By the 1940s, and very possibly some time before that, the way in which a young man would learn to dance Tango was surprisingly uniform across the whole of the city. I have asked many elderly men, from every part of the city, and dancing every style how they began to dance. Generally they start, "I was 13 years old, and there was this girl..." A 13 year old boy in Buenos Aires in the 1940s or 1950s was not the same as a 13 year old boy in the First World today. Most boys would have left school at 11, at the latest, and would have been full members of the work force for at least two years. So at 13 they were young adults with quite a lot of independence.
The young man who was starting to notice the attractions of young women had little option but to learn to dance the Tango. He would go to a men only practice dance, or práctica, and, after he had watched for a little while one of the older men would start to teach him how to follow, that is to say he would learn to dance the woman's part. Once he was considered to be good enough at dancing the woman's part he would be allowed to try leading another young man who had been dancing about as long as he had, and start to learn to dance the man's part. I have asked many elderly men, from many different parts of the city, how long this process took (baring in mind that the men I speak to for my research are generally the outstanding ones, who would not have been the slowest members of their group), and I have never been told that it took less than nine months to learn to dance the woman's part well enough to be allowed to start learning to lead.
They would then continue to learn, dancing both parts, gradually leading more, until one night one of the more experienced men would tell them to put on a suit on Saturday because they were going to a dance, or milonga. I have asked many elderly men how long that whole process took, and not one has told me that it took less than three years.
Their first dance with a woman would have to be arranged for them. No woman would dance with a young man she had never seen dancing. There were too many good dancers for her to be interested in risking a dance with someone if she didn't know if he could dance, so unless he was exceptionally good looking, one of his more experienced friends would have to ask a woman, as a personal favour to him, to dance with the boy. If it went well then he could be left to carry on, as the other women would have seen him dance. If it went badly then he would have to go back to the práctica until he could do better.
The men did not simply go to the práctica to learn to dance - or there would not have been any experienced men for the beginners to dance with. The men continued to go to the práctica for a couple of hours each night, four or five nights a week, before they went to the milonga. In fact several men have said to me that you did your real dancing at the práctica. You went to the milonga to meet women. Generally the men in the prácticas followed better than the women in the milongas did. And in a práctica you could experiment more and take risks. Dancing with a woman you had to stick to what you could do perfectly, to increase her enjoyment of the dance.
In the prácticas there would be men who specialised in following - although they also led in the milongas to meet women. Often men had regular dancing partners, and there would be demonstration dances done in the milongas to a very high standard.
The process by which a man would learn to dance was similar to the way a child learns a language. First of all the child listens. Then, after perhaps nine months the child starts to make little noises, imitating the sound of words spoken by the adults around it. But mostly it still listens. Gradually it starts to make words, and then phrases and sentences, until by the age of three a child can have a proper conversation. There is still some way to go, of course, but the fundamentals are there, and a child who learns in this way doesn't make grammatical mistakes as an adult. The child may grow up to be a poet or someone inarticulate, but whatever use it makes of the language it learns, the fundamentals are always right.
When I ask elderly women how they learned to dance, the story is also similar whichever part of town they come from. It was done in private and in the home. Many were taught by fathers, brothers or uncles, but some were taught by mothers, sisters or aunts. When I ask a woman who says she was taught by her mother, "So your mother danced the man's part?" she say, "Obviously," as though I was insane to ask the question.
While it is not part of the official history of Tango, I do believe that a considerable number of women in the Golden Age (and probably before that too) did learn to dance the man's part as well as the woman's part, and took their Tango as seriously as the men did. There was much less pressure on women to reach a high standard in the dance, as they were such a rare commodity. A woman did not have to be a particularly good dancer in order to dance all night if she wished. But it is my belief that those women who were captivated by the Tango did practice together in private, and did learn to dance both parts.
When you talk to the men about the standard of the women it is clear that some women were significantly better than the rest, and that they were the ones that any man would choose to dance with. I do believe that these were the women who practiced, and who, in the privacy of their homes, led.
However, that is only my theory, and not the story that has been officially recorded.
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