Queer Tango / Gay Tango / Gender Neutral Tango: Alternatives to Traditional Gender Roles in Tango

March 22, 2011

Queer Tango is an outgrowth of the sociopolitical movement to liberate members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender) community from the predominant heterosexual norms of behavior established in human societies worldwide. Tango is often interpreted and portrayed as the epitome of expression of traditional heterosexual gender roles, with men as dominant, leading and making decisions, and women as receptive, waiting for direction and following. Queer Tango does not recognize the traditional roles for man and woman in tango, setting a different standard in permitting same sex couples and women as leaders and men as followers within the social setting of the milonga. Mariana Docampo Falcon, organizer of the Tango Queer milonga in Buenos Aires, states:

Queer Tango proposes the possibility for people that dance tango to freely choose the role they want to take up and what gender they prefer to dance with. To be able to perform this way, the teaching technique used is exchanging roles. This means for everyone to learn to lead and follow. Dancers have the power to choose to dance the role they prefer or to exchange roles, depending on the person they are dancing with and the moment they decide to do so. This technique allows exploring the dynamics in more equal relationships. Here, the symbolic power that lays on the leading role vanishes when either person can take up either role, indistinctly.

Although Queer Tango derives its name from alternatives to traditional heterosexual orientation and its associated gender roles, Queer Tango, in its definition, is not limited to partners with homosexual orientation, in that all individuals regardless of sexual orientation are invited to explore tango outside the traditional roles of man as leader and woman as follower, which includes woman as leaders and men as followers, as well as dancing with a person of the same sex. The term Gender Neutral Tango is sometimes used as an alternative to Queer Tango for tango outside the traditional role of man as leader and woman as follower.

Some make a distinction between Queer Tango, which advocates the disassociation of sex with traditional gender roles in tango, and Gay Tango, which refers to one specific aspect of the alteration of traditional gender roles, that of gay men dancing tango together and lesbians dancing tango together. Maria Finn makes this distinction, quoting one of her interviewees:

“Gay tango is about sexuality, and queer tango is about opening up traditional tango so that women can lead men or other women”

Finn elaborates on this distinction, quoting Mariana Docampo Falcon indirectly:

She even found gay tango a little restrictive, as while some same-sex couples danced together, ideas of dominant leader and submissive follower were still in play.

As will be discussed below, the distinction between Gay Tango and Gender Neutral Tango is significant or, more generally, there are important distinctions to be recognized between sexuality, sexual orientation, gender role assumption, and leading and following, and each dimension has important implications for dancing tango.

Although discussed less, another change in the relationship between partners in the tango dance that has accompanied the Queer Tango movement is the concept of exchange of lead and follow during the dance. This concept was advanced in the 1990s by Daniel Trenner and has included an instructional video with Rebecca Shulman demonstrating this concept. With respect to this Trenner states:

… a wonderful twist is taking place in the technical development of dance. More and more people, without regard to their gender, are becoming competent leaders and followers at the same time. The conversational aspect of improvisation is widening to include the follower’s asking for time of the leader, the leader giving time to the follower, and, sometimes, an exchange of lead and follow taking place within a dance. This is a gender free mirror of what Argentine men did, in only segregated company, before.

The relationship of Gay Tango / Queer Tango / Gender Neutral Tango to traditional Tango de Salon, particularly with regard to the dimensions of expression of sexuality and exploration of different roles in the tango partnership are examined below. The niches occupied by Gay Tango / Queer Tango / Gender Neutral Tango within a broader tango community are also examined.

Traditional Gender Roles in Tango

In the overwhelming majority of milongas in Buenos Aires today, in dancing tango men lead and women follow. There are separate seating sections for men and for women, as well as another section for man-woman couples. The only exception to this is seating together of friends of both sexes at the same table in the couples section, upon request. Invitation to dance is by the cabeceo, which involves a man and a woman making eye contact and a slight nod of the head to indicate an agreement to dance. The mutual eye contact and nod of the head indicates that both man and woman agree to dance, empowering both men and women to select the partners with whom they dance. However, once agreement to dance is achieved through the cabeceo, the gender roles differentiate. (Tango Voice post: Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: the Basics).

The man approaches the table of the woman who has agreed to dance with him. After the woman rises from her seat and approaches the man, they embrace. Although the embrace differs between partners in the precise nature of physical contact, there is with rare exception complete contact from the chest to the abdomen (which has been labeled by non-Argentines as ‘close embrace’, but by Argentines simply as ‘el abrazo’). The man waits for the woman to achieve comfort in the embrace and he listens to the music for several seconds before leading a movement. The man’s lead is decisive and clearly communicated – it is firm yet gentle. In leading, the man pays attention to the balance of the woman; i.e., he waits until she completes her movement (i.e., transfer of weight) before leading the next movement. Although almost all movement of the woman is determined by the guidance of the man, there is some opportunity for the woman to make additional subtle movements (adornments) within the time and space provided by the man’s guidance. However, a woman’s adornments or movements of any kind should respect the balance of the man and not interrupt the flow of the dance created by the man.

If the man follows the standard milonga codes, he starts the dance facing the tables, with the woman’s back to the tables, and during much of the dance, the man maintains the woman’s position with her back to the tables, where she is protected from collision with other dancers (Tango Voice post: Milongueros Dancing Tango in the Milongas of Buenos Aires). The role of the man is to make the woman feel comfortable in the embrace and comfortable in movement, as well as protected from collision.

Within the embrace of tango, at the very least there is an opportunity for expression of traditional gender roles, i.e., masculinity in decisive leading and femininity in attentive following. There also exist possibilities for emotional exchange that are concomitant with the lowering of physical boundaries, although this will not occur in all partnerships formed on the pista in a traditional milonga. This emotional exchange can be affectionate and romantic, but it can also be sensuous, although there are culturally prescribed boundaries against the overt expression of sexuality. The classic tango music of the Golden Age is also conducive to evoking romantic and/or passionate emotion which can be shared between partners in the dance. Tango can be a seductive dance, but only in the early stages of seduction, where a woman’s physical boundaries are still respected, if the codes of the milonga are followed. Nevertheless, the tango dance in the milonga may be the beginning of a romantic and/or sexual relationship that continues outside the milonga. The 30 seconds or so of conversation that occur at the beginning of the second through fourth tangos of the tanda, before dancing, provide the opportunity for romantic conversation – compliments (‘piropos’), and invitations to meet outside of the milonga.

Thus, the gender roles of traditional tango and the norms of behavior are clearly delineated in the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires. Deviations from these roles and norms of behavior meet disapproval and may result in social ostracization and even reprimand from a milonga organizer. Violations of normative codes of the milonga include:

  • Same sex couples dancing (occurs rarely, mostly two women, usually tourists)
  • Women leading men (very rare, no known reported cases)
  • Men approaching the table of a woman to invite her to dance (relatively common when tourists are involved)
  • Women approaching the table of a man to invite him to dance (rare, but does occur, usually involving tourists)
  • Men touching women inappropriately during dance, so as to make her uncomfortable (does occur, may be associated with drunkenness and/or Argentine men preying on tourist women)

It is noteworthy that the influx of tango tourists into the milongas of Buenos Aires has been associated with violations of the codes of behavior regarding male – female interaction.

Since early in its history, the tango dance venue has provided an opportunity for men and women to meet each other. Although in its early history tango was associated to some significant degree with prostitution, by the onset of the Golden Age the milonga provided an opportunity for men and women to meet each other in a socially acceptable environment and explore a romantic relationship outside the milonga.

By the early 1950s, characteristic stylistic differences had developed between downtown milongas and neighborhood milongas [Tango Voice post: Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero) ]. In the more crowded downtown milongas the embrace between man and woman became even more intimate, as indicated by a more forward leaning (‘apilado’) posture, a more inclusive embrace (women drapes her arm over the top of the man’s shoulders) that is maintained throughout the dance (i.e., not opened for turns), and cheek-to-cheek contact. This stylistic variation of tango has been labeled as Tango Milonguero (Tango Voice Post: Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango, and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America). This intimate embrace further enhances the sensuality of tango and thus is conducive to the development and expression of sexual feelings, although still within the guidelines of respect mentioned above. It is during this time that the downtown milongas had become a prominent place for men and women to meet each other and develop a relationship outside of the milonga.

In contemporary Argentina women have more freedom of movement and there are many more places where men and women can meet each other. However, even today many romantic relationships between men and women begin in the milongas.

Same Sex Tango Dancing: A Historical Perspective

During the Golden Age of tango it was normal for men to learn tango from other men in practicas (Denniston; Segura). Men would first learn the role of the follower and only when sufficient expertise had been achieved, usually after about one year or so, the men would learn the role of the leader. This same-sex dancing in the practicas is generally not interpreted as having a homosexual motivation. Quite the contrary, the accepted interpretation is that men practiced with men because women did not have the freedom to go to practicas. Since milongas were a good place to meet women, men were practicing with each other to prepare for meeting women by dancing with them at the milongas; this indicates an ultimate heterosexual motivation. Because typically there were more men than women in milongas, the men with the highest skills were more successful in obtaining dances with women and, presumably, were more successful in continuing relationships with women outside of the milonga. Nevertheless, Tobin (1998: 83-84) presents a different view:

I venture that the original tango, repeatedly described by the historians as a choreographic representation of sexual intercourse, is a cultural expression with significant homoerotic and homosexual connotations that today are deeply imbedded in the imagined national identity of the large Argentine middle class.

One cannot preclude the possibility that homosexual men participated in practicas during the Golden Age. However, there would have been a strong taboo against expression of homosexual attraction in these events dominated by men preparing for encounters with women. Although there does not appear to be any evidence that clandestine milongas for homosexuals existed during the Golden Age, one cannot preclude the possibility that some clandestine homosexual tango dancing may have occurred. What is known is that this has not been made public knowledge due to social taboos.

The role of women as a motivational factor for men learning tango is somewhat less clear in the early days of tango, despite repeated assertions that tango was associated with prostitution in its early history. Borges (1955: 395) firmly believed tango was born in the brothels; he cites the lascivious movements and the phallic imagery of song titles (‘El choclo’ = ‘the corn cob’; ‘El fierrazo’ = ‘the iron rod’) as evidence for its lewd origins. During the late 19th century, when what was recognized as tango was born in Buenos Aires, there was a large excess of men, due to a male-biased wave of immigration. Thus, prostitution in various forms was widespread in Buenos Aires, particularly in the lower class areas on the outskirts of the city where tango evolved. It is commonly but not universally believed that men danced tango with men because women were generally unavailable, and tango had a role in brothels as a means for men to gain access to prostitutes. (The association of tango with prostitution also prevented many women from participating in tango, thus further reducing the availability of women for dancing.) This view is supported by Collier (1995:47), who notes that houses of prostitution, which were illegal in Buenos Aires at the time, were thinly disguised as cafes or dance academies, where men met women to dance tango and afterwards exchange sex for money. (See also Guy (1990: 142ff.) In contrast, Denniston argues that prostitutes were too busy, engaged in sexual activity with their customers, to have time to dance tango, and that tango was danced among men while waiting their turn for an available prostitute. Regardless, the men were present in the brothels for the purpose of obtaining sex from women, not for the purpose of dancing tango with men, and thus claiming a homosexual motivation of the men visiting the brothels is illogical. To question that men danced tango with women as part of a seduction contradicts the inherited oral history of tango, as represented repeatedly in tango shows, although it is possible for oral history to be not entirely accurate.

With respect to women dancing tango with women, prior to the Tango Renaissance in the mid-1980s, the norm was for women to learn tango at home from male relatives or, on rare occasions, from female relatives, which implies that at least some women had learned to lead (Denniston). However, in contrast to men dancing openly with men in practicas in public places such as community centers, if and when women danced tango with women, it was generally in the home and, similar to men dancing with men, it was practice to prepare for the milonga, where they would dance with the opposite sex. Given that women dancing with women was rare and in the home with family members, the probability of a homosexual motivation associated with this activity was infinitesimal. There is no apparent evidence that lesbians in Buenos Aires danced tango with each other during the Golden Age, although if they had, one would not have expected it to be done or mentioned in public.

Tango as a Means for Expression of Homosexual Feelings

Although an examination of history can explain the origins of the characteristics of tango, it is within the milieu of the mores and customs of contemporary society that its current expression is best interpreted.

Historically in Buenos Aires the expression of homosexual feelings in both milongas and practicas were severely inhibited by social taboos. Nevertheless, despite this historical precedent, to deny that the possibility for expression of homosexual feelings exists within this dance that is conducive to sexual expression is not only intolerant, but also naïve. Contemporary attitudes towards open homosexual expression are becoming more tolerant in many countries in Europe and in some parts of North America, and Argentina is no exception, as indicated in part by the nationwide legalization of gay marriage in 2010. Nevertheless, almost all milongas in Buenos Aires have retained the traditional gender roles of partnerships comprised only of men in a leading role and women in a following role.

Contemporary Same Sex Social Tango Dancing Worldwide

Unlike in the evolution of other genres of tango, Buenos Aires has not been at the forefront of the evolution of changing gender roles in tango. A claim to foundation of the Queer Tango movement has been made for Hamburg, Germany, where the first gay milongas were held in the mid-1980s, and the first Queer Tango festival was held in 2001. Nevertheless, in the last 10 years several public tango dance venues advertising acceptance of same sex dancing have opened in Buenos Aires. The first Milonga Gay in Buenos Aires, La Marshall, started in 2002 and is still active today. The Tango Queer milonga opened in the barrio of San Telmo in 2007. La Marshall differs from most other milongas in Buenos Aires in that there are no separate seating sections for leaders, followers, and couples and the cabeceo, although understood by some, is not generally used to invite someone to dance. The style of dancing is more diverse than in the traditional milongas. In addition to the traditional Tango de Salon danced in close embrace, it is common for couples to dance entirely in an open frame. Individuals may be leaders in one tanda (or tango) and followers in another. Whereas in the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires a program of all classic tango music from the 30s, 40s, and 50s is played, at La Marshall some modern tangos, including electrotango, may be played as well. Additional description of the Queer Tango / Gender Neutral Tango scene in Buenos Aires is provided in a previous Tango Voice post (Gay Friendly / Gender Neutral Tango Social Dancing in Buenos Aires). The first Queer Tango Festival in Buenos Aires was held in 2007.

The first Queer Tango festivals in North America were held in San Francisco in 2009 and in New York in 2010. In North America there are promoters of Queer Tango activities in San Francisco, New York, and Boston.

Although it is difficult to characterize a diversity of organizations with statements of general characteristics, it appears to be universal that in activities organized to accommodate gay tango dancers, a common thread is the openness to exploring leading and following roles in tango outside of the tradition of men leading and women following, regardless of the sexual orientation of the partners.

The Differentiation of Sex, Gender Roles, and Sexuality in Tango

Queer Tango, as generally defined, comprises two fundamentally different genres of tango – Gay Tango, danced between homosexuals of the same sex, and Gender Neutral Tango, the assumption of leading and following roles in tango regardless of sex or sexual orientation of the partners in the couple. Except for the inclusion of man as leader and woman as follower as one possible combination of partners within Gender Neutral Tango, they are both fundamentally different from traditional Tango de Salon. However, they are also fundamentally different from one another as well.

In order to understand fully the possibilities for emotional expression that can occur within tango dancing, it is necessary to differentiate sexuality and gender roles. Sexuality involves the expression of sexual desire. Sexual orientation indicates the direction of expression of this desire, either heterosexual or homosexual. Gender is a culturally defined role, a set of behavioral expectations, prescribed for men and women, defined as masculine or feminine, respectively. Masculinity is expressed in Tango de Salon by a man leading decisively with physical certainty, if not physical strength. Femininity is expressed in Tango de Salon by a woman following, waiting for the direction of the man who frames the structure of the dance. For traditional Tango de Salon, it is within this man-as-masculine and woman-as-feminine dance that sexual feelings may develop within the close physical connection of the embrace.

Queer Tango challenges and disrupts the traditional sex with gender role association and, in addition, although providing the opportunity for homosexuals to dance together, it also, in theory and in practice, liberates the formation of dance partnerships from considerations of the sexual orientation of the prospective partners. However, this complete disassociation of sex from gender role in the dance, independent of the sexual orientation of the prospective partners, has significant consequences on the possibilities for interaction within a tango dance couple. Taking into account partner sex, sexual orientation and role assumption, the following 16 combinations for tango dance partnerships exist:

  • (1) Heterosexual man leading / Heterosexual woman following
  • (2) Heterosexual woman leading / Heterosexual man following
  • (3) Homosexual man leading / Homosexual man following
  • (4) Homosexual woman leading / Homosexual woman following
  • (5) Heterosexual man leading / Heterosexual man following
  • (6) Heterosexual man leading / Homosexual man following
  • (7) Homosexual man leading / Heterosexual man following
  • (8) Heterosexual woman leading / Heterosexual woman following
  • (9) Heterosexual woman leading / Homosexual woman following
  • (10) Homosexual woman leading / Heterosexual woman following
  • (11) Heterosexual man leading / Homosexual woman following
  • (12) Homosexual man leading / Heterosexual woman following
  • (13) Homosexual man leading / Homosexual woman following
  • (14) Heterosexual woman leading / Homosexual man following
  • (15) Homosexual woman leading / Heterosexual man following
  • (16) Homosexual woman leading / Homosexual man following

Combination #1 (Heterosexual man leading / Heterosexual woman following) is the combination facilitated most by the traditional milonga environment, although other combinations (#s 11, 12, 13) with a man leading and a woman following regardless of sexual orientation, i.e., still adopting the traditional gender role, would be socially acceptable and not necessarily recognizable as obstructing one of the social goals of the traditional milonga, the opportunity for heterosexual men and women to meet with the possibility of exploring a romantic relationship at some point in the future outside the milonga. Although not permissible at a traditional milonga, combinations 2-4 also involve partners with compatible sexual orientations; however, all other combinations (#s 5-16) involve partners whose sexual orientations are incompatible with each other, i.e., they would not facilitate consensual expression of sexual feelings during the dance.

By permitting all of these possible combinations, before initiating a tanda, there would need to be clear communication of partner role (lead or follow) and sexual orientation, i.e., the rules for both permissible sexual expression and gender role assumption would need to be established. However, this could not be accomplished readily in seating arrangement; there would need to be 8 separate seating sections for:

  • (1) Heterosexual men leaders
  • (2) Homosexual men leaders
  • (3) Heterosexual women leaders
  • (4) Homosexual women leaders
  • (5) Heterosexual men followers
  • (6) Homosexual men followers
  • (7) Heterosexual women followers
  • (8) Homosexual women followers

One could also add a ninth section for couples only dancing with each other. This would require a complex seating chart for milonga attendees and would be impractical. It would also require milonga hosts to inquire regarding both partner role and sexual orientation upon entry into the milonga, an added complicating imposition. An additional complicating factor is that some dancers would want to alternate leading and following roles, which would essentially render any division of seating nearly meaningless.

A Gender Neutral Tango approach reduces the 16 partner combinations to only 4:

  • (1) Man as leader / Woman as follower
  • (2) Men as leader / Man as follower
  • (3) Woman as leader / Woman as follower
  • (4) Woman as leader / Man as follower

This simplifies the seating arrangement into 2 sections – leaders and followers (and a third for couples), thus requiring only a minor modification of traditional milonga seating arrangements. Milonga organizers would only need to inquire whether a person wanted to be seated in the leader or follower section. Presumably effective use of the cabeceo could sort out the possibilities of combinations any one person would agree to engage in. Once again, people wanting to assume both the leader and follower role would reduce the effectiveness of separate seating sections. Such a system would be functional, but it would not readily accommodate the possibility for sexual expression within the tango dance. For persons who do not know their potential partners’ sexual orientation, this would need to be communicated before the barriers to sexual expression can be lifted. Given the added difficulty of communicating sexual orientation, this would have a dampening effect upon the expression of sexual feelings during the dance, transforming the milonga, an environmental where romantic possibilities have been sought, into a practica, where one is only practicing one’s dancing. The extraction of the possibility for emotional exchange between partners from the milonga environment removes one of the defining characteristics of tango, i.e., that ‘tango is a feeling that is danced’.

Thus, in its desire to reject traditional gender roles, the gender neutral philosophy of Queer Tango limits the effectiveness of homosexuals to explore romantic possibilities within a Queer Tango milonga. The possibility for homosexual expression still exists and does occur, but in the attempt to be more open and tolerant by including heterosexuals and thereby adding some uncertainty for romantic and sexual possibilities, the possibility for homosexual expression is diminished relative to that of heterosexual expression in the traditional milonga environment. An additional factor that may contribute to the inhibition of homosexual expression at Queer Tango milongas as currently structured is the possible presence of heterosexual curiosity seekers.

Lexa Rosean, a lesbian who organizes a milonga in New York, comments on this issue:

“There are a lot of men who feel very liberated by following, and women who feel liberated by leading, and it has nothing to do with their sexual orientation, but as a gay person, it’s much more romantic to dance with a same-sex partner.”

However, in an interview with Reportango, Rosean also notes that gay milongas have not been successful in New York because “we all like to dance together”.

The Gay Milonga Niche

The segregation of tango environments by sexual orientation of dancers may be considered odious, stemming from homophobia. However, segregation of social meeting places by sexual orientation (e.g., ‘gay bars’) serves the gay community by providing a safe environment in which one can be reasonable certain that those present are open to exploration of romantic/sexual relationships. Gender Neutral Tango environments may provide some opportunities for the formation of homosexual relationships, but not without the need for additional communication, possible misinterpretation of intentions, and a general dampening of the emotions that can be shared in tango by any attendees of a milonga where the possibilities of sexual expression are uncertain. Thus, the Gender Neutral milonga advocated by the Queer Tango philosophy fails to provide an environment for sexual exploration comparable to the freedom of heterosexual exploration that can be provided by the traditional milonga. A Milonga Gay in which it is understood that all attendees are open to homosexual expression would circumvent the obstacles created by the Gender Neutral Tango environment; it would permit tango to be enjoyed by homosexuals much in the same way that traditional milongas are enjoyed by its heterosexual attendees. Thus, until such time that heterosexual and homosexual expression can both flourish without undue inhibition at the same milonga, there is a potential niche for the Gay Milonga. Gender Neutral Tango venues could still exist as practicas for those wishing to explore leading and following roles independent of one’s sex and sexual orientation, but would be not considered an optimal environment for the exploration of romantic and sexual relationships. However, the relevance and importance of these possibilities would be best explored and addressed within the gay community.

References in Print

Borges, Jorge Luis (1955)- A History of the Tango. Translated into English and published in Eliot Weinberger, ed. (1999)- Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library – Non-Fiction 1922-1986. Penguin Books, London.

Collier, Simon (1995)- The Tango is Born: 1880s-1920s; in Simon Collier, Artemis Cooper, Maria Susana Azzi and Richard Martin, eds.- Tango! The Dance, the Song, the Story. Thames and Hudson, London.

Guy, Donna (1990)- Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family and Nation in Argentina. University of Nebraska Press; Lincoln, Nebraska.

Tobin, Jeffrey (1998)- Tango and the Scandal of Homosocial Desire; in William Wasabaugh, ed.- The Passion of Music and Dance: Body, Gender and Sexuality. Berg, New York. Reprinted online.