The Intimacy of Dancing Tango: Therapy for Contact Deprivation in North American Society

  • In English speaking North American subcultures, outside family and intimate relationships, in most circumstances there is a tendency during social interaction to minimize physical contact and maintain a relatively large space between individuals.
    • Limitation of physical contact is particularly evident in interactions between men.
    • Reliance on social media for social interaction in lieu of face-to-face interaction, increasingly common in modern North American society, has also reduced physical contact between individuals, adding to feelings of physical isolation.
    • Increased awareness regarding sexually inappropriate behavior (e.g., via the Me Too Movement), while addressing a serious problem, has had some unintended consequences in inhibiting the initiation of appropriate intergender expressions of affection.
  • Insufficient physical contact with other human beings can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression and therefore have a negative impact on physical and mental health.
  • In contrast to North America, in Argentina daily social interactions are characterized by hugs and kisses on the cheek given to friends and acquaintances, typically in the context of greetings and departures.
    • Cross-cultural research has identified that, in general, Argentines maintain a smaller interpersonal distance than identified in other cultures.
    • Tango dancing, as practiced in the milongas of Buenos Aires, with its close personal contact (chest-to-chest, cheek-to-cheek) between partners, sometimes between people who have never met previously, is an example of the lower limits of personal space in Argentine society.
    • In North American milongas there is a wide range of variation in partner connection, from the maintained embrace characteristic of Buenos Aires milongas to a maintained open position, with a partner hold shifting between closed and open positions appearing to be the most common.
  • Close personal contact with other human beings has a positive effect on human health, lowering stress and blood pressure and decreasing the risk of loneliness and depression.
  • Tango dancing in a maintained embrace provides the benefits of close personal contact.
    • When the Traditional Milonga codes of partner respect are practiced, intergender couple formation in tango creates the possibility for dancers to explore romantic and sexual relationships under conditions of mutual consent and safe boundaries.
    • Use of the cabeceo in partner selection, as well as within community policing to identify violators of the mutual consent guideline, should be sufficient in marginalizing sexually inappropriate behavior at the milonga.
  • The promotion of tango as a performance dance, common in North America, prevents many developing tango dancers from experiencing the physical and emotional intimacy of tango.

 

Outside family and intimate relationships, and oftentimes even within the boundaries of these relationships, daily social interactions between adults in Anglophone North America are characterized by the avoidance of physical contact and a relatively large distance between interacting individuals (Personal Space and American Individualism), especially when viewed from a worldwide perspective (Americans Love Wide Open Spaces Between People; What Personal Space Looks Like Around the World). This contact avoidance is magnified in interactions between adult men (Why Men Need Platonic Touch), where physical contact is typically ritualized in the form of handshakes, fist bumps, back slaps, and other forms of brief and hard physical contact; interpersonal contact of a softer nature (e.g., hugs, arm and shoulder touching) may play a role in some interactions between adult women who are close friends. Increased societal acceptance of open homosexuality (and awareness regarding it) may also play a role in contact avoidance between men (Inside the Fear of Being Gay) and, in some cases, between women, when there is concern that affection with a person of the same sex may be perceived as homosexual.

Technological changes also have contributed to physical and social isolation in North American society, as well as in other technologically advanced societies. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) have been designed to create connections between individuals, yet the consequence of social media engagement has often been the opposite, i.e., social isolation (Is Social Media Making You Lonely?). The availability of electronic communication often results in a decrease in face-to-face interaction and thus also less physical contact between individuals. This social isolation can lead to loneliness and depression (Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time On Social Media May Be Why; Health Effects Of Isolation).

In North American society (and elsewhere in modern progressive societies), intergender interactions (see Appendix) in particular are often fraught with ambiguities and therefore misunderstandings regarding physical contact, with entry into one’s personal space itself often being regarded as sexually suggestive and viewed as invasive, or perhaps desirable, depending upon the intentions of the interactants. In recent years, the Me Too Movement has drawn public attention to the most egregious assaults of a sexual nature, in particular those committed by prominent men in politics, business, and entertainment, but has also raised awareness regarding verbal comments of a sexually imposing or suggestive nature (Verbal Sexual Harassment: What You Need to Know to Identify and Report It).

Although the root causes of sexually aggressive behavior (sexual harassment and assault) are complex, and its motivation is not purely or even primarily sexual (i.e., it is a expression of power) (The Thinking Processes of Sexual Predators) to a significant degree these behaviors are characteristic of individuals who are socially isolated and therefore have not experienced normal affectionate physical contact and, in particular normal intergender contact (Common Characteristics of Sex Offenders); sexual repression and its consequence – a barrier against normal expression of affection between the sexes – has been implicated as one causal factor for abnormal sexual expression (The Dark Reality Of What Happens When Someone Is Sexually Repressed).

In contrast to the clear violation of individual integrity in cases of sexual assault and harassment, there are situations in which physical contact is initiated (e.g., placing a hand on someone’s shoulder) or compliments are made (e.g., regarding attractiveness of personal appearance) in which there is ambiguity regarding the intentions of the actor, yet the recipient nevertheless feels uncomfortable, possibly even threatened. Therefore, associated with the social exposure of unwanted physical contact has been a discussion and/or reevaluation of the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate physical contact and verbal content (e.g., compliments, humor) in social interaction in general, or in specific environments [in the workplace (What Are the Boundaries of Appropriate Touch in the Workplace?), on a college campus (Be Curious Not Invasive … Physical Contact & Personal Boundaries), in religious institutions (Safe Church Unit: Physical Contact)]. Often the recommendation in these latter cases, in order to avoid the creation of discomfort, is to minimize physical contact and verbal compliments. The standard established in many social environments is to limit physical contact to a handshake, and to not make compliments regarding one’s personal appearance (The Dilemma of Physical Touch & Appreciation in the Workplace).

As prior standards for intergender interaction are being reevaluated, men sensitive to social mores are placed in a quandary regarding initiation of physical and verbal contact with women, with the result that often the choice made is to minimize this contact. These newly imposed prohibitions, in conjunction with more general cultural norms of contact avoidance and larger personal space, have led to increased emotional isolation in North American societies (Health Effects of Isolation), with a greater impact on men than women.

Given the traditional prohibitions against interpersonal contact and the increased sensitivity regarding intrusion into intimate space in intergender interactions, tango dancing, in which couples envelope their arms around each other with chest-to-chest and even cheek-to-cheek contact, maintaining this close contact unwaveringly for minutes without separating, stands in stark contrast to the contact avoidance prevalent in North American society. This contrast indeed may present the primary attractiveness of tango dancing, in that it provides a relief from chronic physical isolation. However, how tango dancing achieves (or attempts to achieve) social acceptability within a culture awakened to increased sensitivity to respect for intimate space is an interesting enigma. This post examines the status of tango dancing within this matrix of cultural traditions, changing values, and personal choices. These issues will be examined here within the framework of the cultural underpinnings of the Argentine culture that has engendered this unique form of social interaction. Implications of the transference of traditional Argentine milonga customs to North American milonga are also discussed.

 

Contact and Personal Space during Daily Social Interaction in Buenos Aires

Contrast the paucity of physical contact characteristic of North American social interactions with daily life in Buenos Aires. During the course of a typical day, most porteños greet numerous people with hugs and kisses on the cheek; even men greet each other in this way. Although greetings with hugs and kisses are typically (but not always) limited to family, friends and close acquaintances (of which there are many), upon introduction to friends of friends for the first time, hugs and kisses on the cheek are standard interaction [Argentine Culture: How to greet an Argentine; Getting Cheeky in Argentina: How and when to Kiss People in Buenos Aires; The Art of the Kiss (video)]. Argentines are also recognized as having a small personal space, standing close to one another when talking, in a queue, or sitting next to one another. They frequently touch one another during conversation. One study found Argentines to have the smallest personal space among all 42 nationalities examined (Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology; Summaries: Washington Post; The Telegraph).

 

Personal Space in Buenos Aires Milongas

Personal space boundaries are relaxed further in Buenos Aires milongas. Upon entering a milonga, the guest is often greeted by the host(s) with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Additional exchanges of hugs and kisses may follow upon encountering friends and familiar dance partners (and sometimes their friends and family) in movements to and from where one is seated. This is more common in Milongas del Barrio, where neighborhood residents who are already familiar with one another tend to congregate, than in Milongas del Centro [Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression’)], but is common in both types of milongas.

If not coming to the milonga with a partner, the means of acquiring a partner for a particular tanda is through visual signaling with the cabeceo (Use of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating in Milongas in Buenos Aires and Elsewhere in the World). After agreement to dance together has been achieved through this communication from a distance, the man walks to the part of the dance floor in front of the woman’s table; she rises and comes out onto the floor and they embrace, often prior to exchanging any words. This embrace is maintained throughout the first song in the tanda (set of 3 or 4 songs) they are dancing. They then separate and there is no body contact, if the milonga customs are followed [Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)]. There is some conversation for about 30 seconds into the next song of the tanda. During this conversation the man may give piropos (Tango Adelaide), usually compliments about the woman’s appearance or dancing. These piropos may be poetic and romantic in nature and are not vulgar (examples). They embrace again and follow this pattern of contact and conversation until the end of the tanda. Men following traditional milonga customs then may escort the woman back to her seat by gently holding her arm or placing his forearm gently around her waist (Tango Chamuyo). This pattern continues with each partner over the course of the milonga.

When a woman accepts the invitation to dance by cabeceo from a man, there is a tacit agreement that they will embrace upon dancing, i.e., that they will enter into and remain in each other’s intimate space. Nevertheless, there are still rules governing this engagement. The embrace should be firm but not constraining; the woman should not feel that she is being pulled toward her partner, only positioned comfortably in his embrace. Hands should be placed in a comfortable position on the partner’s back or upper arms and maintained in that position; i.e., hands should not move below the waist, wander around the back, or touch the front of the torso or the face. Frontal body contact does not extend below the waist; i.e., there is no pelvic contact. Interlacing of legs with the partner’s legs (ganchos, leg wraps) or upper body (piernazo) is considered vulgar, whereas sacadas (displacements) of the leg and caricias (gentle brushing with the foot) directed below the knee are acceptable, though uncommon in Milongas del Centro [Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)]. Between songs in a tanda, the embrace is released and the partner is not touched. When behavior extends beyond these boundaries, the offended partner has the right to cease dancing with the perpetrator and leave the dance floor. Thus, although permission is granted to enter one’s personal space, there are rules governing this release of personal boundaries. In essence, for the most part the embrace in tango is an extension of the embrace given upon greeting in that it is maintained and incorporated into a walk.

In contrast to the entry into intimate space permitted in a couple’s embrace, making contact with other couples on the floor while dancing is considered rude in Buenos Aires milongas. Movements that increase the risk of making contact with other couples on the floor (e.g., high boleos) are frowned upon.

 

The North American Tango Environment

With the exception of ‘slow dancing’, social dancing in North America typically lacks an embrace; in most circumstances, there is a social taboo against maintained upper body contact while dancing, reflecting the general lack of embrace in social settings outside family and intimate relationships. Therefore, when teaching newcomers to dance tango, the dance is almost always taught in what is usually described (in oxymoronic terms) as an ‘open embrace’, i.e., upper body contact at arm’s length (Variations in the Tango Embrace – ‘Open Embrace’ and ‘Close Embrace’ Styles of Tango: The Evidence from Buenos Aires Milongas). [Nevertheless, there have been some North American tango instructors who have advocated teaching dancing tango in an embrace (often redundantly referred to as ‘close embrace’) at the beginning level of instruction (e.g., Albuquerque NM; Minneapolis MN; Portland OR; San Diego CA; San Francisco CA area; Santa Fe NM).] Avoidance of the embrace is usually characteristic only of beginners, with most North American tango dancers eventually entering into some form of embrace while dancing, the main exception being those who do not bring their (Argentine) tango dancing outside the ballroom dance community. However, the current trend in North American tango dancing is to use what is often referred to as a ‘flexible embrace’, i.e., to begin dancing in an embrace and then open the embrace for ochos, giros, and the ubiquitous sandwich. With this shifting ‘flexible embrace’ and the associated attention paid to steps and adornments, the connection, relaxation, and emotional intimacy of a maintained embrace are not achieved.

Even when there is a maintained embrace in dancing tango in North American milongas, the likelihood of emotional release in the embrace is less likely and usually of lower intensity than is typical of porteños in Buenos Aires milongas, something to which North American tango dancers who have attended Buenos Aires milongas can attest. Porteños often comment that North Americans can be very good tango dancers technically, but lack emotion while dancing. This is undoubtedly a consequence of the inhibition against expression of affection characteristic of a contact avoidant culture.

In contrast to Buenos Aires milongas, in North American milongas, some violations of Traditional Milonga codes [Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)] regarding interpersonal contact and between couple contact are generally permissible; e.g., use of ganchos and high boleos is common and unintentionally making contact with other couples on the floor is usually tolerated to some degree.

 

The Healing Power of Physical Contact

Physical contact is a critical ingredient in forming social bonds with other human beings. This is apparent immediately in infancy, where prolonged physical contact forms an integral part of parent-child relationships. Physical contact in various manifestations (e.g.. hugs, hand holding, contact play) continues to play a role in normal early childhood development, typically including other family members; physical contact is also a characteristic of social interaction between peers as children become more peer oriented. However, after puberty, the role of social interactions between peers changes, and this varies among cultures. In North America, adolescent girls to varying degrees still retain some affectionate physical contact with one another, but physical contact between adolescent boys is channeled primarily through vigorous or rough contact, e.g., as rough play and in sports activities; contact between the sexes often needs to be negotiated and may be interpreted as expressing a sexual motivation. Among more highly educated or wealthier people, where certain rules of social etiquette come into play, physical contact may be reduced even further in adulthood, particularly between men, and is often reduced to a formalized hand shake in greetings, introductions and departures.

Nevertheless, giving and receiving physical contact of an affectionate nature (e.g., touching while conversing, holding hands, embracing) is critically important for emotional health. Affectionate touch communicates caring, support, comfort, and love (The Healing Language of Appropriate Touch). Physical contact, particularly prolonged physical contact of an affectionate nature (gentle touch) has a positive impact on health (The Power of Touch), reducing stress (as indicated by decreased cortisol levels and decreasing blood pressure), and eliciting increased pleasure (in part a result of increased levels of oxytocin).

Absence of affectionate physical contact can lead to feelings of loneliness, unhappiness, chronic anxiety and depression, as well as being associated with physical health problems such as insomnia, hypertension and a weakened immune system (What Lack of Affection Can Do to You; Health Effects of Isolation; Loneliness Predicts Increased Blood Pressure: Five-Year Cross-Lagged Analyses in Middle-Aged and Older Adults).

 

Intimacy in Dancing Tango  

Dancing tango in a maintained embrace is an intimate experience that provides the health benefits of close personal contact. Several tango dancers have publicized their experiences and the associated benefits of dancing tango.

Kathy Davis (2015; Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World, New York University Press) describes the stimuli and impact associated with the tango embrace:

The embrace is what sets tango apart from other couple dances….

…(O)ne is immediately assailed with smells…. Partners can hear each other’s breathing, feel each other’s hearts beating. They sense skin against skin, … the cushiony feel of a stomach or breasts as bodies lean together. … This is an intimacy without words. (pp.57-58)

There is an embodied sensation that occurs without words being said. The embrace conveys the sense of being free of all distractions, able to leave everything else behind. As experience, it resembles meditation. (p.60)

Veronica Toumanova describes tango dancing as ‘intimacy practice’ (Facebook). She covers considerable ground in describing the effects of tango dancing:

(S)ocial tango is a world in itself, capable of profoundly transforming your life….

(T)he most important thing will always be not what the dance looks like to the outsiders but how you feel dancing it with this particular partner to this particular music….

Toumanova notes that for many, the first impression of tango is that provided by the tango of the stage but, upon learning to dance tango, that image changes:

The first thing that shatters completely when you get to know social tango a little better is the very image of vulgar erotism described in the beginning. Instead comes an understanding of this dance as a play between two different energies meeting in music and starting an unpredictable, yet surprisingly harmonious exchange….

The impression that strikes a new person observing the dancefloor in a milonga for the first time is actually the intimacy of what is happening, despite tango being quite a dynamic dance to quite a dramatic music. A man and a woman embrace each other closely and start moving in a synchronised way, harmoniously, but without showing off….

The first and probably most important thing is learning to create a close physical contact with another person, a contact that is sensuous, deeply felt, musical, intimate, yet not sexual….

The sexual nature of dancing tango is underestimated here, but Toumanova is correct in describing the contact in dancing tango as intimate and sensuous.

She continues, emphasizing the positive physiological and social consequences of the tango embrace:

As modern human beings we mostly lack this kind of physical contact in our urbanised context. Our environment rarely provides us with a possibility of close physical contact devoid of (sexual) ambiguity…. (S)cientific studies confirm that physical contact helps to heal depression, reduce anxiety and increase the level of the “love hormone”….

By setting up clear boundaries, tango creates a safe space for bodily contact in its most general sense.

Similar sentiments are expressed in an oral presentation by Gina Cloud entitled “The Intimacy of Tango” (YouTube).

Dancing tango can be transformative for those engaged in its practice. Shy people can experience a deep emotional connection with others that is missing in their lives. In this regard, Kathy Davis (op. cit.) comments:

Tango provides the possibility for men who could be considered unattractive, insecure, or even social losers outside the milongas to discover a new identity on the dance floor. Given the almost chronic surplus of women dancers in most salons, men who are good dancers will find themselves in great demand. Women who wouldn’t give them a second look outside the salon are suddenly vying for a chance to dance with them (p.114).

Davis expounds further on the romantic possibilities emanating from dancing tango:

… (W)hile love and romance are conventionally associated with women, tango seems to open up this unfamiliar terrain for men as well. It enables them to experience the affective intensity of a romantic attachment and, at the same time, keep it safe from the encumbrances that are part and parcel of relationships outside the milonga. (pp.117-118)

Tango’s attraction resides precisely in the kind of encounter it offers. It provides physical contact, intimacy, and emotional intensity, all without the messiness of sex, long-term obligations, and children. In late modernity, intimate alliances have become temporary, fragile, or fluid. With the erosion of the constraints of community, family values, and tradition, the “pure” relationship has emerged, undertaken for its own sake and requiring ongoing negotiation between autonomous agents, responsible only to themselves. Whatever the vicissitudes of these relationships, they have left modern individuals with an insatiable longing for intensity, risk, excitement, and danger. In this view, tango provides the perfect encounter with its endless recycling of intense connection followed by “easy exits”. (p.122-123; references excluded)

Although intergender relationships in contemporary technologically advanced societies are complicated by changing gender roles and increased sensitivity regarding initiation of physical contact, tango dancing provides a safe environment not only for experiencing the interpersonal contact missing in daily life, but also for having a romantic experience, however short-lived. Nevertheless, despite Davis’ deemphasizing of the possibility of romantic relationships extending beyond the milonga, many people become involved in dancing tango with the specific purpose of seeking such a relationship. It is readily apparent that the milonga environment provides safe opportunities for exploring, initiating and developing romantic relationships that extend beyond the milonga, as an alternative to the more precarious arenas of the singles’ bars and online dating. It is a good environment for this precisely because one can focus on dancing in the here and now, getting to know someone gradually over time without the pressure of a interaction cast immediately into the spotlight of dating and hooking up. So, although Davis is correct in noting that the shared tanda is a safe intimate connection from which one may escape when the cortina intervenes, it can also be the first interaction in the development of more intimate relationship.

One shared tanda can be the first step on the pathway to further intimacy because much can be learned about a partner in dancing in a maintained embrace during this 10-12 minute connection. The embrace communicates the emotional state and character of one’s partner, whether that person is kind, affectionate, caring, supportive, sharing, confident, insecure, aggressive, controlling, self-centered, etc. On the basis of this emotional communication, usually augmented by repeated dancing with this partner, one can feel to what extent a relationship with this person can develop. For some partner combinations, there is a brief respite from the lack of physical intimacy experienced in daily life, and nothing more, although this in itself can be beneficial. But for other couples, there may be an exploration of an increased level of physical and emotional intimacy through mutual relaxation in the embrace, an increased affection in touch, cheek-to-cheek contact, and coordination of breathing. This increased intimacy may be only an episode whose duration is no longer than the course of the tanda, satisfying only some immediate need for intergender connection, from which each partner can safely extricate oneself; however, if both partners are willing, this can be the first encounter in the development of a more intimate relationship.

In a more general sense, affectionate contact in the milonga need not be limited to intergender interaction while dancing. If associated Buenos Aires milonga customs of hugs and kisses upon greeting and departure (for all gender combinations) are incorporated into the atmosphere of the milonga, the overall milonga environment becomes a warmer and more welcoming place, a refreshing contrast to the impersonal atmosphere of contemporary urbanized society; one can leave this impersonal environment behind at the door when crossing the threshold into a milonga.

 

Caveats

One aspect of Buenos Aires milonga customs that is unlikely to be widely incorporated into North American milongas is the use of piropos, the romantic / poetic compliments given by men to women, usually during the pauses in dancing that occur between songs in the tanda. Piropos may be interpreted as archaic, corny or possibly even demeaning by contemporary standards [and they are also decreasing in frequency in Buenos Aires milongas (Living in Argentina: Catcalls and Piropos)]; nevertheless, after sharing intimate personal space in the embrace, nonvulgar compliments regarding a partner’s appearance, dress, demeanor, or dancing skills should not be considered out-of-place, when they occur. These compliments can be shared in both directions, from leader to follower and vice versa. It is a shame if contemporary society has become so overly sensitive that polite compliments regarding personal appearance are considered disrespectful.

While the milonga may and should be a safe environment for seeking comfort in close intergender physical contact, the possibility of unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of the intimacy proffered cannot be ignored; i.e., the milonga should not provide a safe haven for sexual predators. Buenos Aires milonga guidelines of proper etiquette for interacting couples have been discussed above. If someone violates the accepted boundaries of physical or verbal interaction, the offended partner has the right to cease dancing with the perpetrator and leave the dance floor. Communication among members of the milonga community should be exercised to raise awareness regarding sexual miscreants, achieving their marginalization. In conjunction with the adoption of the cabeceo as the standard for dance invitation and the associated rejection of the Direct Approach method, the possibility of dancing with violators of personal space boundaries can be minimized.

Despite the positive benefits and appeal of dancing tango, it would be naïve to think that dancing tango could be a panacea in combating the pervasive malady of contact avoidance imbedded in North American and other technologically advanced urbanized societies; tango dancing simply does not have and is incapable of having the widespread distribution of participants to transform social interaction outside the milonga. It is necessary to understand that even in Argentina, tango arose from Argentine culture; tango is a reflection of that culture rather than a factor that has transformed the nature of social interaction within that society. The social environment in North America has a long history of contact avoidance and although it has changed significantly in 400 years, it still stands as a socially conservative culture in which spontaneous expression of affection is limited to prescribed moments defined by family, intimate relationships, and rituals within events of celebration and commiseration. Nor should one be naïve in assuming that dancing tango can be an effective inoculation against sexual aggression, the causes of which are numerous and complex (The Etiology of Sexual Offending).

Some dancers become committed to tango because of the physical intimacy it offers. However, working in opposition to this is the marketing of various derivations and deviations of Tango Argentino that avoid or minimize focus on the embrace and emphasize instead various step concoctions, e.g., Tango Escenario, Tango Nuevo, Tango Campeonato. These direct appeals to a culturally inculcated appetite for exhibitionism in social dancing may assist in attracting newcomers to tango, but dancers enticed by conspicuous step patterns are also attracted by other step-oriented social dance forms (of which there are many) and therefore are less likely to remain involved in tango dancing or, if they remain involved with tango, may never understand and experience the intimacy it offers; attention paid to step acquisition common in tango instruction masks the unique enjoyment and benefits experienced by persistent involvement in tango culture. In contrast, dancers who find fulfillment in the tango embrace are less likely to abandon tango for other social dances.

Tango community organizers are advised to consider the factors discussed here in planning the development and sustenance of tango communities.

 

Appendix: Note on Terminology Related to Sex and Gender

Definition of terms related to sex and gender are inconsistent in contemporary English speaking countries. Therefore, definition of some terms with regard to sex and gender, as used in Tango Voice, are necessary to minimize misinterpretation.

Sex refers here to reproductive anatomy (i.e., genitalia) and secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., breasts for women, facial hair for men). With the exception of persons in medically based sex transition and the rare condition of ambiguous sexual classification at birth (intersex), humans can be classified according to their reproductive organs as belonging to the female sex (women) or the male sex (men).

Currently in English speaking countries, particularly in vernacular usage, ‘gender’ has often been used as a synonym for ‘sex’. The definition for ‘gender’ used here is:

Gender is the state of being male or female in relation to the social and cultural roles that are considered appropriate for men and women.

Thus, ‘gender’ refers to a person’s cognitive identification with culturally predominant feminine or masculine behavioral characteristics. A person who identifies with neither culturally prescribed role of male or female is usually classified as ‘gender non-binary’ or ‘intergender. However, the term ‘intergender’ has also been used as an adjective to describe interaction between people with different gender identities (Wordnik), which is the preferred definition here, with ‘gender non-binary’ the preferred term for those who do not identify with traditional binary gender classifications.

With respect to dancing tango, commonly used terms to differentiate role either refer to ‘man’s part’ vs. ‘woman’s part’ or ‘masculine role’ vs. ‘feminine role’ (‘rol masculino’ y ‘rol femenino’ in Buenos Aires) or the gender nonspecific designations of ‘leader’ and ‘follower’. Although there is value in using this last classification, in particular with respect to Queer Tango, there is no simple commonly accepted adjective to describe the interaction between leader and follower. The term ‘intergender’ is used here to define this interaction and, for the sake of economy in argument, it is assumed here that all tango partnering occurs between people who are compatible in sexual orientation (i.e., heterosexual for opposite sex partnering, homosexual for same sex partnering), while recognizing that, in reality, this may not always be the case; however, these latter incompatible pairings are considered to be outside the realm of the arguments presented here.

9 Responses to The Intimacy of Dancing Tango: Therapy for Contact Deprivation in North American Society

  1. jantango says:

    I always enjoy reading your posts, and this one was no exception. I started writing a blog post for Tango Chamuyo in March 2018, that was a struggle for me. While reading your post, I decided to check my draft of “Sexual misconduct in the milongas.” I had almost forgotten about it. It’s not a topic that has been discussed much, if at all, online. The media attention on Harvey Weinstein’s conduct over years in Hollywood prompted me to write about what still happens in the milongas of Buenos Aires today.

    My post “Chatter” relates this about conversation. “I got this straight from a milonguero who talked to me about the codes. A milonguero doesn’t initiate conversation. The rule “ladies first” applies in this situation. The topic of conversation is limited to the music—the orchestra, singer, lyrics, etc. and nothing more. A milonguero may ask, “bien?” after dancing for the first time with a woman, but that’s all. If she doesn’t speak, he keeps his mouth shut. There is nothing awkward about standing without speaking. Our attention should be on the music. Conversation isn’t mandatory between dances. It should be brief in a low voice so that it is private.”

    It’s known to the world as Argentine tango. It’s danced in the world, but it’s still not danced all over Argentina. The milongueros think of it as Buenos Aires tango, distinctly cultura porteña.

    • tangovoice says:

      Interesting. Perhaps the miionga code about men not initiating conversation with women during the interval between songs of a tanda should be added to the previous Tango Voice post [Do Milongas Exist Outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)].

      Argentine men sometimes initiate conversations with foreign women during the interval between songs in a tanda. Conversation is not limited to the music. Perhaps these men, by definition, are not milongueros, or they don’t believe all milonga codes apply with foreign women.

      Readers, the Tango Chamuyo post discussing conversation at the milongas (Chatter) is worth reading.

    • tangovoice says:

      Relevant to the current Tango Voice post, Jantango has a new post in Tango Chamuyo regarding sexual misconduct in Buenos Aires milongas.

      “Sexual assault goes on in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Of course, there are men who act appropriately, but some who take advantage of being intimate in the embrace with a woman for only ten minutes, even in a public place.”

      This quote comes from someone who has written much about the milonga codes and milongueros, and who has 20 years experience living in Buenos Aires.

      There is a difference between cultural values and actual behavior. The cultural values of Traditional Milongas (milonga codes) include respect for women, and exclude inappropriate physical conduct. Actual behavior of some individuals may consist of violation of this code of behavior.

      This may be one of the milonga codes most commonly violated in Buenos Aires.

      Greater awareness and noncompliance with sexual misconduct can and should be effective in reducing this behavior in milongas in North America and other culturally progressive societies. As stated in the current post, community policing against sexual misconduct, including communication among members of the community regarding offenders, combined with respect for partner selection by means of the cabeceo can be effective in minimizing sexual misconduct in milongas, thereby allowing positive consensual intergender expression of affection to blossom under the right conditions.

      • Anonymous says:

        This is an excellent post, showing the value of tango as a positive means of bringing people together in an otherwise impersonal world.

        The issue of sexual misconduct at milongas is important and may not receive enough attention here. As a man, I have not been at the receiving end of inappropriate touching, but I have heard several women complain of this.

        We had an issue in our community a few years ago where one particular man was making several women feel uncomfortable by his touching, which crossed normal boundaries of acceptable behavior. Based on these reports and actually having observed the behavior, one milonga organizer banned him from the milonga he hosted. This organizer discussed this man’s behavior with a group of women in the community (I was a witness to this discussion) and one of the women responded that women were aware of the predator’s behavior, but there was a shortage of men at the milongas, so they tolerated it so they could get dances. This sounds similar to what Jantango described in her Tango Chamuyo blog.

        The sexual misconduct ended when the man moved out of the community, but a friend of mine in the community to which the sexual predator had moved identified this man as someone continuing this behavior in the new community. One of the organizers in that community made some vague references to this behavior along with some warnings in a Facebook post, but according to my friend, the predator’s behavior continues.

        Women need to speak up when there is sexual misconduct in the milongas and men need to be up front in their support. Otherwise, sexual predators will feel free to act out their perverted behavior, make women uncomfortable and defensive, and destroy the very benefits that tango brings when close physical contact is consensual.

      • tangovoice says:

        Yes, more could be said about sexual misconduct in the milongas and additional comments on this topic are welcome. And, yes, sexual misconduct needs to be called out when it occurs.

        The main theme in this post is the therapeutic aspects of dancing tango. Sexual misconduct was raised as a necessary caveat in evaluating complicating factors in achieving the benefits of the intimacy of tango.

  2. Tom says:

    I’m not sure whether it is worth me spending my time and effort writing a comment given that (1) my comments are being censored and (2) since the previous post it is (a) obvious that TangoVoice is a Social Justice Worrior, most likely a female and a feminist, and for that reason (b) the whole discussion has all but completely died as nobody expects any objectivity or evenhandedness, and hence (c) the lack of censorship in the past was purely motivated by building traffic and not any real desire to have a discussion. The leftist politics have been masked by an academic tone and appearance of research and appeals to authority, but is nothing more than another Argentine preaching from the culturally entitled pulpit to the docile masses about the cultural deprivation of “the English” (ie., Americans). Nonetheless, since I am holidaying in the Tuscan countryside I shall attempt this in case it does not this time get censored.

    First, the therapy model is essentially a progressivist and a radical feminist one. The quick move in the direction of discussion of ‘sexual assault’ reveals the underlying assumption of ‘toxic musculinity’. Women control sex and the idea is that Western (specifically American) men are sexually deprived and in need of therapy through acceptable practices like tango in which they get physical access to women. However, the ‘codes’ are now understood as means of men having to exercise self-control. Notice that the move from the ‘traditionalist’ framing in which any such codes are expression of men’s chivalry, ie., protectiveness and putting women on a pedestal, to a ‘progressivist’ framing whereby codes are men’s recognition of the toxicity of their musculinity and sexual predation.

    Second, there is the idea that latin cultures involve more physical contact and are therefore ‘healthier’. For the last couple of years I’ve been spending several months in Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Italy, ie., the so-called high contact cultures where people do the hugging and kissing. You see young guys do the kissing in Italy as well. Does this behaviour corralate with mental health? Well, personally I feel that smoking cigaretts as well as weed, and getting lots of tatoos are not outward manifestations of mental health. Yet you see a lot of this in these countries. So hugging and kissing does not translate into clean, healthy living habits in these terms. I understand that the US as an opioid crisis and to believe that countries like the US and Australia do tend to have high levels of depression among the population, but the reasons for this can be found in things like high level of economic competitiveness, suburban life based on the car, and loss of religion.

    I used to do a lot of physical contact practices. Apart from Tango and Contact Improvisation I participated in those “Tantric” therapy workshops where people hug each other, and men and women act out their male or female roles. To me it basically didn’t work because if it did anything at all it merely addressed the symptoms and not the cause which is basically that female liberation/empowerment, which involves women focusing on their freedom and career, rather than their role and responsibility in the family and society, is unnatural and socially toxic and that as a result both sexes suffer. Moreover, Western society is toxic to men in that it constantly puts men down. While doing these high contact activities did help me nothing solved my own issues like finally getting a proper job outside of a Western country in a society where I was receiving some recognition as a man and in my job. In Australia, in places like Sydney, nowadays there is a lot of kissing on the cheek but it’s all fake and superficial. As a man I knew that I was not held in high regard because I was a poorly paid ’loser’. When this is the way people look at men, as having to constantly prove themselves just so that they can be accepted of course they’ll be depressed. In Asia where I live now men do not have to suffer any of this and the lack of physical contact among the Chinese or Japanese does not seem to affect them negatively, so the whole argument is bogus. What men need is just to stop being constantly bashed.

    If there is sexual predation in tango it has to do primarily with the symbiotic, parasitic relationship between liberated Western women and Argentinian men. A woman in Buenos Aires told me that the local men expect to go to bed if they dance with her. My general impression was that the whole Buenos Aires thing is primarily geared to the female tango tourist from a Western country, the sort of “Eat, Pray, Love” fantasy (I never read the thing but was told what the gist of it is, and the Western women that I danced with (the local women were conspicuously unavailable for dancing and in cases downright passive aggressive and ungenerous in demeanour) came across as somewhat disappointed or disillusioned, happy to dance with me, though I wasn’t sure what the exact issue was (were the local guys too demanding? Dunno).

    My observation is that tango is yet another way in which liberated and empowered Western women attempt to use their control of sex against men (which explains why they write books about it, all of which seem to me to be completely pointless) except that Argentinian guys are playing hardball. It is my general observation that the typical Argentinian man dancing or teaching tango would have exactly zero interest in this activity were it not for the financial and non-finincial benefits that he receives from it. Tango is culturally passe for the typical Argentinian which is why it nearly disappeared. If there are hipster tango bars in Buenos Aires it’s not because tatooed hipsters have sophisticated tastes but because it’s yet another way to profit from the tango tourist.

    If there is a therapeutic element in tango it is not the contact but the dancing, which is the physical interpretation of music. Music has certain elements which are sui generis and which have deep effects on human psychology. Western music, ie., the chromatic scale, was the invention of the Gregorian monks, in the form of Gregorian chants. This music was in its inception spiritual, ie., its purpose was to elevate the mind to a higher spiritual realm. Music achieves this by virtue of characteristics such as tonalty and movement. The foreward movement of music creates a sensation of time and flow which removes us from the mundane, ordinary reality. Whether in attentively listening, dancing or chanting this experience is social we are sharing the experience and thus overcoming our individuality. This appears to be a deeply human need and an aesthetic experience, and dancing is but one way in which it can be created.

    The therapeutic model is a progressivist framing, derived from Freud and subsequently Reich, who was a communist, and in either case whose goals were to replace religion and things like confession with a secular, atheist sort of religion and breaking down of sexual taboos. Tango emerged in a society that was to some extent pious, given that Argentina was, perhaps still is, a Catholic country and permission to dance tango was sought from the Pope. People who were baptised, went to church on Sunday, sang hymns, had a basic understanding of what is required for Christian communal activity and what makes it worthwhile. Since we are not well into a hedonistic, tatooed, skateboard ‘culture’ we need to find some alternative justification, so we need Freud and Reich. I think its another intellectual dead-end and women will need to reconsider whether having a job and engaging in tango tourism is really worth it.

    • jantango says:

      I get the impression that you know tango music and dance in your country, but have never set foot in Buenos Aires. Tango outside of Buenos Aires is not the same as tango in Buenos Aires.

      “It is my general observation that the typical Argentinian man dancing or teaching tango would have exactly zero interest in this activity were it not for the financial and non-finincial benefits that he receives from it.”

      Your statement makes it clear that you don’t know even one milonguero from Buenos Aires who learned to dance as a teenager. Otherwise, you would know what tango means to them. I have talked with many milongueros viejos during my 20 years living in Buenos Aires, and I understand what tango means to them.

      “Tango is culturally passe for the typical Argentinian which is why it nearly disappeared.”

      Research the dictatorship in Argentina and how the music and dance were restricted in those years. That will tell you why tango nearly disappeared.

    • tangovoice says:

      A clarification is necessary here. In this post, ‘therapy’ is used in a general sense, as something that has healing properties, in this case regarding tango dancing as having healing properties for the malady of alienation caused by contact deprivation. There is no intention to identify tango dancing with psychotherapy. This should be obvious, but apparently it is not.

      Otherwise, there is no need to respond to this comment. It speaks for itself.

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