to the end of the story anyway.

19 replies
  1. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    The trick with “claiming” is to have control over your boundaries. A Jew who emigrated out of Berlin to Kansas in 1935 might want to say in 1965, “We Germans have a talent for war” and also, in 1965, say, “We Americans don’t believe in fascism.” I can sympathize with a lady born and raised in Boston who says, “I”m Irish.” Whatever makes you happy, says I. The trick is to be master of your we’s.

    Today if I want to use a diminutive of the Ku Klux Klan I copy President Truman and say, “Klu Kluxers,” because Muslims from Africa, and folks from the British Isles, are happy to say we for our clan. (Not Klan)

  2. Minami
    Minami says:

    This was a nice Melissa update. It’s good to hear that she has a home and a husband and a baby now. I hope she’s happy.

    Does Melissa know that a lot of artists think NFTs are stupid, or worse, evil? Though she might respond to that by saying that a lot of artists are stupid (which I can’t exactly argue with). But it’s hard for me personally to reconcile the benefit of making them with their insane carbon footprint:

  3. adunate
    adunate says:

    I loved this, it cracks me up. There have to be at least three, four, maybe more topics running here and somehow they all mesh together. Penelope, you are a master at this.

  4. Maria miccoli
    Maria miccoli says:

    I have been planning on producing and selling NFT’s. Did you know that the cost for the artist is 76% of the bid? They only get 24%? 30% goes to the digital gallery/auction, the rest is for fuel costs and Etherium fees.

    Etherium fees are set. But fuel costs depend on the day of the week which is based on the demand. So selling only on the days with the lowest fuel costs reduce artist losses.

    Also I decided to change my business model so becomes an NFT and digital auction, saving me 30% of costs.

    But first, I plan on putting out fires 🔥 due to a planned power outage in Quebec which led to a 3rd party individual working for a hosting company who hacked all the servers. That company was able to retrieve all files “except for a few corrupt files”. You want to guess who that was?

    I am moving my account to my own VPS servers. It’s a process.

    There’s more…but I was thinking,

    How about interviewing your “favourite” guy Timothy Ferris since he found a hack in Tango when he lived in Argentina and won the contest there?

    Then you can make an NFT of that. Or write another article on how you hate Timothy Ferris ; )

  5. jane carnell
    jane carnell says:

    Hi, Penelope: Coincidentally yesterday I discovered by chance how someone I knew from my journalism past had a related connection with a fascinating cross-cultural historical discovery I think your post today touches upon. You must see her this book of hers, THE FORGETTING RIVER by Doreen Carvajal, a Paris-based journalist for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. “The Forgetting River” retraces her search to recover her Catholic family’s hidden Sephardic Jewish roots in a mystical white pueblo on Spain’s southern frontier in Andalusia. At the heart of her family was a matrix of mesmerizing secrecy embodied in the question, why did her grandmother and aunt refuse to have priests at their funerals, and was she in fact a descendant herself of ‘conversos,’ Jews who ‘converted’ to Catholicism rather than be burned at the stake during the Inquisition and thereafter?

  6. harris497
    harris497 says:

    I understand Melissa’s craving for privacy. You are unique in your adherence to public transparency, but even that has its limits. So, I appreciate you for respecting hers. Too often, respect for one’s friends’ opinions or decisions is not the path taken. We very often feel that it must be all or nothing. My tribe must think and act exactly like me. Tolerance of the other is becoming a lost art, so I applaud you for yours.

  7. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth says:

    Loved the Tango parts of this post, will be following the links for sure!

    Re. NFTs, then I need to share the relevant meme/explanation:

    And I will echo Minami above to say that the environmental impact alone should be enough for people to stay clear.

    • Emme
      Emme says:

      For what it is worth, I was also very shy about seeming feminine and danced in flat shoes, and it was an accepted part of the scene in my city. It depends on the community—especially where people dance/learn both roles or there is a queer tango scene, there is lots of room for different personal expression. Love that you dance lindy hop. :)

    • pfj
      pfj says:

      About “being girly.” Many years ago, movies and magazines put a LOT of effort into trying to convince girls and women that they needed to the “feminine.” (Girly.)

      For a few years, I was sort of concerned — because I was aware of not being able to do that. At all.

      Later I realized that I was able to be, and perceived as being, reasonably sexy . . . so I bid an un-fond farewell to any concern about being feminine, or girly.

      And after all, the tango is very sexy and (IMHO) not girly. So think about it that way, and see whether you might enjoy it after all.

  8. Liza Taylor
    Liza Taylor says:

    Hi Penelope. Your tango history meant more to me now that I work on Latin American guitar music. The scales grew not only from African music and Jewish music, but also many centuries of Islamic influence on Spanish sounds, which evolved into flamenco and Spanish folk melodies.
    When I was 5 or 6 I danced tango with my little brother until we laughed so hard we fell over. I sang one tune for our tango, later learned it was “Dark Eyes” part of Russian gypsy repertoire.
    Hope all is well with family and rebel garden.

  9. Steven Pofcher
    Steven Pofcher says:

    Who cares about NFTs? (Maybe I should.) I found your history of the Tango so interesting. Also, very fascinating why so many Jews went to Argentina and about Jewish prostitutes. I am Jewish and had never thought that prostitution was a big industry for Jewish women.

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