photo by Emily Anne Epstein
A visit to Buenos Aires is incomplete without experiencing tango. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my trip was filled with visits to museums, gardens, performances, and informal concerts. There are plenty of tanguerías – flashy tango performances that are pricey and geared toward tourists – but I was hoping for something more authentic. With some advice from Emily, we decided to head to one of the milongas, the informal social gatherings that porteños – the locals – attend to get their tango fix. And we didn’t go to just any milonga. Club Buenos Aires, located in the colonial barrio of San Telmo, is home to a weekly queer-friendly milonga hosted by Tango Queer. It was conveniently located and offered a class (I’m an absolute beginner) before the real milonga, which usually begins around 10 PM and continues into the wee hours of the morning.
Traditional tango is steeped in machismo culture. It is a reflection of Argentine societal views on sexuality and gender relations: the man leads and the woman follows; that is, the man is the active participant while the woman is passive. She must wait for the man to guide the movement (and with a bad leader, she’s unfortunately trapped). According to Mariana Falcón, who established Buenos Aires’ first Queer Tango Festival in 2007 and led the pre-milonga class, traditional tango excludes diversity from the structure of the dance itself and promotes power relationships among genders. The queer tango movement grew out of the need to create a liberated tango environment where rules and codes of traditional tango are not taken into account, and therefore do not limit who dances with whom. By eliminating the link between gender and roles that exist in the traditional tango, queer tango allows participants to choose any partner and any role with which they feel comfortable.
Structurally, the class was nothing like the ballet and modern classes I’m used to in New York. While a ballet class has a clear progression from beginning to end, tango classes and milongas don’t follow a particular formula. They are social gatherings that are more improvisational than anything else. The setting felt unfamiliar, as well. The dimly lit club had a few tables and chairs on the side along with a full bar, but no ballet barres and no mirrors. And of course, most people were dressed in casual street clothes and sandals, as opposed to leotards and the traditional high-heel tango shoes for women.
In typical Argentine fashion, the class started about twenty minutes late and people continued to wander in at their leisure until there were about fifty participants – mostly women, but approximately fifteen men. After a quick introduction to the proper way to walk, which involved lots of bumping into one another as we paced forward and backward in a large but crowded circle, we were split into two groups – beginners and non-beginners. Speaking in rapid Spanish, the instructor’s assistant briefly explained correct posture and the importance of waiting for the leader – the person in the traditional man’s role – to guide the movement. Then she told us to pair up and just see what happened.
With the language barrier and very little instruction regarding what exactly we were supposed to be doing, I was feeling a bit confused. And I was even more overwhelmed when a young Argentine woman, who was also a beginner, approached me and requested that I lead. After a few minutes of trying to figure out “right” from “wrong” while bumping into other couples, the instructor came to our rescue and gave us each a personal lesson. She pressed her hand against my chest and told me to walk backward, reminding me not to move until she pushed me, but also to never slouch or fully give in to her weight. This, she explained, was the follower’s role. Then I practiced the leader’s role by pressing my hand to her chest, and quickly realized that unless I used some force, she wasn’t going anywhere. Feeling more confident, my partner and I continued dancing together, occasionally alternating roles so that she could experience what it was like to lead, until we switched partners and worked on some steps.
I spent the last few minutes of the class marveling at the more advanced dancers’ ability to seamlessly move in a variety of patterns around the floor. Clearly some participants were “regulars”, attending this milonga and possibly others on an ongoing basis. Fortunately, Emily brought along her camera and captured some beautiful moments on the dance floor.
I only got a brief taste of tango, but I was grateful to learn in such a welcoming, friendly environment. Although at first intimidating to lead, it was actually quite beneficial to learn and experience both roles. I realized that in the traditional tango a woman-woman couple would be impossible, or rather, it would never occur because there would be no leader. Taking the leading role – typically the man’s role – I sensed that I was challenging the structural sexism in traditional tango while exploring a new approach to a gender and role-specific dance. An “active” woman may be frowned upon in a traditional setting, but at a queer-friendly milonga, it is not only allowed, but also encouraged.
After a little research, I learned that there is a weekly queer-friendly milonga and class here in NYC. And this summer, San Francisco will host the first International Queer Tango Festival located in the US.
All photos © Emily Anne Epstein 2009