History of Queer Tango

The history of what, exactly? There are still disagreements about what precisely queer tango is, yet most are agreed on the themes and practices queer tango touches on or embodies. Perhaps it is easier to look at the historical background of these? They include, but are not confined to:

  • Same sex couples

  • Women leading

  • Men following

  • Women leading men

  • Men leading women in a queer tango context

  • Role change within the dance (intercambio)

  • LGBT+ people dancing tango

  • LGBT+ run tango events

  • Systematic challenges through dancing to norms of sex, gender and sexuality

  • Some awareness of the social and political dimensions of the significance of the dancing

 

How far back can we go?

Same sex dancing has a long, somewhat complicated history. In the 1990s in Buenos Aires, older, male dancers told tango dancer and author, Christine Denniston, how, when younger they practised with other men for up to three years (Denniston, 2007) the better to secure the favours of women both on, and off the dancefloor. Doubtless, they had their reasons for telling her this. Men seem to have danced tango together since its earliest appearances and a mix of facts and mythology have been used to explain why. With an historical gender imbalance in Argentina in the early 20th century of seven men to one woman, and consequently fierce competition among men to marry and so, at the very least, have the possibility of regular sex without having to pay for it, such accounts seem plausible. A woman might marry a man who danced with her and made her feel wonderful – but to become a really good dancer demanded practice, and with so few women, practice might often mean dancing with another man, either informally on the street, or at all-male prácticas, events set aside for practicing. Yet this mythology is a touch too convenient and in a paper I gave in 2016, “Queer Tango’s ‘Image Problem’: Men, Intimacy and Pictures from the Past” (Batchelor, 2016) I suggested men might also have danced together because it was cheap fun, for reasons of social cohesion, that some of them were gay, and that some of them may simply have craved physical intimacy with another human being, when such intimacy was in short supply.

 

The men who spoke to Denniston came of age in the 1940s, by which time the gender imbalance had ameliorated.

 

There are countless images of men dancing tango with one another in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Argentina and Uruguay. The first photographs of tango dancers ever published appeared in the magazine Caras y Caretas in 1903 show two men dancing. The magazine column implied that they had casually been snapped at a street corner, but Wolfgang Freis has gives evidence in his blog that if, as seems likely, the taller man is the, then, well known singer and tango dancer, Arturo de Navas, it is more likely the photos were deliberately posed.

There is a much smaller body of images showing women. In part, this may be accounted for by the fact that the men are often dancing outside while picnicking, for example, in all-male groups. A camera might be brought and there would be enough light to make a photographic record. By comparison, if women were dancing with each other at home, say, the incidences of cameras and sufficient light would be that much fewer, and the chances of their dancing being recorded, correspondingly reduced. Doubtless there were other reasons too.

If we look beyond South America to the United States and Europe, some, yet by no means all of imagery of women dancing together is of the erotic postcard variety, intended to titillate the male gaze. Some of the exceptions to this genre relate to the period of “Tangomania” in the years leading up to the First World War, when some fashionable women in North America and Europe asserted their increased independence by socialising with each other in department stores, or at tango teas, a feminine domain where they might have elected to wear Turkish trousers, which facilitated increased freedom of physical movement, as they danced with men who might not have been their husbands, or occasionally, with each other (Batchelor 2 2016). Male critics invariably detected a lesbian component.

You can see a collection of this historical imagery of both men and women dancing tango at The Queer Tango Image Archive.

 

Did lesbians and gay men dance tango in same sex couples?

Certainly, early on in Argentina and Uruguay, it seems they did.

When tango emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was initially viewed by the elite in Argentina as somehow “primitive”, and so a threat to the growth of a modern, European- style state. Consequently, it was despised by them. Using the medical and criminal records of the time, Jorge Salessi (1997) and Magali Saikin (2004) argue that for as a long as tango was chiefly danced by those on the margins of society, the poor, criminals, pimps and prostitutes, it was routinely and openly danced by lesbians and homosexual men, free to dance with whomsoever they chose, because they had little social status to lose. Yet once wealthy young Argentinian men who had encountered tango in the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires took it with them to Europe, they were something of a hit with European women, not least, in pre-First World War Paris, where “Tangomania” ensued with particular vigour.

 

Back in Argentina in the late ‘teens and early twenties, newly sanctified by Paris, tango migrated from the conventillos (poor, courtyard buildings) and brothels to the salons, bourgeois cafés and tango bars of Buenos Aires, where it was now fashionable. Not only did it no longer pose a threat to the nation, it was becoming, instead, an emblem of Argentine national identity. A respectable present required a respectable past. Its messy, sexually ambivalent “history” desperately needed tidying up, and so, as is so often the case in history as constructed, rather than as it occurred, lesbians were rendered invisible, while ‘men-dancing-with-men’ was re-configured as “men-practising –with-men” a neat, benign, exclusively heterosexual phenomenon. In both cases – and in ways of interest to those dancing queer tango in the 21st century – tango’s overtly homoerotic content was ruthlessly eradicated, a process which paralleled that of the black dimensions of tango history, which were similarly eradicated (Thompson 2005).

Did heterosexual women and straight men dance tango in same sex couples?

Same-sex tango dancing – or indeed same-sex couple dancing of other dances - was not confined to South America before, during, or after the emergence of the tango, so it should come as no surprise that same sex tango dancing is much in evidence wherever tango was danced at all. Some of it can be identified as occurring among lesbian or homosexual communities – Weimar Germany springs to mind – but such dancing was more often than not perfectly respectable, and not thought to imply that the dancers’ sexuality was anything other than conventionally construed. It featured routinely among soldiers and sailors, for example, when women were not available, as well as at public dances, and where women dancing with women attracted little comment or criticism. Only after the second world war, with the moral panic which descended on western society with regard to all matters sexual, did such practices become suspect and go into a decline.

Was any of this queer tango?

Perhaps, in terms of a queer sensibility, in the broadest sense; perhaps when the dancers were lesbians or gay men; but looking at the check list which opened this account, nowhere in any practical sense, is there the social and political awareness which distinguishes the 21st century queer tango movement. The more items on the check list ticked, the closer we come to a history of queer tango. For the roots of this social and political dimension to tango, we need to turn to the late 20th century, and the social, political, and sexual upheavals which marked it out.

 

When was the first queer tango?

In a paper delivered at the Queer Tango Salon 2017 in London, Birthe Havmøller and I offered some provisional answers to this tricky question (Batchelor and Havmøller, 2017). Taking a crude and imperfect definition of queer tango as: same sex tango dancing by LGBT+ people with a social and political sensibility, we judged that we need to take seriously the claims of many European dancers, most especially in Germany. Tango teacher, Sabine Rohde has suggested that in 1985 in Hamburg at the Café TucTuc, she, Ute Walter, Marga Nagel, someone called Andrea, Effi Effinghausen, Isabel Cortes, Mari Paul Renault working with the Argentinian tango maestro Antonio Todaro danced “open role” and changed roles in the course of the dance (intercambio), and that they did this mindful of the social and political importance of what they were doing: “We were [all] political[ly] aware. We all had long, after-Milonga late night discussions about what we are doing with this ‘macho dance’.” she wrote on Facebook in 2017. She credits Ute Walter with coining the phrase “Queer Tango” a little later.

 

In Berlin, in 1986, Brigitta Winkler and Angelika Fischer opened their “Tanzart” school and the couple performed as a “Frauentanzpaar”, that is, as women dancing together. Setting aside for the moment claims from Munich and Hasselt in Belgium, Winkler went on with Fabienne Bongard, Rebecca Shulman, and Valeria Solomonoff in America to form Tango Mujer, an all-women tango group who performed to great acclaim, with Angelika Fisher joining them in 1998. Schulman had already been teaching and performing with Daniel Trenner since the early 1990s, and they had built up a reputation for dancing both roles and intercambio, even if the political dimensions were not really in evidence.

What has been the contribution of Argentina to queer tango?

Buenos Aires-based, Argentinian, Edgardo Fernández Sesma, writing on Facebook in 2017 reminded us that 20 years earlier in 1997, Augusto Balizano taught at the bar “Gasoil”, that in his classes, all couples learnt both roles, did intercambio, and that he used non-traditional language to describe the different roles. For him, this is the beginning of a “paradigm shift” in teaching, learning and language, and should be recognised as such, and celebrated. Balizano went on to open La Marshall, named after film actress and camp icon, Nini Marshal in 2002, to date – despsite a hiccup in 2017, when it looked as if it might close – Buenos Aires’ oldest established gay milonga.

In a seminal paper delivered by Mariana Docampo at The Queer Tango Salon 2017, the Argentinian dancer teacher activist and driving force behind Tango Queer, Buenos Aires’ oldest queer, as opposed to gay milonga, expressed her irritation that in countless, thoughtless “histories of queer tango”, it is often said that queer tango was created in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world, including Buenos Aires. She allows events in Europe were significant, but she asserts that it lacked many of the characteristics of queer tango as it is practiced today, that she and her companions gave the dance its full grounding in queer theory through her manifesto “What is Queer Tango?” (originally in Spanish, 2005) founded Tango Queer in the same year, and lent queer tango a specifically Argentine authenticity which, up until that point, had sometimes been in short supply. Without that authenticity, she argues, queer tango would never have gained sufficient traction to become the global phenomenon it is today.

Edgardo Fernández Sesma himself is a unique figure in contemporary queer tango, an activist who finds practical, social and political applications for queer tango in drawing attention to the neglect of the elderly, or of countries elsewhere in the world where LGBT+ people are persecuted, tortured or murdered, and he is indefatigable in promoting all the humanitarian causes with which queer tango can be aligned and has become associated.

 

Where are we now?

In 2017, queer tango is thriving, international, and possibly global phenomenon, facilitated by social media, but grounded in actual, physical dancing. Having emerged from LGBT+ communities, queer tango is not confined to them. Most queer tango organisations run “safe spaces” that is, milongas where those who come are free to dance with whomsoever they choose in the role of their choice. Many are reaching out to mainstream tango. In some cities, queer tango organisations prosper and multiply; in others, such queer tango as there is, occurs in mainstream tango contexts without much in terms of formal organisation; while in still others, it is maintained against the odds, in socially and politically hostile environments. Festivals, once few in number, have sprouted up around the globe, with some resembling highly-organised branches of the tourist industry, while yet others have more overt political agendas. Recently published books about tango by Kathy Davis and by Melissa Fitch both felt the need to include chapters on queer tango (Davis, 2015; Fitch, 2015). Queer tango is maturing and becoming more reflective. Increasingly, it is written about.  The Queer Project was founded by Birthe Havmøller who is based in Aarhus, Denmark, and run by her with Olaya Aramo from Madrid and myself in London. It has published the free eBook, The Queer Tango Book (2015) runs a website with queer tango resources, runs The Queer Tango Image Archive and The Queer Tango Conversation, a discussion group on Facebook. The Queer Tango Salon 2017 followed a similar event in Paris the previous year, and sought to bring together academics interested in the themes queer tango addresses with the dancers, dance teachers and activists.

The mere possibility of queer tango having a history, or histories is another sign of this increased maturity. Even so, the historical sketch offered here is highly provisional. As Birthe Havmøller and I said at the end of our recent paper:

Historians are fortunate that the writing of history, or indeed of histories is a perpetually provisional art. Histories are written the better to understand where our present has come from, but as our queer tango present is dynamic, not static, then the histories it requires are likely to be equally changeable in character.

 

Dr Ray Batchelor

27 September 2017