Mourby to Tango
London’s Waldorf Hilton is very proud of its claim to have introduced the tango to Great Britain in 1910, two years after William Waldorf Astor (cousin of John Jacob Astor IV) opened his Waldorf Hotel on Aldwych.
The Waldorf cousins competed across the Atlantic to outshine each other. William Waldorf Astor not only opened the glitziest hotel in London in 1908 he also purchased a British peerage in 1919. His younger cousin Colonel John Jacob Astor, who earned the unenviable distinction of being the wealthiest man to perish on the Titanic, built New York’s Astor hotel in 1897 right next door to cousin William’s original Waldorf. When the two buildings were eventually joined together they became known as the Waldorf-Astoria, now one of the brand names in the Hilton portfolio.
The Waldorf in London has refurbished many of its public rooms to reflect the early years of the twentieth century. The panelled bar, which serves an excellent 1908 cocktail, is known as Good-Godfrey’s. It’s named after Howard Godfrey who in the 1930s was leader of The Waldorfians, the hotel’s very own orchestra. And the marbled Palm Court Ballroom next door is a dramatic stage for tea dances and, increasingly, Tango Suppers.
My wife and I went to one of these in the dying days of 2014 and after a quick and fortifying 1908 (Tanqueray 10, sweet & dry vermouth with orange bitters) in Godfrey’s, we queued up behind ladies in fur and glittering dresses, and men in black tie and Argentine tango shoes waiting to be shown to our tables.
Leonardo Acosta from Buenos Aires, who has been dancing tango for over forty years, was greeting guests with his English dance partner, Tracey Tyack-King. Judging from the number of kisses being exchanged at the door, these bi-monthly events have a lot of regulars.
In honour of the Waldorf’s long association with the tango, we were to be treated to Leonardo and Tracey giving six exhibition dances tracing the development of the tango from 1910 till 1990. But first we were offered a very gentle cocktail and invited to a 45-minute tango lesson on the dance floor.
Kate and I were glad to find that tango, at its least ambitious, can be danced by two people who walk round the dancefloor in sync - and with aplomb. The choreography is improvised and can be complicated, but you can also bluff it. However we soon realised that the really good dancers tango without a smile on their lips or a word of conversation. Some of the women here were even doing it with their eyes closed, the better to sense their partner's lead. Kate and I were in the enthusiastic amateur category, talking and even laughing as we strutted and twirled.
Supper followed at our tables, which gave us a chance to do some serious people-watching. There was the tiny woman in the even tinier dress who sat all alone and did not eat. She looked as if she lived for tango and only came alive when asked to dance. There was the couple who were dressed for sitting in a public library with the newspapers. She was even wearing a yellow cardigan, but my wife noticed she wore dancing shoes with glittering gold heels. Later he sat eating quite happily while she tangoed off with anyone who invited her. There was the man who looked he could enforce for East End gangsters if he chose and who never smiled, but who danced his equally unsmiling partner round with a splendid cold precision once the music started. And there was the tall and kindly expert who invited my wife to dance after we had proved to everyone that we had no idea what we were up to. Best of all were the women whose dextrous legs, kicking and flicking alarmingly, belied their obvious chronological ages. Dresses were split high on the thigh, all the better to twine their knees behind their partners’ legs. Tango definitely delays the effects of middle age.
By the end of the evening I had decided that London’s Waldorf was not just the best place to dance tango in the capital but the best place to people-watch the English too.
2014/15: Tango suppers at the Waldorf cost £69 per person and anyone in town on a Sunday when one is being staged would be foolish to miss out.