Queer Tango in Buenos Aires

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

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12 Responses to Queer Tango in Buenos Aires

  1. claudia says:

    so interesting, evan – seems like there’s a longer article wanting to be written in here. maybe?

  2. Evan says:

    Perhaps, Claudia. There’s certainly a lot more to say on the subject. The queer tango movement has also reached Europe and the US, which would be interesting to explore. After some more research and exposure to queer tango, I’m sure this could turn into something longer and more in depth. A possibility in the future…

  3. Philip says:

    Great story!

  4. Tonya says:

    Great story, Evan. And thanks for taking the non-traditional (and far more interesting) route!

  5. Tonya says:

    Oh and you’ve made me want to go to Argentina so badly now! And/or take up tango again here. I honestly found Argentine tango to be the hardest of all the ballroom dances to learn. Something about that close close handhold and the following/leading in such a close handhold was so incredibly difficult. I could never get the push and pull that you describe just right — I’d either give my partner too much of my weight and let him push me around the dance floor, or not enough and then I was stiff. It’s really so much harder than it looks and big kudos to those tangueras that make it look so simple. Excellent pictures from Emily by the way!

  6. Mike L says:

    A great article and photos! Yes, there’s no inherent need to have women following and men leading, yet that’s the weight-of-history tradition of tango. With the tango I’m part of in Australia, there are some women making efforts to lead, mainly out of a frustration at being left partnerless because of fewer men. So sometimes we see women leading other women, but they never lead men, and never (except in the occassional class) do any men follow.
    Who leads and follows seems also to have implications for who normally does the asking (many women have told me they’re reluctant to ask because they say the men, with the burden of leading, need to like the music being played before essaying onto the floor), so your story about being asked to lead was interesting.
    Again: well-done words and pictures, thanks.

  7. Evan says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Mike. And thank you for sharing some of your observations of tango in Australia. I hadn’t thought about how leading relates to who does the asking – how interesting!

  8. Patrick Loughran says:

    Thank you for thoughts on queer tango. In NYC, there is an “open role” tango class started by Sergio Segura every Tuesday night 8:30 to 10pm (yes, the class starts late)(www.learnargentinetango.com). And there is a weekly practica at Splash Bar every Saturday 5:30 to 8 pm. Argentine tango isn’t hard to learn but it’s not easy either. Queer tango is an amazing exploration of the dance’s rules and roles, creating more of a sensitive connection between partners. We have to listen more to our partner because the leader-follower role may change at anytime in the dance (it’s almost like a conversation–sometimes we talk, other times we listen). Recently, at a queer tango festival in Copenhagen, I realized that it is bigger than sexuality, when a man I had been dancing with brought his wife to me to talk about tango. What a wonderful world it is when we can dance with whomever we want and leave our preconceptions at the door!

  9. Mike says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. Any other tips about BA will be appreciated. I’m heading there for the first time in January. Excited already!

  10. Maria says:

    Hello,
    ich found your site in the weg because ich was serarching for a Miloga nearby in Hamburg.
    Dancing tango in Germany ist ist interessting to read your pages. Since I am physiotherapist and ich am used di lead men in my arms teaching hemiparalized people to walk- it wpuld had noch been very hard to me to lead! But since i am a romantic woman and I am off work, ich didn`t want to lead!

    But i never felt aktiv as a wommen and this made me very aggressive in the beginning ,since i am an enthusiastic dancer- Freestyle bellydancing Flamenco whatever! I had to keep my artisic mind from producing dancing ideas – i felt like beeing in chains!

    The thin that ei did´t unterstand at all is that i kept 7 yeers talking with dancers women and men- and nobody ever unterstood what ich was talking about!

    The teacher tried to persuade me that i was beeing aktiv dooing nothig an beeing led!
    Beeing aktiv ignoring and surpessing mey own kreativ power!
    Many men wer isultet because thex could´nt unterstand why ich was fightig so hard agaist myself to be able to follow!
    The mor interessting the Musik the harder the struggle against my owan krative impulses of movement!

    They told me – ist is easy -just do nothing!

    Ich found out -it is a matter of personality – if you are not a dancer or a krativ person – you will enjoy being led.

    Or you do the man a faver – like you do with little children -just to keep him satisfied!

    Well ich got used to it! Ich am Quitte good at it !

    But it is no Joy for me!

    It it a kind of budistic meditation – ignore your own selfischness!

    Günther who eich parctised with in the beginnig – always told me : Every other women tell allways tell me That it is niche to dance wiht me – and you allway say it is no fun , but hard work!

    If your are an independent kreativ women – there ist no harder work fr you to do than beeing led dancing tango!

    If you are women used to be led and non kreative it is easy!

    I wont ask foreign Men anymore!
    Because there is nothing more desilusionatig than a dance that is mad by politeness! Or beeing used as a sport handle oder in order to impress others, or runn over by a ignorant hyperaktive!Or just pushed arpund by someone who fells great with it because never ever any polite women told him to watch his Pusch and touch!

    Well there is al lot to tell about european tango!

    Enough now !

    I still love the dance the musik but not the Rolls , but i think Queer tango ist just the solution!

    I wisch the fols in th eother parts of the world whererever many experiences whatsoever!

    Love

    Maria

    at Hamburg aT present

  11. Great information. Loved the photos!
    Please see also an excellent website about tango – providing many well researched articles about tango (including history of tango, milongas, embellishments, tango legends and lots of others) on
    http://www.tangoinfo.com.au
    Warm regards,
    Eran Braverman

  12. Eran says:

    Hi
    Just wanted to say that the website (for the above comment) has now moved to http://verytango.com
    Also, reread the article whilst I was back – how touching and beautiful it is! having no experience with queer tango, it gave a quite tantalizing and delicate feel into the scene. Lovely!
    eran

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