Is Queer Tango Compatible with Traditional Tango?

  • In Traditional Milongas, men assume the role of leaders and women the role of followers in partner formation.
  • Advocates of the Traditional Tango partner formation pattern defend this practice arguing that:
    • Men have assumed the leading role and women the following role in milongas in Buenos Aires for over 100 years.
    • Anatomical differences (men are taller and heavier) dictate leading and following roles.
    • Women leading negatively impacts their ability to follow.
    • Men dancing with men has a heightened physical energy that creates navigational hazards at milongas.
    • Tango dancing provides men the opportunity to express masculinity and women the opportunity to express femininity.
    • Roles in dancing tango reflect the leadership and following roles men and women have in society, something that has been shaped by millions of years of biological evolution.
  • Queer Tango challenges the Heteronormative Partner Formation pattern of Tradtional Tango. Queer Tango has two aspects – Gay Tango and Gender Neutral Tango.
    • Gay Tango recognizes the rights of homosexuals to dance tango with same sex partners at milongas.
    • Gender Neutral Tango permits the formation of tango partnerships at milongas where both men and women may assume leading and following roles, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
    • In its rejection of Traditional Tango customs, Queer Tango often is accompanied also by other aspects of Evolutionary Tango such as playing Neotango music for dancing, opening of the embrace and inclusion of elements of exhibitionism in dancing.
  • Tango is a dance that provides opportunities for greater physical and emotional intimacy, thereby fostering the development of romantic and sexual relationships.
    • The codes and customs of the Traditional Milonga (gender defining attire, Gender Segregated Seating, cabeceo for dance invitation, emotionally evocative Classic Tango music, embracing while dancing, piropos during conversation between songs of the tanda, invitations to meet after the milonga) create an ambiance that invites courtship and seduction.
    • Gender Neutral Partner Formation, which obscures sexual orientation, suppresses this aspect of tango dancing for people who do not already know each other’s sexual orientation. This affects both heterosexual and homosexual expression at the milonga.
    • The exclusion of homosexuals from dancing with each other at a Traditional Milonga denies them the same rights granted to heterosexuals. This is inconsistent with contemporary societal norms. Anti-discrimination laws and same sex marriage are indications that homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals in many countries where tango is danced, and this equality should be extended to the Traditional Milonga.
    • Recognizing the rights of homosexuals to dance with each other at Traditional Milongas also opens the door for them to enjoy other aspects of Traditional Tango culture, such as dancing only to Classic Tango music, having the freedom of choice in partner selection provided by the cabeceo, dancing on a floor where the distractions of exhibitionism and teaching are absent and the risk of collision is reduced, characteristics of milongas that may be absent in Queer Milongas.
  • The addition of same sex partner formation at Traditional Milongas presents a challenge to the values of Tango Traditionalists.
    • Gay couples dancing exclusively with each other present the least threat to heterosexuals, because this does not cause them to experience discomfort in dancing tango with someone of the same sex. This could be a first logical step in the transformation of a Traditional Milonga.
    • Use of the cabeceo alone for dance invitation, thereby eliminating the Direct Approach, allows each dancer at the milonga to dance only with partners of their choice, regardless of the sex, gender identity and sexual orientation of potential partners. Effective use of the cabeceo under conditions of Gender Neutral Partner Selection necessitates the creation of Role Segregated Seating, i.e., leaders in one seating section, followers in another, as a modification of Gender Segregated Seating.
    • Permitting Gender Neutral Partner Formation and recognizing that the sexual orientation of the selected partner may be unknown requires dancers to have increased sensitivity in recognizing the nonverbal cues inviting greater emotional and physical intimacy when dancing tango. This is a good thing regardless of the sexual orientation of the dance partners.
    • The argument made here is that Traditional Milongas should be open to Gay Tango and it is only in the uncertainty regarding the sexual orientation of potential partners that Gender Neutral Partner formation as a general phenomenon is advised.
    • Allowing Gender Neutral Partner Formation in a Traditional Milonga should not be interpreted as advocating experimentation in role assumption; the place for this is the practica or the Queer Milonga. Only dancers competent in their roles should assume them in a Traditional Milonga. Experimental partner formation resulting in navigational hazards or exhibitionism should result in intervention by the milonga organizer to control this.
  • What makes a milonga a Traditional Milonga is playing only Classic Tango music for dancing, using only the cabeceo for dance invitation, dancing in an embrace with movements close to the floor and the couples’ bodies, absence of exhibitionism and teaching on the dance floor, and absence of casual attire. It is the music and the embrace, as well as the absence of distractions, that creates an atmosphere increasing the possibility of romantic and sexual expression. Whether partner formation is opposite sex or same sex is irrelevant.

 

Traditional Tango customs include various aspects of music selection, dancing, the physical environment, and codes of behavior that are adhered to by participants within this culture (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics). Music for dancing at the milonga is limited to Classic Tango music from the Golden Age (1930s, 40s, and 50s) or, rarely, Modern Tango music that emulates Classic Tango. The manner of dancing includes embracing the partner, moving within the circulating ronda, keeping feet close to the floor and close to the body, and foregoing large and/or rapid movements that attract attention and risk collision with other couples on the floor. The physical environment of the milonga is structured to provide a rectangular dance floor, with tables positioned to allow dancers to view the dance floor, and sufficient lighting to allow dancers to see clearly potential partners across the dance floor. Codes of behavior include Gender Segregated Seating and invitation to dance using the cabeceo (Use of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating in Milongas in Buenos Aires and Elsewhere in the World); in couple formation, men assume the role of leader and women the role of follower.

This post focuses specifically on the Heteronormative Partner Formation pattern, i.e., of men leading and women following in tango couple formation, to assess whether deviations from this pattern, i.e., Gender Neutral Partner Formation, can be integrated into the Traditional Milonga environment.

 

Advocacy of Heteronormative Partner Formation

It has been the standard practice for over 100 years in the milongas of Buenos Aires that men assume the role of leader and the woman the role of follower in dancing tango. This pattern of sex-based partner role assumption has been incorporated into the exposition of Traditional Tango customs, sometimes explicitly (Tango Chamuyo; In Search of Tango; Tango VoiceEl tango, un ejemplo del orden entre hombre y mujer), sometimes implicitly (Siempre Milonguero; Tango therapist; Viaje por tango).

Despite the fact that partner formation with men as leaders and women as followers is overwhelmingly the most common couple pattern in tango dancing worldwide, there have been exceptions, most notably at events advertised specifically as Queer Tango, which have increased in frequency and in media attention in recent years. More quietly, there also have been some tango communities where there has been a shortage of men, and sometimes in these one can observe some cases of women leading women, usually without fanfare; these occurrences of women leading women tend to decrease as the sex ratio approaches unity. Nevertheless, in Buenos Aires, with the exception of Queer Tango milongas (e.g., La Marshall, Tango Queer) and festivals (Facebook; video), it is not only rare to see deviations from the Heteronormative Partner Formation pattern at Traditional Milongas, but when observed, it is (probably) always with women leading women, and usually with one or both of the partners being tango tourists [Wartluft; Davis (2015), Taylor (1998)]. In Traditional Milongas, dancers participating in same sex partnerships may be informed that this behavior is unacceptable. [See Tango Chamuyo, Davis (2015:134)] Regarding the rare occurrence of women leading women in Buenos Aires milongas, Elizabeth Wartluft notes:

Female leaders drew much attention and discussion from the other tango dancers.  Many people loudly condemned the practice of women leading. Very few people found it unremarkable or completely acceptable, and most had much to say on the subject. 

Wartluft also notes (ibid.) that in Buenos Aires

Even liberal, young, feminist women said they would rather follow than lead, and suggested that women can’t lead as well as men. 

Furthermore, women who assume the role of leader in tango may be ostracized, at least in Traditional Milongas, because they have violated the codes; Jeffrey Tobin (1998:93) writes:

… (I)f a woman in a práctica dances the man’s role with another woman, she is unlikely to be asked to dance by any of the men who are present. The stigma of having danced the man’s part may even follow her from the práctica to the milonga, where she is still less likely to be asked to dance, and if she does dance, her dancing of the woman’s role is likely to be judged harshly and to be held up as an example of the damage done by dancing the man’s role. 

As a justification for the exclusion of women from the role of leader, it has been stated frequently by Argentine men, including tango instructors and milongueros, that women leading in tango destroys their ability to be good followers (e.g., Carlos Gavito, Ricardo Vidort). Jantango provides an explanation for this:

Those women who lead forget how to give up control when dancing with a man. They lose their feminine energy in the dance.

[See also Davis (2015:133).] In contrast, men dancing with men (in practicas) has been recognized by Argentine tangueros as a suitable way for men (as followers) to learn the leader’s role in tango. Wartluft summarizes these different prescriptions for women and men:

The common explanation is that a man must learn the woman’s part in order to lead a woman, but that a woman does not have to learn the man’s part to follow a man. Many men even warn that once a woman has learned to lead, she is ruined as a follower. 

A justification for the prohibition against women leading men has been based in part on anatomy. The argument can be framed as follows. On average, men are taller, heavier, and stronger than women, making leading easier for men in opposite sex partner formation (In Search of Tango). In tango, where close body contact is the norm, women leading men may not have a clear view of the dance floor if their partner is significantly taller; when a man is significantly heavier than a woman, moving the follower through space can be challenging. These conditions increase the risk of collisions on the dance floor.

Despite the fact that men dancing with men at practicas, in order to learn tango, has been sanctioned historically within Argentine tango culture, men dancing tango with men traditionally has been prohibited at milongas. Men from the Golden Age have emphasized that male – male partnerships at the practica were only preparation for dancing with women at the milonga (Christine Denniston, Tobin 1998:93); men danced with men at practicas in part because women did not have the social freedom to attend practicas.

An objection to male – male partnerships at milongas can be made because this combination may produce a character to the dance that is incompatible with the atmosphere of a Traditional Milonga. In contrast to the peaceful, harmonious connection with mutual physical and emotional surrender that is the model strived for in male – female tango partnerships, male – male tango partnerships typically are characterized by heightened muscular tension, increased energy expenditure, and thus dancing that moves with greater velocity over larger spaces, often including opening the embrace and performing complicated attention-attracting movements. This is even characteristic of male – male dancing at the gay milonga La Marshall in Buenos Aires, as Davis (2015:133) reports in the comments of one of her informants:

La Marshall is for gay men, whatever anyone says. It’s a masculine space. Take the masculine energy of a straight milonga and multiply that by two.

This male – male athletic dancing may be accompanied by joviality and laughter, perhaps because it is so playful, but at times there also appears to be a nervousness to this dancing in which two (presumably straight) men are embracing each other (personal observations at North American milongas).

Prohibition against deviations from the Heteronormative Partner Formation standard at the milonga is reinforced with the recognition that tango is a Gender Affirmative dance in the traditional sense, i.e., in which there is a close alignment between biological sex and gender expression. In this perspective the man expresses masculinity in dancing tango, in deciding on the direction of movement, in guiding the movement of the woman, in protecting her against collision. The woman expresses femininity in surrendering decision-making to the man, coordinating her movements with his guidance. These ideas are have been expressed clearly in In Search for Tango, where justification for this differentiation of male and female roles is also provided:

As fashionable as it is to transform gender roles in the US, this fact remains unchanged: no one can be at his/her best against nature. Frankly, a woman is too feminine to be a leader. She simply cannot be as masculine as the leader must be, and function as a man must function to a woman, regardless of how technically adequate she can lead. Likewise, a man is too masculine to be a follower. He simply cannot be as feminine as the follower must be, and function as a woman must function to a man, regardless of how technically adequate he can follow. Tango is not just lead and follow. It is the interaction between the two sexes. Without masculinity and femininity, tango loses its charm and splendor.

So, what are the roles of men and women in tango, and how different these roles are?

Men in general are physically taller, stronger, firmer and more dependable than women. They also have a psyche different from that of women due to men’s hunting nature formed in the millions of years of human evolution through natural selection, such as their need for taking initiatives, subduing, conquering, keeping under control, and protecting their loved ones, etc. Naturally, men assume the masculine role in tango as they do in life. …

In contrast, women in general do not have the build and strength of men. They are smaller, shorter, lighter, softer, more flexible, beautiful and delicate. In addition, they have a psychology different from men due to women’s reproductive nature, such as their need of beauty (to attract male), affection, submission and security, which are also the results of millions of years of human evolution through natural selection. … Consequently, women assume the feminine role in tango as they do in life.

Despite changing sex roles in contemporary cultures worldwide, where women are given and have taken more responsibility in working environments (and in the home), in decision-making and leadership positions, in the environment of the milonga, traditional gender roles usually predominate, and the differences between the sexes are usually accentuated. Clothing is the accessory that magnifies the masculine and feminine characteristics of tango dancing. Men in suits and ties broadcast their management roles; women in revealing clothing and high heels focus visual attention on their movements, in an attempt to exemplify feminine beauty, as well as attracting men to invite them to dance. The genderization of attire is particularly exaggerated for women, who wear clothing and shoes they would not normally wear outside of the milonga. With regard to selection of clothing for the milonga, Paula-Irene Villa writes

The clothing is a crucial part of staging the tango. Women primarily wear short, tightly fitting dresses and skirts; their shoes tend to be tight and high-heeled (up to 10 cm but 5 cm on average)….

The colours of the clothes and shoes are predominantly black and red with a popularity of all things sparkling and twinkling. Men dress in a ‘classical’ gentleman style using suits, dark colours and fine quality shirts….

(T)he clothes of both men and women are a means by which authenticity is conveyed which is reminiscent of the (real or imagined) origin of the tango….

Davis (2015:106-107) elaborates on the accentuation of femininity in women in Buenos Aires milongas:

It is generally agreed that a tango salon is a perfect place to observe femininity in action. It is a space where femininity is performed in an exaggerated and highly sexualized form. While there are exceptions (queer tango, nuevo tango), in most classical milongas women go to great lengths to present themselves as feminine. They do this through the revealing clothes they wear, the seductive way they move on and off the dance floor.… (T)he unspoken rule in tango seems to be that you have to show something – a bit of leg, breasts, a bare back”. In Buenos Aires, local women dancers seem to have no compunctions about cultivating an explicitly feminine look – long, flowing hair, lots of makeup, lacy underwear, and bare skin.

The manner in which tango dancing affirms traditional gender roles is elaborated in greater detail in a lecture given by Adriana Pegorer entitled Performing Gender in Milongas of Buenos Aires (written version; video version: part 1; part 2; part 3). Further support for this viewpoint is provided by Elizabeth Wartluft and Kathy Davis (2015).

Despite an abundance of logical arguments for gender role differentiation in tango couple formation, one of the strongest source of bias against deviations from the Heteronormative Partner Formation standard is likely to be the culturally inculcated prejudice against homosexual expression (or the appearance thereof) that is common worldwide. Observing same sex couples dancing often causes some degree of discomfort for heterosexuals, although this discomfort is more likely to occur when men dance together than when women dance together because public expression of physical affection is more commonly accepted between women than between men in most cultures worldwide where tango is danced.

The bias against same sex dance partnerships is magnified in tango because of the maintained close physical contact that is a characteristic of the dance. In dancing tango, the embrace is a catalyst for the exchange of emotions. The range of emotions shared varies depending upon the individuals engaged in the partnership, but tango in particular among social dances is a conduit for the communication of romantic and sexual feelings. Because of the physical and emotional intimacy that can be achieved in dancing tango, the milonga provides the opportunity for the initiation of romantic and sexual relationships. Although it may require a behavioral scientist to provide an accurate description of the process of seduction that is initiated in the tango dance, and there is some individual (or dyadic) variation in its progression, some of its components are relaxation in the embrace, a tenderness in touch, and a harmonization of breathing. These subtle cues provided in interaction with a tango partner indicate receptivity towards further interaction, whether at the milonga (additional tandas) or afterwards outside the milonga. For some dancers, the intimacy provided during shared tandas may be sufficient or all that is achievable, yet still rewarding. In this regard Davis (2015:122) writes

Tango … provides physical contact, intimacy, and emotional intensity, all without the messiness of sex, long-term obligations, and children.

Because of its close physical contact and the emotions it evokes, tango is often described as a ‘romantic’, ‘sensual’, ‘intimate’ or ‘seductive’ dance. For example, in the blog In Search of Tango it is stated that

Tango is created to be a romantic and comforting experience that involves feelings, intimacy, tenderness, sensuality and romanticism. It serves the need for affinity between the opposite sexes and is suggestive of an affectionate, passionate and idealized romance.

Tango Mentor writes

Tango IS a game of seduction. Sometimes less, other times more – but historically and in reality, it is often something very similar to flirting. No one sane should deny that there is all sort of chemistry going on in the dancers in so close proximity. It is just biology….

Tango is personal and it does matter with whom you dance. Dancing is connecting with the soul of another human being, but it will be delusional to believe that it does not matter if that someone in your embrace makes you feel more like a man/woman.

At a higher level of intensity, Kathy Davis (2015:1) writes

Dancing tango enables a passionate encounter, in which two individuals join each other on the dance floor. …

The dance form involves a couple, one leading and the other following, who enter into an intimate embrace, bodies touching and legs entangled …

Tango is irrevocably entangled in cultural imageries that evoke intense passion, (hyper)heterosexuality, and dangerous exoticism. Dancing tango epitomizes desire and difference, sensuality and antagonism, connection and loss.

Since the Golden Age (and before) milongas in Buenos Aires have been a meeting ground for men and women to explore the development of romantic and sexual relationships; i.e., the milonga has been a venue for courtship and seduction. The milonga codes and customs incorporate this agenda. Men and women are segregated, but within clear view of each other. Couples who attend the milonga together are separated and are not disturbed. Invitation to dance is ritualized in the cabeceo, which brings a man and a woman together from a distance. The music played for dancing is the emotionally evocative Classic Tango music from the Golden Age. Couples embrace while dancing, which enhances the development of emotional intimacy. Prohibitions against exhibitionism focus the attention of dancers to each other, not to the audience. The couple remains together for 4 songs, allowing the emotional connection to progress. At the beginning of songs there is a brief period for conversation, during which time the man may make flirtatious compliments (piropos) to the woman. A man dancing several tandas with the same woman is indicating a continued interest in the woman. An invitation to meet for coffee after the milonga is an invitation to continue the relationship outside the milonga, which is interpreted as a proposal for sexual activity. In essence, the pursuit of romantic and sexual relationships is the raison d’etre of the milonga.

The close association of tango dancing with sensuality, romanticism, and sexual feelings heightens the impression that there is a violation of a taboo that occurs in same sex couple formation at a Traditional Milonga.

 

Queer Tango Advocacy

Queer Tango is the alternative to the Heteronormative Partner Formation standard; although rooted in the desire of homosexuals to choose same sex partners in dancing tango, Queer Tango has been broadened to include partner selection and role assumption independent of sex and regardless of sexual orientation. Within the realm of Queer Tango, women can lead women, men can lead men, women can lead men, in addition to men leading women. In essence, there are two (not completely independent) aspects of Queer Tango – Gay Tango, the partnering of two gay men or two lesbians who are are aware of each others’ sexual orientation – and Gender Neutral Tango, the partnering and role assumption of two people without regard to their biological sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. By logical extension, Queer Tango also includes the exchange of leading and following roles by a dancing couple within the course of a dance (Gritzner 2017:53, video), which is also a deviation from the traditional role assumption of the man leading and the woman following (throughout the dance).

A counterargument to the Tango Traditionalist’s assertion that tango is a dance between a man and a woman can be made by reference to early tango history (late 19th and early 20th century), when tango was danced primarily by male – male couples. In this regard, Olivia Goldhill states

… (D)espite a mythology that links the tango with brothels, historical research shows that the tango was danced by male couples from the beginning. And so, rather than pushing boundaries, queer tango is a return to the origins of the dance….

With respect to the sexual orientation of male tango dancers, Goldhill (ibid.) cites Daniel Trenner:

Though men began dancing tango with an eye to wooing women, Trenner says there was certainly a “semi-secret” gay culture. There were certain dancers who were famously good followers and who didn’t go to social dances with women. These men were “fought over,” says Trenner, as the preferred partners. “There was an unstated queer element of the male practice.”

Likewise, Jorge Salessi (1997:141) has argued that, in the days of its origin, tango dancing was to a significant degree associated with homosexual expression:

I venture that the original tango, repeatedly described by historians of Argentine music as a simulation or choreographic representation of sexual intercourse, is a cultural expression with significant homoerotic and homosexual connotations….

Tobin (1998) reiterates Salessi’s perspective and emphasizes that contemporary social tango dancing in Buenos Aires retains many characteristics of the early tango with respect to the relationship between men (p. 84):

(C)ontemporary tango dance continues to be marked by the forbidden homosocial desire. The contemporary tango couple dances its way back and forth, over a fortified and leaky border separating the straight and the gay. After decades of traveling across marital, class, and national boundaries, it is possibly tango’s nightly trip across this sexual boundary that continues to be its dangerous and forbidden passion.

Despite the evidence from numerous written accounts and photographs (Batchelor) indicating that tango was danced primarily by men with men in its early history, Queer Tango advocates only occasionally refer to this history as a justification for same sex coupling in tango dancing. Instead, they usually support (a broader) Gender Neutral Partner Selection pattern in contemporary cultural terms, i.e., in advocating a redefinition of traditional gender roles in tango dancing. Mariana Docampo, a pioneer in the Queer Tango movement in Argentina and founder of the Tango Queer practica, states the rationale for creating a Tango Queer environment:

… (I)t grew in many the need of creating a “liberated ” tango environment where rules and codes of traditional tango are not taken into account and are not there to restrain communication between people. Our proposal is to dance Tango without pre-established roles attached to the gender of the dancers…. “Queer” people dancing to Tango the way they feel like, is taking over this chauvinistic emblem that excludes diversity from the structure of the dance itself and promotes power relationships amongst genders. Taking-over offers the possibility of having different dynamics for each one, promoting communication as equals.

Davis (2015:140) elaborates on the characteristics of Queer Tango:

This is more than same-sex dancing or women leading men; it abolishes all norms for tango, whether gay or straight. Participants are expected not just to dance with whomever they want and to take whatever role they prefer; they can also freely exchange roles in accordance with the music or moods of the moment. They are at liberty to experiment with the choreography, open the embrace between partners to allow more adventurous dancing, and try out different kinds of music. The assumption is that leading and following will be flexibly negotiated between equal partners according to their individual desires rather written in stone by the dictates of traditional gender roles. In this way, queer tango liberates tango from the heteronormativity of the traditional salon with its old fashioned regime of rules and codes that restrict how individuals communicate and interact with one another, the kind of music that is played, and the choreography of the dance itself.

Unsurprisingly, queer tango often goes hand in hand with other attempts to modernize tango – like neo tango, which uses music from a variety of other genres – with more open, performance styles of dancing.

It is apparent from these arguments that Queer Tango originates not only from the desire for inclusion of homosexuals in tango social dancing, but is part of the Evolutionary Tango movement (Evolutionary Tango versus Traditional Tango – Part I: The Nature of the Tango Culture War). It also draws energy from feminist demands for a reexamination of the gender roles epitomized by Traditional Tango.

 

Arguments for and against Gender Neutral Partner Formation in a Traditional Milonga 

Despite its controversial nature within the minds of many Tango Traditionalists, the question to be addressed here is whether there are aspects of Queer Tango, i.e., specifically deviations from the Heteronormative Partner Formation pattern of the man leading and the women following, that can be incorporated into the Traditional Tango environment.

It is immediately apparent that a carte blanche implementation of Queer Tango norms of behavior into a Traditional Milonga will have a negative impact on its character. Associated aspects of Evolutionary Tango culture such as exhibitionism, Direct Approach partner invitation, and casual attire will destroy the ambiance of a Traditional Milonga. However, the more relevant question here is whether relaxing milonga codes to allow same sex couple formation on the dance floor is, by itself, a disruptive imposition into the Traditional Milonga environment.

The path of least resistance to the introduction of same sex couple formation may be the recognition that gay couples dancing exclusively with each other, in theory, should cause only minimal perturbation in the ambiance of a Traditional Milonga. In such cases, no straight dancer will be confronted with the discomfort of dancing with someone of the same sex. As long as same sex couples abide by other Traditional Milongas codes (e.g., having good navigational skills, refraining from exhibitionism, dressing appropriately), the character of the Traditional Milonga will not be disturbed. Therefore, one change in the Traditional Milonga environment that can be applied easily is the acceptance of same sex couples who dance exclusively with each other.

An example of two women dancing tango in a manner appropriate for a Traditional Milonga is shown in this video and a similar example of two men dancing together is shown in this video.

Undoubtedly, a greater threat to decorum in the Traditional Milonga environment is perceived when gay dancers enter the stream of free partner selection. Many straight people don’t want to dance tango with a person of the same sex. This is understandable; tango is an intimate dance. People may only want to dance close to someone who is within their degree of comfort for their sexual orientation or, stated more correctly, within the sphere of their sexual attraction; thus, this reservation applies in both opposite sex and same sex partner formation. This is where the cabeceo serves a useful function. If a straight person does not want to dance with a person of the same sex, they do not look at people of the same sex when partner selection is made via cabeceo, just as they would not look at people of the opposite sex with whom they would not want to dance. However, for the sake of clarity, this would necessitate Role Segregated Seating (separate seating sections for leaders and followers). Unfortunately, outside of Encuentros Milongueros, it has been difficult to impose Role or Gender Segregated Seating at what may otherwise be a Traditional Milonga. Regardless, elimination of the Direct Approach as a means of dance invitation removes the possibility of dancing with someone who is not a partner of choice.

Certainly the selection of nontraditional roles by both men and women on an experimental basis can have a deleterious effect on the equilibrium of the ronda, thereby increasing collision hazards. The place for experimentation in role assumption is the practica (the Queer Tango environment being perhaps an optimal environment within which to explore this phenomenon), not the Traditional Milonga. With the milonga organizer judiciously intervening to warn dancers who present navigational risks, dancers in all configurations of couple formation will adhere more closely to maintaining a safely progressing ronda.

It would also be logical to expect dancers to assume only one role (leader or follower) throughout the course of a milonga. Otherwise, invitation to dance via cabeceo could be confusing, although under traditional milonga codes it is the man (leader) who initiates the dance invitation with the head nod that is the cabeceo (Tango Chamuyo). Role Segregated Seating would eliminate this uncertainty.

Expecting a person to assume only the role of leader or follower also excludes the Queer Tango practice of exchange of lead and follow (video), which is distracting and can create navigational hazards. This practice also is contradictory to the Traditional Tango notion of a stable tango partnership.

However, openness to Gay Tango at a Traditional Milonga also invites the more general Gender Neutral Tango, because, in fact, the sexual orientation of any dancer at the milonga can no longer be assumed.  This creates a significant impedance to exploration of possibilities for romantic and sexual relationships. For heterosexuals, this means that it is unknown whether the opposite sex partner selected is heterosexual or homosexual; homosexuals face the same dilemma for selected same sex partners. The negative impact of unleashing Gender Neutral Partner formation into a Traditional Milonga cannot be underestimated.

One might argue that confusion regarding the sexual orientation of dancers can be minimized by having separate Gay Milongas, and that gay tango dancers would also benefit from this segregation. This argument was put forward in a previous Tango Voice post. However, in practice, in order for gay tango dancers to have an accepting environment in which to dance, it has been necessary for economic reasons (i.e., achieving sufficient attendance) to adopt a more inclusive Queer Tango edifice, with its accompanying Evolutionary Tango deviations from Traditional Tango that suppress romantic and sexual exploration. Therefore, it appears that the only feasible opportunity that normally exists for gay tango dancers to enjoy the ambiance of the Traditional Milonga is to integrate into that environment.

In order to incorporate Gay Tango into the Traditional Milonga without sacrificing the romantic and sexual energy in a Traditional Milonga, all dancers need to have an increased sensitivity in partner communication. Not all partners, regardless of sexual orientation, wish to develop a particular tango partnership formed along romantic / sexual pathways. Heightened sensitivity to the nonverbal (and perhaps verbal) cues inviting emotional intimacy in a tango partnership would enhance the development of this intimacy when mutually desired, while minimizing uncomfortable situations in which greater intimacy is imposed upon a nonreceptive partner (regardless of whether these emotions are communicated with heterosexual or homosexual intentions). Hopefully, selection of opposite sex or same sex partners by means of the cabeceo will correspond with a dancer’s sexual orientation.

One thing to keep in mind regarding factors impacting the milonga environment is that there are aspects of the Traditional Milonga other than couple formation that determine its character. It is the maintenance of the embrace, the emotional quality of Classic Tango music, the absence of the distractions of exhibitionism and navigational hazards, and the absence of casual dress that set the tone for the Traditional Milonga. With the absence of experimentation in the partner hold and movement possibilities characteristic of Evolutionary Tango, the focus at the Traditional Milonga on partner connection and musicality can be maintained even with the expansion of partner selection beyond the Heteronormative Partner Formation standard. If there is some caution here, it is that the leading or following role that a dancer assumes should be one in which the dancer is competent.

In summary, it should be apparent that deviation from the Heteronormative Partner Formation standard does not by its very nature threaten the ambiance of the Traditional Milonga. What is most important is that all dancers at a Traditional Milonga observe certain milonga codes:

  • Partner selection is by sitting together as a couple or by cabeceo (preferably with Role Segregated Seating), not by Direct Approach to the table.
  • Couples on the dance floor do not create navigational hazards or engage in exhibitionism.
  • There is no teaching on the dance floor.
  • Attire is appropriate for the milonga (i.e., no casual attire).

 

Justification

Since the latter part of the Golden Age (late 1940s to mid 1950s) there have been a number of constants in Argentine tango culture. People are still dancing tango to the music of the tango orchestras of the Golden Age. Stylistic variation in dancing then and now is still primarily some variant of Tango Estilo del Barrio or Tango Estilo del Centro. Dancing tango brings partners into close physical contact, a context in which emotions are shared and the development of romantic and sexual relationships is possible. These are constants in tango dancing that have existed for at least 7 decades.

There are some aspects of tango dance culture that have changed somewhat over the last 7 decades. One is the style of dress, which has reflected changes in fashion over this time period. Also, although most attendees at Traditional Milongas in Buenos Aires today dress reasonably well by societal standards, it is no longer expected that men wear suits and ties and women wear dresses. In recent decades, some women have worn more revealing clothing.

Other characteristics of Buenos Aires milongas that have changed since the Golden Age reflect changes in women’s social status. During the Golden Age of tango, the cabeceo was used for dance invitation, but with a different spatial orientation. In the past, young men gathered in the center of the dance floor to invite young women to dance using the cabeceo. These young women were seated at the periphery of the dance floor, accompanied by female relatives as chaperones. Today the cabeceo is initiated seated from spatially separated tables occupied by men and women. Young women no longer are expected to be accompanied by chaperones at milongas.

Same sex partner selection still is not an accepted practice in Traditional Milongas in Buenos Aires. In 2002, La Marshall, the first gay milonga, opened in Buenos Aires (Facebook). In 2010 same sex marriage became legal in Argentina (New York Times). The Campeonato Mundial de Tango is now open to same sex couples, indicating acceptance of same sex partnerships in this tango subculture (Tango Campeonato). One can only wonder when gay couples will be permitted in Traditional Milongas in Buenos Aires. It is predicted here that this will occur in the not too distant future, at least at some milongas that have been considered guardians of tango traditions.

However, the point of this post is not to argue what Argentines should do with their milongas. The issue of gay couples dancing in Traditional Milongas is something Argentines will decide upon themselves. This blog focuses on North American tango culture and, to some degree, the tango culture in European countries with similar social values. In these countries, Traditional Milongas are primarily represented in Encuentros Milongueros. With respect to Gender Neutral Partner Formation in Encuentros Milongueros in Europe, Melina Sedo reports (Facebook January 3, 2019):

I glad to say, that the so-called “milonguero” community seems to be more open to role changing than many of the other sub-groups – despite its association with the “traditional”. 

At least at the Encuentros that I frequent or organise, we usually have quite a large number of female dancers who register as 50/50 dancers, lots who register as followers, but still lead occasionally and a growing number of men who like to follow either men or women in a close embrace. 

I have never heard of someone having to explain this. Nowadays you can even see men dancing together at Italian Encuentros. This would not have been possible a few years ago.

However, the Facebook discussion cited is focused on role assumption and not sexual orientation and therefore appears to be in support of a generalized Gender Neutral Tango rather than specifically in support of Gay Tango. From the information available at this time, it appears that deviations from the Heteronormative Partner Formation standard are less evident at North American Encuentros Milongueros.

It is hoped that organizers and attendees of Traditional Milongas will recognize that the intimacy of tango is not limited to heterosexual couples; it should not be denied to homosexual couples. It is incongruous in any society that outlaws discrimination against homosexuals and legalizes same sex marriage to prohibit same sex couple formation at a milonga.

 

References in Print

Davis, Kathy (2015) – Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World. New York University Press, New York.

Gritzner, Karoline (2017) – Between Commodification and Emancipation: The Tango Encounter. Dance Research 35: 49-60.

Salessi, Jorge (1997) – Medics, Crooks, and Tango Queens: The National Appropriation of a Gay Tango; pp. 141-174 in Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America, Celeste Fraser Delgado and Jose Esteban Muñoz, eds. Duke University Press, Durham NC.

Taylor, Julie (1998) – Paper Tangos. Duke University Press, Durham NC.

Tobin, Jeffrey (1998) – Tango and the Scandal of Homosocial Desire; pp. 79-102 in The Passion of Music and Dance, William Washabaugh, ed. Berg, New York.

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2 Responses to Is Queer Tango Compatible with Traditional Tango?

  1. gyb says:

    As usual, one of the most detailed analysis of a relevant tango-related issue on the net. Also I’m happy that the conclusions, with which I’m in agreement with, let me keep continuing promoting this great blog!

    Although I do understand that the article is already long enough, it could have been, in my opinion, developed further. In it’s current form some of the arguments do not interact with each other and/or didn’t get addressed, which may give the (arguably false) impression that they can not be directly challenged and so the best we can do is to come up with a judgement based on parallel considerations that point to different directions.

    Specifically, your own summary of your very well researched laundry-list of arguments in favor of the “Heteronormative Partner Formation Standard” lists the following arguments in favor of it:


    (a) Men have assumed the leading role and women the following role in milongas in Buenos Aires for over 100 years.
    (b) Anatomical differences (men are taller and heavier) dictate leading and following roles.
    (c) Women leading negatively impacts their ability to follow.
    (d) Men dancing with men has a heightened physical energy that creates navigational hazards at milongas.
    (e) Tango dancing provides men the opportunity to express masculinity and women the opportunity to express femininity.
    (f) Roles in dancing tango reflect the leadership and following roles men and women have in society, something that has been shaped by millions of years of biological evolution.

    In turn:

    “(a) Men have assumed the leading role and women the following role in milongas in Buenos Aires for over 100 years.”: It’s unclear in what sense (a) could provide an argument for the “Heteronormative Partner Formation Standard” in milongas, but my best guess is that the argument is that this putative fact about past behavior is supposed to establish a tradition that we are to follow. Your criticism of (a) depends on interpreting it as a factual statement about *exclusive* behavior and you then proceed to refute it with counterexamples coming primarily from *non-milonga* interactions. However I think it’s plausible that defenders of the argument would interpret the statement as a factual statement about *predominant* behavior *in milongas* (and as such it is probably true), and hence they would not be much impressed either by select counterexamples in the milonga environment as long as they are marginal, or by counterexamples that come from non-milonga environments (practicas, brothel waiting areas, street photo opportunities, exhibitions etc). To address the real argument you would need to directly attack the supposed justificatory link of the “should” on the basis of “it was in the past”.

    “(b) Anatomical differences (men are taller and heavier) dictate leading and following roles.”: This argument is not directly addressed or evaluated in light of counterarguments. It could be, i.e. by pointing out basic facts about how good “following” works and how then the importance of average anatomical differences vanishes. Not to mention that statistical facts about average anatomical differences will not justify individual pairings where the particular anatomical differences could point in the opposite direction.

    “(c) Women leading negatively impacts their ability to follow.”: This argument is not directly addressed or evaluated in light of counterarguments. I don’t think this would be easy to do, although it seems clear to me that even if the putative phenomena existed it is likely only affecting some beginner/intermediate dancers. The more pertinent point to be made would be that even if the phenomena existed it could not justify the “Heteronormative Partner Formation Standard”.

    “(d) Men dancing with men has a heightened physical energy that creates navigational hazards at milongas.”: This argument is not directly addressed or evaluated in light of counterarguments. My guess would be that the stated fact is plainly false; the men who I do see dancing with each other do not display either “heightened physical energy” or subsequent “navigational hazard”. (I think women dancing with each other typically do cause more “navigational hazard” than men dancing with each other in milongas, but this only has to do with the typical amount of practice the leaders of such couples have with dancing in milonga environments, and has nothing to do with sex/gender.)

    “(e) Tango dancing provides men the opportunity to express masculinity and women the opportunity to express femininity.”: This statement is not directly addressed or evaluated in light of counterarguments, although even if the statement were true it would not be clear how it would lead to an argument for the “Heteronormative Partner Formation Standard”. If the argument is supposed to be a statement of a norm (that the milonga environment should only allow for expressions of masculinity by men and expressions of femininity by women), then the argument was countered only to the extent that the opposite norm (that the milonga environment should not only allow for expressions of masculinity by men and expressions of femininity by women) was also stated.

    “(f) Roles in dancing tango reflect the leadership and following roles men and women have in society, something that has been shaped by millions of years of biological evolution.”: This argument is not directly addressed or evaluated in light of counterarguments. However the shallowness of these pop-evolutionary arguments should be exposed because they tend to be quite influential.

    In sum, there seems to be plenty of room for a “part II” on the topic.. 🙂

    • tangovoice says:

      The arguments in favor of Heteronormative Partner Formation were undoubtedly developed post hoc; i.e., milongas have been a place for men and women to meet each other for more than 100 years, a role social dance venues have played in Western cultures throughout the 20th century. Only when this pattern was challenged did it become necessary to justify it.

      It was not deemed necessary here to refute these arguments specifically because the justification for inclusion of same sex couples at milongas comes from a different line of reasoning, basically a legal one, i.e., discrimination against homosexuals is in fact illegal in most countries where tango is danced. One can exclude someone from a milonga because they are not dressed appropriately or they navigate poorly because these things can be changed; in contrast, one cannot change one’s sexual orientation. Thus, it is similar to exclusion from a milonga on the basis of race or ethnicity.

      Nevertheless, refutation of the arguments for the Heteronormative Partner Formation standard is indeed worthy of being addressed, whether here or elsewhere.

      (1) Tradition: Many traditions do not withstand moral scrutiny when examined in the light of changing societal values. Institutionalized slavery is an example. Discrimination against homosexuals is a tradition that is falling rapidly in the 21st century. Barring same sex couples from a milonga is discriminatory if based solely on the gender of the partners and may be illegal in some countries.

      (2) Anatomical Differences: This argument fails under closer inspection when it is recognized that men are only taller and heavier than women on average, and that even a slightly shorter leader can effectively lead. (Witness what happens when younger taller female tourists visit Buenos Aires milongas and are led by older shorter Argentine men.) In any case, this argument only applies in general to female lead – male follow couples. Same sex couples are more likely on average to be nearly equivalent in height and weight and major anatomical differences are unlikely to occur under these circumstances. (By the way very tall men leading very short women presents challenges because their centers of gravity are far apart.)

      (3) Women leading ruins their following. This is perhaps an urban myth. It is unlikely that this hypothesis has ever been tested scientifically. (It would be difficult to do so anyway due to the challenge in specifying a reliable operational definition for the outcome variable.) In layman’s terms, it is only an opinion that women leading ruins their following, with no evidence to support it other than that derived from bringing prior bias into the evaluation. One could just as easily (and ineffectively) argue that when men learn to dance tango by following, it strips them of their masculinity and thus makes them weak leaders.

      (4) Heightened energy of male – male partnerships. There does appear to be a heightened energy in some male – male partnerships. If it causes navigational hazards, this is the time for the milonga organizer to intervene, otherwise not, and not a rationale for a priori exclusion of male – male couples at a milonga.

      (5) Gender expression at milongas. Men are free to express masculinity and women femininity at milongas; likewise, men are free to express femininity and women masculinity. The fact that the milonga environment has encapsulated traditional gender roles does not, when considering changing societal values, prohibit alternative gender expression. For example the woman leader in the same sex video demonstration referenced wore what would traditionally have been considered to be men’s clothing. This probably portrayed her as a leader better than if she had worn a dress and heels (although her movements arguably are very feminine in that they are gentle). It has not yet become generally acceptable for men to dress in a feminine manner, but behaving as a follower (whether led by a man or a woman) is certainly within the range of normal behavior for some men.

      Note: This is not to be interpreted as a recommendation for the asexual Gender Neutral Tango environment. In homosexual couples it is common for one person to be more masculine and the other more feminine.

      (6) Men leading, women following reflects roles in society. This is another ‘just so’ evolutionary tale. Roles in society have changed and the arguments no longer hold.

      In this post, the primary argument for openness to same sex (particularly gay) partner formation at milongas is that it reflects changes in societal (and legal) values and not a change in the core features of the milonga (music, style of dancing, partner choice by cabeceo, elegant attire). Changes in the status of and attitudes towards women over the decades in which milongas have existed have already brought about changes in some features of social interaction at milongas (e.g., chaperones for young women at milongas, acceptable attire, opinions regarding women attending milongas) and practicas (women now attend practicas and male –male couple formation is rare outside Queer Tango practicas).

      Sex and gender issues are so intertwined with tango cultural history that some of the topics introduced here undoubtedly will be discusses again in later posts.

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