Queer Tango in Argentina

November 7, 2011

At the beginning of my time in Buenos Aires, I wrote an article for National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel blog about the World Tango Festival and places to learn, watch and dance tango in the city. While researching milongas in the city, I discovered a same-sex milonga called La Marshall. I hadn’t been aware of a gay tango movement and continued to be intrigued by this concept since Argentina tango is so full of gender roles and machismo.

Legendary tango dancer, Carlos Copello performs.

Fast forward three months and I was with a friend at a free milonga which takes place in a large gazebo in Barrancas de Belgrano, a park near my house. After embarrassing ourselves on the dance floor for a bit, we began watching the other couples when I noticed two men dancing together. I was struck by how beautiful and unique the dance was when gender roles where switched up. In that moment I knew what I would be writing my tango paper on.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been taking a tango class at my university this semester. I can’t say that it is always the most thrilling class in the world but I have enjoyed learning a dance that is so culturally important to Buenos Aires. Besides, how many Americans can say they learned tango in Argentina? Probably quite a few, but I digress. About a month ago we were assigned a paper to write. It could be about anything as long as it related to tango. Since it was to be 5 pages, single-spaced, in Spanish, I knew I needed to find a topic I was truly interested in. My new interest in same-sex tango combined with my recent realization that Argentina was the second country in the Americas (after Canada) to legalize gay marriage led me to chose Queer Tango as a topic. I decided to post my paper to share with you what I learned. It is translated from the Spanish it was originally written in so please forgive the lack of grammatical complexity.

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Queer Tango

“Gay Tango is about the sexuality and queer tango is the opening of traditional tango so that women can lead men or other women,” said one follower of the Queer Tango movement.

Queer Tango refers to a new form of dancing Argentine tango that questions the traditional gender roles en the dance. When choosing roles, gender and sexual orientation are ignored. In order to understand the significance of this movement, we should first examine the traditional gender roles of tango and the progression of gay rights in Argentina.

Traditional Gender Roles

In order to understand the Queer Tango movement, it is important to first understand the traditional gender roles of Argentine tango.

The gender roles in traditional Argentine tango are strictly defined. This is immediately evident upon entering a milonga, a traditional argentine dance hall. In many milongas, there are separate sections for men, women and for man-woman pairs. This implies that men will ask women to dance and then lead the dance. In many milongas, the cabeceo is used. The cabeceo is an invitation to dance where a man and woman make eye contact and make a slight tip of the head in order to indicate their agreement to dance. In the invitation to dance, the man and the woman are equal because they both must agree in order for the dance to proceed.

After the cabeceo, the man approaches the woman and embraces her. The man waits until the woman becomes comfortable in the embrace and listens to the music for a few seconds before leading a movement. In this moment, the man has the power in the relationship because the woman now depends on him to direct all the movement.

During the dance, the majority of the woman’s movements are guided by the man. Although she has some opportunity to make subtle decisions, she can only do so within the time and space permitted by the guidance of the man. Her decisions should not interrupt the flow developed by the man.

The masculine role is to make the woman feel comfortable in the embrace and the movement and to protect her from collision. This is a reflection of the masculine role in argentine society. In the traditional argentine society (and in Latin America in general), machismo is very important for the identity of a man. In order to be macho, he must be sure of himself and it is his job to look after the welfare, security and happiness of his woman.

This male-female relationship is reflected on the dance floor. He is confident, she is trusting. The two are happy in their functions and are equal in their relationship. The do not compete, they cooperate and they hold a mutual respect for each other. He respects the femininity of the woman and she respects the masculinity of the man. Each one has unique things to offer to the dance (and to society).

Queer Tango. Via the International Queer Tango Argentino Festival in Hamburg website.

Same-Sex Tango in History

During the Golden Age (1935-1950) of tango it was common for men to learn to dance with men in practices. In some cases, the men learned the follower role first and only after they reached a certain level of experience would they learn the role of the leader.

These practices were not considered homosexual and same-sex tango was confined to these practices. During this time, the women did not have as much freedom to go to the practices like the men. Men wanted to practice in order to meet and impress women in the milongas. Therefore, their only option was to practice with other men. The women represented the motivation to learn tango and practice with other men. Expressing homosexual desire during these practices would have carried a big social taboo. Learning the role of the follower helped the men to be better leaders since they would know what the woman needed from him.

Tango’s dominant male is also evident in the brothel and prostitute origins of the dance. Due to this association, women were less likely to participate in practices even when allowed.

For the women, the norm was to learn tango from male family members, usually at home. Therefore, the women only learned the follower role, while the men tended to learn both roles.

Homosexual Rights in Argentina

The increase of gay rights and the growing acceptance of gays in society has had a significant impact on the acceptance of same-sex and queer tango in Argentina.

Argentina has a long history of being in front of the curve in regard to homosexual rights. For example, sexual activity by persons of the same sex has been legal since 1887. In many parts of Africa and the Middle East, this is still considered illegal.

After the first military coup in 1930, police harassment of homosexuals increased.  However, there are reports that during the Peronist era, Juan Perón ordered the police and the military not to participate in gay bashings.

The first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights organizations were created in 1969. In 1976, the government fought to eradicate the movement and many of the movement’s members were among the disappeared (during Argentina’s “Lost Decade”).

After the military dictatorship, the group La Comunidad Homosexual Argentina (The Homosexual Community of Argentina) made a public campaign for LGBT rights. During the time of re-democratization, a gay bar opened in Buenos Aires for the first time and the LGBT community began to be more open. Today, gay tourists are invited to visit Buenos Aires. The city even has a tourist information center specializing in gay tourism, called Pink Point.

In 2002, civil unions between gays and lesbians was legalized.  And, on July 15, 2010, Argentina became the second country in the Americas and the first in Latina America to legalize gay marriage. At that time, seventy percent (70%) of Argentine citizens were in favor of the legislation.

What is Queer Tango?

Queer Tango is a new method of dancing argentine tango that is free of the traditional heteronormative conventions. The purpose is to dance tango without pre-established gender roles and to be able to exchange the roles of leader and follower.

Queer Tango consists of two movements – Gay Tango and Gender Neutral Tango.  Gay tango is dancing between two homosexuals of the same sex. Gender Neutral Tango is when the dancers chose principal and secondary roles without considering the sex or the sexual orientation of the members of the pair.

Where traditional tango is the personification of traditional heterosexual gender roles, queer tango does not recognize these roles. It is the result of socio-political movement to free members of the LGBT community from the prevailing norms of heterosexual behavior in society worldwide.

According to Mariana Docampo Falcom, from the milonga Tango Queer in Buenos Aires, the dancers “can freely select the role they want and the gender they prefer to dance with”.

“There are many men that feel very liberated by following, and women that feel liberated by leading, and it has nothing to do with sexual orientation,” said Lexa Rosean, a lesbian that organizes a milonga in New York.

The teaching method is also different in queer tango.  Everyone learns to lead and to follow and the options for exhanching roles during the dance.  This permites the dancers “to explore the dynamic of the relationship more equally,” Falcon said, “the simbolic power that is put on the lead role disappears when either of the partners can fulfill either role”.

Queer Tango challenged and altered traditional gender roles and also frees the dance partnerships of the considerations of the sexual orientation of prospective partners. The queer tango movement grew out of gay tango dancers because ” gay tango is a bit restrictive, and that while some same-sex couples danced together, the ideas of dominant leader and submissive follower were still in play,” said Falcon .

When speaking of queer tango, it is important to note the difference between the terms sexuality, sexual orientation and gender. According to “Tango Voice,” sexuality refers to the expression of desire, sexual orientation refers to the direction of the expression of this desire (whether homosexual or heterosexual) and gender refers to a set of culturally defined roles or a set of expectations for behavior (male or female). By taking into account partner sex, sexual orientation and the assumption of roles, there are sixteen (16) possible combinations of queer tango associations. They are:

(1) Heterosexual Male leader / Heterosexual Female follower

(9) Heterosexual Female leader / Homosexual Female follower
(2) Heterosexual Female leader / Hetersexual Male follower (10) Homosexual Female leader / Heterosexual Female follower
(3) Homosexual Male leader / Homosexual Male follower (11) Heterosexual Male leader / Homosexual Female follower
(4) Homosexual Female leader / Homosexual Female follower (12) Homosexual Male leader / Heterosexual Female follower
(5) Heterosexual Male leader / Hetersexual Male follower (13) Homosexual Male leader / Homosexual Female follower
(6) Heterosexual Male leader / Homosexual Male follower (14) Heterosexual Female leader / Homosexual Male follower
(7) Homosexual Male leader / Hetersexual Male follower (15) Homosexual Female leader /  Hetersexual Male follower
(8) Heterosexual Female leader / Heterosexual Female follower (16) Homosexual Female leader / Homosexual Male follower

Gender neutral tango reduces the number of options to four:

1. Male Leader/ Female Follower

2. Male Leader/ Male Follower

3. Female Leader/ Female Follower

4. Female Leader/ Male Follower

This limits the options almost as much as traditional tango. Whereas gender neutral tango provides the benefit of flexible gender roles, they can cause confusion when the dancers want to use the tango as a form of courtship, as in the golden age. Queer Tango offers more options for dancers.

The History of Queer Tango

While queer tango has become very popular in Argentina during the last two decades, it, surprisingly, did not originate in Argentina. Queer tango was born in Hamburg, Germany, where the first gay milonga opened in the mid 1980s. The first queer tango festival was also held in Hamburg in 2001.

The intent of two of the founders of the movement, Marga Nagel and Ute Walter, was to be inclusive rather than exclusive. All tango enthusiasts who were interested in experimenting with the identities of its functions and with tango in general were invited. Angel and Walter were part of the first queer tango scene that originated in the gay club “Tuc Tuc” in the 1980’s.

The queer tango movement in Germany inspired other countries to start their own queer tango scenes. Queer tango festivals are celebrated around the world, including in Denmark, Sweden, the United States and Argentina.

According to the website of the International Queer Tango Festival in Hamburg, “the intention of Queer theory is to analyze the prevalent heterosexual norms and open possibilities for development. This can be achieved through the release of sensual experiences – eroticism, sexuality, fantasies – its heteronormative orientation and giving encouragement to be creative and fun. ”

Tango is the dance of Buenos Aires and should be open to all community members who want to learn. Queer Tango opens this cultural pastime to a greater number of participants. It also allows the dancers to experiment with gender roles, which is significant in a world where gender roles are constantly being blurred, while also providing an outlet open to gay and lesbian tango dancers.

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Sources

GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture

Tenth International Queer Tango Argentino Festival, Hamburg

Finn, Maria. “Dancing Scruffy Cheek-to-Scruffy Cheek: Gay Tango.”

Forero, Juan. “Argentina becomes second nation in Americas to legalize gay marriage.” The Seattle Times

International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission

Hunt, Mary Ellen. “Queer tango throws out leader-follower rules.” San Francisco Chronicle

Spiritus Temporis

Queer Tango Argentina

Tango Voice

ToTango

“Tango Gender Equality.” ToTango

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