Mia Helmer Jensen                                                                                           14th of December 2006

Student Number: 05140642                                                                           

Dance Anthropology

MA Dissertation: DAN060L760Y




Sensuous and Gendered Embraces:

An Investigation into Tango Dance Practices
















Words: 24,620



Title page…………………………………………………………………………………………...1





Chapter 1


The fieldwork “location”…………………………………………………………………………..12

A “humanistic” anthropology……………………………………………………………………...15


“Data gathering” and ethical concerns……………………………………………………………..20


Chapter 2

The Tango Embrace……………………………………………………………………………...23

The tango embrace in time and across continents…………………………………………………23

Inside the tango embrace: “Caught” or exhilaratingly “free”?………………………………….…28

Embracing the multi-sensory experience……………………………………………………….….32


Chapter 3

Sensory Anthropology……………………………………………………………………………35

A tango “sensorium”?……………………………………………………………………………...35

Is touch “male” or “female”?………………………………………………………………………38


Chapter 4

The Milonga: Temple of the Embrace………………………………………………………..…42

Cult or subculture?…………………………………………………………………………………42

Tango “rituals”…………………………………………………………………………………..…43

The “preliminary” phase: Preparing for the milonga………………………………………………45

The “liminal” phase: Inside the “temple”………………………………………………………….46

The liminality, “magical space”, and “flow” of the milonga……………………………………....54

The “postliminal” phase: On the moon or in the gutter?………………………………………..…57


Chapter 5

Gendered Embraces………………………………………………………………………………60

Basic terminology………………………………………………………………………………….60

Gender diversity and tango………………………………………………………………………...62

Gender as performance…………………………………………………………………………….66

On becoming a tanguera………………………………………………………………………..….67


Performing gender at the milonga……………………………………………………………….…71

Ruffianesque vs. romantic…………………………………………………………………………72

Embodied gender “experiments”…………………………………………………………………..73



Appendix 1: Differences Between Argentine Tango and Ballroom Tango…………………...80

Appendix 2: Argentine Tango Dance Styles………………………………………………….…82

Appendix 3: Expanding Our Understanding of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality…………………88






All real tango dancers

wear neatly crafted masks.


Beware of those

who go for the natural look.


                                 Mia Helmer Jensen,

                                 Buenos Aires, January 2005



This thesis is the result of a three years’ intensive immersion into the world of the Argentine tango. In the autumn of 2003 I began reading about the tango as part of my undergraduate studies in Social Anthropology at University of Sussex. In December that same year I managed to spend two weeks in Argentina, where I took private tango lessons every day. Four months later, I went back and spent a month in Buenos Aires. In the autumn of 2004 I finally decided to leave my life in England and relocate to Buenos Aires. In the end I only stayed three months on this third visit, after which I decided to study Dance Anthropology – a course perfectly suited for furthering my project of understanding the tango from an anthropological perspective. The past fifteen months of dancing the tango in London, while simultaneously reading and writing about it, have been as intense as my first day in Buenos Aires when strangers in the streets quite literally grabbed me for a tango![1].

            My “tango quest” has been like a spiral, taking me ever deeper into the workings of this dance and the people who dance it, while showing me new aspects of myself along the way. But will I ever reach “the depth”, or “the truth”, of what this dance is all about? The answer is a definite no. Because the dance is constantly moving. Just as one begins to feel knowledgeable about a certain aspect of the dance itself or the dance culture, it has moved – changed form, or location, or meaning. As an ever growing and changing global phenomenon the tango is impossible to pin down, and will never cease to amaze.

Only one thing appears to be a “certainty” in the world of tango: nothing is what is seems! As indicated by the poem above, I seem to have realized this (with some bitterness) at an early stage in my tango journey. However, there is one “place” within the spectacle of a milonga[2] or any other tango related activity, which sometimes reveals what is under the “neatly crafted masks” – one “place”, within this maze of tango bodies and practices, where I still feel safe. This “place” is the tango embrace.

Tango practitioners may develop their chosen image to perfection, in order to achieve admiration from or dances with particular people. But in a close embrace one can no longer hide behind fancy or creative outfits, make-up or dyed hair. One’s dance partner will notice the slightest trembling or sweating, nervousness or boredom. The skilled dancer will of course be good at acting out a confident image, even in his or her physical contact with dance partners, but the body still “speaks”.


Being so close to me…

your breathing tells me whether you smoke too much.

The hardness or softness of your arm around my back tells me to what extent you want to control me. The way you dance with me or “on your own” tells me how much you want to be with me

here on this dance floor (and perhaps elsewhere).


What may confuse, particularly newcomers, is exactly this: that the affection expressed in the tango embrace – although truthfully expressed while dancing – does not necessarily have any implications for relationships off the dance floor. As sad as it may be to discover that the intense connection experienced during the dance usually evaporates when the song ends, as exhilarating is the joy of being able to express uninhibited affection during the dance, without being held accountable afterwards.

Although the affection felt within the tango embrace is ephemeral, and at times even self-invented, it is nonetheless a form of human physical contact that can be difficult to attain elsewhere in contemporary Western(ised) culture. This, undoubtedly, is part of the reason so many tango dancers keep coming back for more. And so I return to the embrace, this time in writing. 


















In this thesis the tango embrace will be conceptualised as the focal point of the dance itself, since the dancers’ upper-body connection is essential for moving in syncopation with one another. In tango, moving “in sync” does not merely involve following each other’s movements with choreographic precision; it also means interpreting the music along similar lines, and being sensitive to each other’s physical and technical abilities, as well as emotional states.

            In a broader sense the tango embrace may also be conceptualised as the hub of the tango as a global dance culture. Accordingly Sonia Abadi, Argentine psychoanalyst and milonguera[3], writes in her collection of short stories that describe the dynamics of the milonga: 


Pregunté a los tantos extranjeros que venían a Buenos Aires a bailar, por qué se habían apasionado de ese modo con nuestro tango. La respuesta era siempre la misma: ‘por el abrazo’.

       (I asked the many foreigners who came to Buenos Aires to dance, why they had become impassioned in this way with our tango. The answer was always the same: ‘because of the embrace’.)

(2003: 11, translated by author.)


For people who have never actually danced the tango, the close physical contact of the embrace also appears to be what catches the attention, if not the swiftness with which the dancers are able to move their legs in and out of each other’s legs – despite the close embrace, despite not being able to look down. What is perhaps not obvious is that it is actually because of the proximity of the torsos, and the “blind”, kinaesthetic communication that occurs within the couple, that the legs do not crash.

            It is not the choreographed tango of the shows that is of primary interest here. Rather, the concern of this study is the tango as a social dance form, as experienced by social dancers of all levels. In contrast to show tango, tango as a social dance is completely improvised, making it more spontaneous, more from the heart, and in some ways more challenging than the choreographed pieces. One needs to be prepared for almost anything because the tango brings together people of all ages, physical abilities, genders, races, and cultures.   

As will be explained in greater depth in the chapter on methodology, most of the ethnographic material applied in this study has been obtained through participation in the dance culture. This inevitably means that some areas of experience will be discussed more than others, and that these depend on the types of experiences I have personally had access to. Being a young, white, European female and a skilled “follower” in the dance means that my expertise lies within these areas of experience. I therefore depend on the statements made by male practitioners, “leaders” of the dance (not necessarily male), elderly practitioners, and practitioners from other parts of the world, in order to understand the challenges and pleasures that they encounter. Although I have had access to such information through relationships (of varying degrees of intimacy) with other tango practitioners, most of my examples will be from a female perspective, allowing me to speak with the authority of one who has “been there”. 

            The geographical and cultural context of this study is mainly the London tango community. However, the notion of situating the practice of tango dancing within a particular locality is problematic to say the least, particularly when the locality is as multicultural and “transient” as London. Chapter one will discuss how one may conceptualise such a “fieldwork location”, as well as other aspects of the methodology applied for this study.

            Chapter two begins with an outline of the history and global movements of the tango, after which the actual experience of the tango embrace is described. No two tangos will ever feel the same, and therefore such a description can only be a very general approximation of what may occur. It is hoped, however that this description will allow the non-tango reader to imagine the physicality of this very special manner of embracing. For the tango practitioner the description will hopefully resonate with personal experiences, while also helping to “translate” these bodily experiences to the medium of a text.

The description of the tango embrace will emphasize the felt sensations of the embrace, rather than what it looks like for a detached observer, thus underscoring the importance of experiencing the dance for fully comprehending it. In accordance with the aims of the field of sensory anthropology (discussed in chapter three) such an account brings forth the perceptive abilities of all the senses – not merely the sense of sight, which, as argued by sensory anthropologists[4], has dominated the sciences for the last four hundred years.

            A main objective of the field of sensory anthropology is to expose how our way of perceiving the world through our senses is not merely the result of “natural” processes, that in fact sensory experience is permeated with social values (Howes 2005: 3). From this follows that the “senses”


… are not just one more potential field of study, alongside, say, gender, colonialism or material culture. The senses are the media through which we experience and make sense of gender, colonialism or material culture (ibid. 4).


It therefore seemed important to include this discussion of the senses at an early stage in the thesis. Hopefully the reader will then bear in mind – when reading the next chapters – that one’s perception of even the most “natural” sensations or phenomena is inevitably influenced by one’s culture, previous experience, and personal psychology. At least by being aware of such biases we may be able to decrease the power of the dominant ideologies implicated in our perceptive processes.

            After thus describing the physicality of the tango embrace, and discussing how such sensations may be understood in relation to culture, a chapter has been dedicated to describe the event that creates the ideal circumstances for this embrace. This type of event, which is unique to tango culture, is called a milonga. To understand the social dynamics of a milonga I have found it useful to analyse it as “ritual-like”, since the milonga has much in common with what, in anthropology, is generally referred to as a ritual. This approach to the event of a milonga will then allow us to uncover how it is that practitioners may reach an “altered state of consciousness” when dancing the tango. Hopefully it will also open up an understanding of why practitioners behave so differently at the milonga compared to their daily lives. The analysis of these aspects of the dance experience and its social contexts will then form the basis of the discussion, in chapter five, of gender in relation to these practices.

            The embracing tango couple has become a metaphor for many, often contradictory, aspects of human relationships. Sometimes this couple is represented as the epitome of romantic union, sometimes the opposite: as violently opposed forces, passionately pushing and pulling at each other. However, both of these renditions of the tango have also been mocked, turning both romance and violent passion into caricatures. In the last chapter of this thesis the assumption that a macho male leads a submissive female will be turned upside down, as this stereotype is actually far removed from the reality of most dancing couples.

            Famous phrases such as “Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire” by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) show how dancing in general – and perhaps especially the tango – is often a metaphor for the sexual act itself. This would explain why same-sex dancing attracts so much attention, and is met with either encouragement or homophobic disdain. The importance of embodied experience as an un-replaceable “eye-opener” will again be emphasized in chapter five. The embodied “gender role experimentation” that takes place in tango (e.g. females leading males or same-sex dancing) may thus be seen as an interesting tool for re-conceptualising the relationship between “sex”, “gender” and “sexuality”. Chapter five opens with a discussion of these three terms, since an informed understanding of this basic terminology is essential for the following discussion of gender and tango practices.

            The title of this thesis emphasizes that it is the dance, rather than the music or poetry of the tango, which is focused upon here. In reality these different aspects of the tango are closely connected and “feed off” each other, but it was beyond the scope of this study (and my personal abilities) to pay equal amounts of attention to each of these spheres. Nonetheless, the music and the sung lyrics (which I am lucky to understand) have been the irreplaceable guides and comforters on my journey into the mysteries of the tango. 

A variety of themes and theoretical concerns will be discussed in this thesis, but the continuous focus on the tango embrace – as a metaphor, but mainly as a very tangible experience – will hopefully bring together the different threads. As in the dance, I shall attempt to shut out any information that is not useful for the project at hand. Hopefully then, the reader will dance through this text with great pleasure.













Chapter 1




The fieldwork “location”

The geographical and cultural context of the present study has been the London tango community over the last fifteen months, as this is indeed where I have lived and gathered most of my information in this period. However, prior to dancing the tango in London, I lived and danced the tango in Argentina (mainly Buenos Aires), Brighton on the English south coast, and Copenhagen, Denmark. I also danced the tango on trips to Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain and Bosnia, while receiving information (from the internet or personal contacts) about tango dancing in other cities all over the world. Do these other strands of information merely mess up the picture?

If the objective was to describe “a culture” as a specific and unchanging set of beliefs and practices, belonging to a particular place and a particular people, then such scattered pieces of information would indeed seem like obstacles. However, the social sciences have moved on from this conception of culture, and accepted that a culture unaffected by other cultures does not actually exist, and probably never has. What is more, culture is now conceptualised as consisting in peoples’ practices – that is, what people do, and what they think about it (their values or beliefs), rather than what they “are”. As such, culture is ever changing; it can never be “captured” or described once and for all.

            As globalisation is changing the world at a high pace, anthropologists have had to re-conceptualise ethnographic fieldwork, the discipline’s most important method for obtaining its data. Today fieldwork is often transnational in scope, allowing for a better grasp of the complex reality of contemporary cultures and ethnic groups. An example of such “multi-local” fieldwork is Sarah Strauss’ two-year project on ‘the construction of yoga as transnational practice’, carried out in the early 1990s (Strauss 2000:162). After doing preliminary research in India, she spent a year in Rishikesh, a town internationally known as the centre of ancient yoga practices in India, ‘reflecting the traditional requisite for the anthropology Ph.D. at an American university’ (ibid. 167). During the second half of her project, however, she pursued ethnographic research in a range of contexts across Germany, Switzerland, and America, constantly leaving her “home” in Zurich for several weeks at a time (ibid.). In order to connect the many ‘individuals, institutions, communities, ideas, practices and objects’ she encountered, Strauss came up with two concepts, which will also prove useful in relation to a study of tango practices anywhere in the world.

            Firstly she describes the global network of yoga practices, practitioners, locations and ideas, as a matrix. A matrix, she explains, ‘is comprised of two or more vectors’, defining a vector as ‘a quantity having the properties of both direction and magnitude – force, mass, substance of any sort’ (ibid. 168). Her conception of the global yoga matrix as ‘an array of intersecting directional forces capable of transporting ideas, practices, objects or actors across specific pathways’ (ibid. 168) can easily be transferred to the context of tango practices, which appears to have much in common with the global network of yoga practices. She further clarifies:


Matrices are by definition multidimensional, but the degree of dimensionality is infinite, as are, potentially, the boundaries of the matrix. The dimensions of a matrix are determined only by the number and scope of the vectors which comprise it. With these terms, we have a framework for defining non-geographically bounded sites of interactive research (ibid.).


To think in terms of a matrix will help the investigator of tango practices to work with, rather than against, the increasing variety of practices that are all somehow connected to one another and to the past and future. Opting for a more simplistic and “manageable” model may be tempting for researchers who feel overwhelmed by the variety; it may also provide a more pleasurable read (or viewing) for the audience that merely wishes to be told one story that they can easily identify with or “believe in”. This study, however, attempts to incorporate as many aspects of tango culture in London as possible – even if these do not intersect harmoniously or provide one clear picture of what tango in London is, should, or could, be about.

            The other, related concept, expounded by Strauss, is that of “following the practice”. In yoga, and I would argue the same in relation to tango, it is the bodily practice (supported by and supporting its philosophical and aesthetic value system) that unites the community of practitioners, more so than specific locations or individuals (although certain places and iconic figures are important for the practitioners’ shared understanding of the form). Strauss encourages the researcher of transnational (and one may add, multi-ethnic and multi-gendered) communities to ‘follow the practice’ as well as ‘people, things, metaphors, plots/stories, lives and conflicts’ (ibid, 181). As she notes:


While I did indeed follow some individual people from site to site, my effort to understand yoga in its transnational context has largely been a process of following the history and social life of a set of practices, like the Rishikesh Reihe[5], conveyed sometimes by people, sometimes by books, pamphlets or other printed texts, and sometimes by moving images like video or television (ibid.).


Similarly, the tango as a bodily practice can be found in a variety of “spaces”, such as tango lessons or prácticas[6], someone’s living room or back garden, indoor and outdoor milongas, tango shows, concerts or lectures, performances in public spaces, the internet, films, instructional videos, books, magazines, and so forth. Although practiced in so many different locations, by all kinds of people, the movements of the dance – the study of the movements and the enjoyment of them – is what binds it all together, making the tango a “community of practice”. It is the shared understanding of this bodily practice that allows people from diverse cultural and language backgrounds to communicate in the dance.

            The reader will notice how the tango practices in London, described in this thesis, are constantly compared to those of Buenos Aires. This is not merely because I personally find it difficult to let go of happy times spent there. Buenos Aires continues to be an important reference point for tango practitioners all over the world, and a “pilgrimage” to Buenos Aires still seems to be an important step in one’s initiation into the mysteries of the tango. The many questions regarding which milongas one went to in Buenos Aires, whose lessons one attended, and how much time one spent there, confirm the value of these aspects of one’s tango “initiation”. Having said this, not all dancers are equally focused on the “necessity” of going to Buenos Aires. As the tango becomes an increasingly global phenomenon it is possible that Buenos Aires will loose its strong hold in the imagination of practitioners. Nonetheless, the sheer number of tango tourists flooding the streets of Buenos Aires, and the fact that every practitioner I have ever spoken to has either been there already or dreams of going there, are strong indications that this city is still very much the centre of tango activity in the world.


A “humanistic” anthropology

Broadly speaking this study adheres to the tradition of a “humanistic” social anthropology. This implies a valuing of qualitative research methods, as opposed to quantitative methods. A qualitative form of “data collection”, within social anthropology, involves the researcher’s empathetic participation in the culture over a long period of time (Salzman 2001: 366). Within a “humanistic” anthropology the focus is on the particular – that is, the idiosyncrasies of specific cultures, practices and individuals – and therefore the researcher’s personal experiences and encounters form a crucial part of the “data”. Not only does the information obtained through participant observation depend to a large extent on the characteristics of the individual researcher; the interpretation of the information gathered also depends heavily on the researcher. This approach to the study of culture therefore has much in common with fields such as history or literature (ibid.).

A more “scientific” form of anthropological enquiry would attempt to back up the qualitative data with quantitative research strategies, such as statistical surveys, in an effort to ‘limit errors resulting from human subjectivity and bias’ (ibid.). Within this scientific paradigm the objective is ‘the discovery of descriptive generalizations and explanatory laws about the way society and culture work which can account for the commonalities and variations among societies and their trajectories over time’ (ibid.).

Rather than viewing those studies that rely on quantitative strategies and those that rely on qualitative strategies as necessarily opposed to one another, it is perhaps more fruitful to view them as complementary. In an age of “reason”, however, humanistic studies appear undervalued compared to the “hard facts” of science, which appear to speak “the truth”. This study, which privileges the personal, experiential and intuitive, may thus be seen as a confrontation with this imbalance. Historians and philosophers such as Michel Foucault ([1969] 1972) may have deconstructed modern science as heavily influenced by the power structures in which this form of knowledge emerged, but the way in which lay persons often encourage, or even expect, one to use some form of quantitative method reveals a general mistrust of qualitative research. Perhaps it is time we began to trust our own (informed) interpretations and (perhaps non-verbal) sensations, as indeed the wise men and women of other times and places have done (and still do) with great success.  



Anthropologists who have specialised within the sub-field of dance anthropology are particularly aware of the fact that some aspects of social life cannot be measured or counted, or even explained in words. Even so, events that involve dancing – despite the “ephemerality” of dance[7] – have a powerful effect on human consciousness, and therefore also on human organization in a broader sense. Pursuing dance as an academic study is thus bound to reveal interesting clues to the human psyche, physique, and socialization.

            Ethnomusicologist and anthropologist John Blacking (1928-1990), who played an important role in the creation of the field of dance anthropology, cautioned against the use of “scientific” forms of enquiry, when the aim is to understand the experience of dancing. As he argued:


Films, videotapes, and various notations such as Laban and Benesh are all useful tools for referring to the object of study, and could become more important in creating dances; but they cannot describe or explain what is happening as human experience. There is no doubt about the importance and value of notation as a record of movement and as a source for study, but there are real dangers that analyses of written scores, as in music, can lead to all kinds of semiotic extravaganzas if they are not related to the intentions and experiences of choreographers, performers, and spectators in the appropriate social contexts (Blacking 1983: 92-93).  


He therefore advised dance anthropologists to seek information from the practitioners themselves. As he noted,


When pressed to talk about dance and dance experience, and to try to explain its meaning, people who are accustomed only to dance can be quite articulate about their feelings. The language and metaphors they use, and the analogies that they draw, may ultimately be more scientific than any “objective” analysis of their movements (ibid.).


In order to understand the statements made by practitioners of a particular dance form, the researcher’s embodied participation in the dance becomes essential. As dancers (and perhaps the practitioners of any bodily practice that requires a certain level of specialized skill) will know, the sensations experienced while dancing can only be fully comprehended by actually doing it.  This, however, does not mean that all tango dancers feel the same when dancing. Nonetheless, among practitioners, there is a sense of a shared experience of the practice. 

Anthropologist Thomas Csordas is one of the main proponents of an embodied ethnographic approach, and his writings will help clarify what is actually meant by “embodiment”. Of the various approaches to research on the body, within the social sciences, Csordas distinguishes two main categories (Csordas 1993). For the sake of clarity, the first approach will be described as “looking at the body” and the second (embodied) approach as “looking from the body”.


Looking at the body: This approach involves the semiotic paradigm of culture, and any expression of it, as text. The body and its movements are seen as a source of symbolism to be deciphered by the social scientist. This textualist and representationalist paradigm has been dominated by scholars such as Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, and Foucault (Csordas 1993: 135-136). Csordas notes how a strong representa-tionalist bias is evident most notably in the predominance of Foucauldian textual metaphors, such as that social reality is “inscribed in the body”, and that our analyses are forms of “reading the body” (ibid. 136). He also notes that ‘Even Jacksons’s (1989) predominantly phenomenological formulation is cast in terms of the body as a function of knowledge and thought, two terms with strong representationalist connotation’ (ibid.).


Looking from the body: This “embodied” (or “phenomenological”) approach takes “lived experience” as the starting point for cultural analysis, rather than considering the body a mere object of study (Csordas 1993: 136). The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1984), who elaborated upon Mauss’ concept of “habitus”, ‘shifted an earlier focus on the body as a source of symbolism or means of expression to an awareness of the body as the locus of social practice’ (ibid. 135). As opposed to the earlier view of culture as something that resides in people’s minds (the body being a mere instrument of the mind), culture came to be seen as residing in our bodies – and in our minds, the two now perceived as part of one system, rather than hierarchically separated. According to this vision, the body holds knowledge, that is, we know things in a bodily way – things we may not be able to explain nor express verbally.


As observed with regard to “scientific” and “humanistic” approaches within anthropology at large, semiotic and embodied approaches lead to different types of insight and therefore complement each other. However, as Csordas points out, the latter needs to be developed and strengthened in order to be an equal partner to the former.

            Scholarship within dance anthropology stresses the necessity of practicing a dance in order to understand it, and generally holds the kinaesthetic sense in high esteem as a form of intelligence – that is, movement as a way of sensing, understanding and affecting the world.

            Dance scholars wishing to develop an embodied methodology have also found inspiration in the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence or robotics, where new frameworks for conceptualising “the mind” began to take shape in the late 1980s. Researchers in these fields began to reject the notion of the human brain as a “central planner”, replacing it with the notion of “embodied cognition” (Clark 1997: 1-23). Applying the terminology of robotics this means that ‘multiple quasi-independent devices’ exist throughout the body, each of these constituting ‘a self-contained pathway linking sensory input to action’ (ibid, 21-22). Professor of philosophy Andy Clark argues that although these insights have been achieved through experimentation with machines, similar conclusions are unavoidable in the case of human cognition. A powerful argument for discarding with the notion of the mind as controller of the entire system is that fast responses to the real world would not be possible if all information had to be processed in the brain before a physical response could ensue (ibid, 1-6). According to this line of thought we should not merely conceive of the body as a sensing organ, but rather consider the body a thinking system[8], where different parts of the system receive and send messages. Although beyond the scope of this thesis, a more comprehensive study of embodied cognition in relation to dance would surely be an interesting project.

The high level of practical engagement on the part of the dance anthropologist studying a dance culture should be clear at this point. The usual method of “participant observation”, applied in all social anthropological studies, is thus brought to its extreme. What the dance anthropologist does should perhaps then be called “observant participation”, stressing the participatory aspect rather than the distanced, observational aspect of doing fieldwork, while also stressing the ability to observe while participating.

Personally, I danced the tango before engaging in “tango fieldwork”, and I will continue dancing the tango, I hope, into my old age. In other words, I am a tango practitioner on equal footing with all other practitioners – the only difference being that I may be more observant of certain aspects of the dance culture than practitioners who dance purely as a leisure activity.


“Data gathering” and ethical concerns

Throughout the last fifteen months, in which I have been applying observations of other practitioners (together with my own experiences), as well as their spoken and written comments, in numerous university assignments, I have been acutely aware of my double role as an “ordinary” person and as a researcher constantly on the look-out for interesting pieces of information. I never tried to hide my academic engagements; in fact my tango research has been the topic of many a conversation. At the same time, however, I made an effort never to make anyone feel like a “research subject” by overloading people with questions, or taking out a notebook in the middle of a conversation. The only people I have specifically queried about themes I was interested in have been close friends. Generally, however, I find that asking a direct question is not the best way to obtain information. It forces the informant to “think up” something he or she had perhaps never considered, and often results in self-conscious replies. Spontaneous remarks, on the other hand, that arise in relation to particular incidents, appear more sincere. Often they express gut feelings, positive or negative sensations, that the speaker would perhaps not know how to explain rationally. Spontaneous remarks may also reveal opinions that most people would try to gloss over in a polite conversation, or prejudices of which they are unconscious.

I have “documented” milongas by taking still pictures, but it is not uncommon that people take pictures or video at milongas and use these for their websites or for projections at the milonga itself (as a decorative “backdrop” while people are dancing). Generally tango dancers do not seem bothered about having their picture taken while dancing; some even seem to enjoy the attention. One practitioner, however, did mention how uncomfortable it made him feel when he merely wanted to enjoy the dance with his partner. So, although common, taking pictures at milongas should not be exaggerated.

For a period of about eight months I also wrote “fieldnotes” about every milonga I went to, and about particularly interesting conversations. Although this is a good way of sharpening one’s ability to observe details, having to document the personally intense experiences, and “translate” bodily acts and sensations into words, often felt like a strain. The act of writing also made me feel more like an observer; it made me feel different from other practitioners. Such distancing is good for the academic project at certain moments, but I strongly believe that the greatest depth of understanding is gained by fully immersing oneself, physically and emotionally, in the culture and practice of the dance. As a researcher, the moments spent alone, when reading and writing, provide enough distance from the practice itself, as well as inspiration from other sources, to avoid one’s interpretations becoming overly biased or simplistic.

  In line with anthropologist Luke Lassiter’s conception of “collaborative ethnography” (2005) my ethnographic approach has involved more than merely engaging in a dialogue with my informants/friends prior to writing up my own account. Rather, I have sought the views and comments of tango practitioners at every point in the development of this text. Several unexamined papers have been written on a variety of themes in relation to English tango practices (of which extracts have been modified to fit into this thesis) and all of these papers have been read by other tango practitioners, who have then given their feedback. On one occasion, where I described the events of an entire weekend workshop as a “case study”, I had several meetings with the organizer of the workshop and with other participants, which involved these people in every stage of the writing process, making the final account of the weekend a product of this collaborative process. Involving informants/friends in such a manner is not only of great value to the project of analysing a culture; it also provides one’s informants/friends with new concepts and perspectives that they can use for their own projects.

            Finally, the online forum Tango-UK has provided me with invaluable insights into the views of tango practitioners in this country. The forum is mainly used as a notice board for organizers of tango events, but every now and again a heated debate takes place on the forum, making practitioners from all over the UK (as well as some practitioners from abroad) contribute with stories, questions, and provocations to the forum (or to specific users of the forum). Recent debates regarding different gender issues, such as same-sex dancing or the rights and privileges of men and women, have helped me attain a clearer picture of the state of affairs of tango in the UK. What is interesting about these online discussions is that issues that are generally not articulated verbally at a milonga, or at a tango lesson, are discussed freely on the forum. As a supplement to the debates on the forum, I have engaged in private conversations with practitioners, both on and off the internet, and I am grateful for the insights offered through these discussions. In an effort to allow the practitioners’ own voices to be heard, some of their comments on Tango-UK have been included in this thesis.


Chapter 2


The Tango Embrace


The tango embrace in time and across continents

According to tango historian (and teacher and performer) Christine Denniston,


Tango is only the third dance in history done with the man and woman facing each other, with the man holding the woman’s right hand in his left, and with his right arm around her (2003a, accessed online).

The first dance with this particular hold was the Viennese waltz, which was popular in Europe in the early nineteenth century (Strobel, in Cohen 1998: 360). Before the waltz, dances such as the minuet had not involved more physical contact than the holding of hands, and the couples would perform choreographed step patterns (ibid. 359). The second couple dance to use the hold described above, was the Polka, which became fashionable in Europe in the 1840s (ibid. (Vol. 5) 221). The third dance with this kind of embrace was the tango, which introduced the concept of improvisation to a much greater extent than the social dance forms (danced by the upper and middle classes) that preceded it (Denniston 2003a, accessed online).

What we recognize today as the Argentine tango was created in the Rio de la Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay around the 1880s and 1890s. In this period Buenos Aires (in 1880 declared the federal capital of Argentina) was going through enormous social and demographic changes (Savigliano 1995: 244). The country was still recovering from forty years of internal wars following its independence from Spain. However, the beef industry was thriving, bringing increasing numbers of gauchos[9] and soldiers to the city to work in the slaughterhouses. Meanwhile, Europeans, mainly Italian and Spanish but also Northern Europeans, immigrated to Buenos Aires in the thousands.          

In colonial times, Buenos Aires had been one of the ports of entry for the slave trade, and at the time of the tango’s creation the musical and dance tradition of the black community of freed slaves, the candome, was an important part of Buenos Aires’ musical tapestry (Collier 1997: 42-43, 197). Candome dancers would sensually and energetically rub their abdomens and rears against each other, their bodies alternately coming close to each other and moving apart. But they did not embrace (ibid. 43, Savigliano 1995: 30).

Authors such as Collier (ibid. 44-45), political scientist Marta Savigliano (1995: 31-32), and others, all seem to agree that the tango emerged when the black candombe dancers and the lighter-coloured milonga[10] dancers began to take part in each others’ dance events. Referring to the work of George Reid, a historian of Buenos Aires’ black communities, Collier writes,


After the middle of the nineteenth century … younger blacks in particular abandoned the candombe in favour of European imports such as the polka and the mazurka – perhaps as a means of winning greater social acceptance. … some whites reciprocated by imitating the steps and movements of African-Argentine dancers, though it may be doubted whether this was really a case of imitation proving the sincerest form of flattery (Collier 1997: 43).


Similarly, Savigliano writes:


Tango’s choreography emerged out of mutual admiration and scornful disdain among the different races, classes and ethnicities lumped together in the city (Savigliano 1995: 31-32).


She further describes how the compadritos[11] would imitate the skilful movements of the blacks, just as the darker ones would try to ‘rub on some fashionable white elegance’, but knowing they could never “become” white, they would mock the loose embraces of the European Ballroom dances and still maintain the bodily proximity (ibid, 32).

Regarding the question of where in the city (of Buenos Aires or Montevideo) the first tango steps were executed, the popular cliché will state: in the brothels! This is only part of the story. Denniston’s explanation of this aspect of the tango’s beginnings seems plausible. First of all,

It was not in the brothels that Tango was born, but in the courtyards of the tenement blocks where the poor lived. With so many people living together in one building, it was very likely that someone might play the guitar, perhaps someone else might play the violin or the flute, and that from time to time they would get together to play the popular tunes of the time. And other people in the building would take the opportunity to dance, to have a moment of joy in what might be a terribly hard and lonely life (2003b, accessed online).


According to Denniston, the reason we have come to believe the tango was born in the brothels is that this was where the upper and middle classes first encountered it. As she says,

Members of Argentina’s literary classes – the people who are most likely to leave written evidence – did not mix socially with members of the lower, immigrant classes except in brothels (ibid.).


Therefore it was not until these opinion formers discovered the tango in the brothels that it became known to the world outside the conventillos (tenements in poor areas).  

During the first two or three decades of the tango’s existence the middle and upper classes associated the dance with everything they found morally debased and filthy: “lower” classes and races, delinquency, violence and prostitution. However, not all members of the upper classes despised the tango. “Los niños bien”, as they called the young men of wealthy families who frequented the bars and brothels in the poor neighbourhoods, enjoyed dancing the tango. Participating in the tango’s “underworld” was to them ‘a means of escape from moral and social restrictions’ (Castro 1991: 7). In contrast, ‘for the lower classes the tango expressed the frustration and alienation of urban life’ (ibid.).

Needless to say, the upper class females of that period were much more restricted. The Argentine scholar, Magali Saikin, who focused on the tango’s gender readings for her PhD in psychotherapy, remarks that some upper class women did in fact participate in tango culture, but often they would do so in “hidden” ways. A few of these women even composed tango music (some of which became popular tunes!), but usually under male pseudonyms (Saikin 2004: 24-25).    

During the first decade of the twentieth century some of the “niños bien” began to show off their tango skills amongst the Parisian high society, and within a few years the tango became the new dance craze all over Europe. As one excited commentator wrote in the magazine Caras y Caretas in Buenos Aires, 1912: ‘El tango está triunfante, revive, se ha puesto de moda; París y Londres lo han consagrado’ (The tango is triumphant, lives again, has become fashionable; Paris and London have consecrated it). (Cuello 1912: 3, translated by author.)  

However, the tango that spread over Europe and the United States just before World War I, and continued to rage until the beginning of World War II, was not identical with the tango danced in the poor neighbourhoods and brothels of Buenos Aires. European dance masters took it upon themselves to protect the decency of the middle classes by regulating exactly which type of embrace, movements, and style of dress were appropriate for social dancing (as opposed to what one might see at a cabaret (Savigliano 1995: 98-100). Some of these dance masters modified and regulated the tango to the extent that it became an entirely different dance form, today known as Ballroom tango[12].

            After its gentrification abroad, the upper classes in Argentina began to accept the tango. ‘No longer the dance of the compadritos, it had become the smooth tango de salón (Azzi, in Collier 1997: 116). However, as historian Donald Castro notes, ‘only after World War I did the middle classes begin to participate in, and therefore change, the tango; not until the late 1920s did all Argentine classes accept the tango’ (Castro 1991: 7). Some of these changes, and their implications for the performance of gender, will be discussed in chapter five.

            Thus accepted by all social strata, the tango had its “Golden Age” in Argentina between 1920 and 1950. This was also ‘a time when the country was enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity’ (Collier 1997: 115). In the 1950s, 60s and 70s the popularity of the tango fell remarkably, while other genres such as rock-and-roll became more popular with the younger generation. During Argentina’s Dirty War[13], it was illegal for more than 3 people to gather, which meant that the tango had to be practiced in secret (Potter 1997; Taylor 1998: 22-26; Ferguson 1996: 26-30). In this period only the most dedicated souls continued to practice the tango as a dance, while society at large would make a point of only listening to the compositions of, for example, the avant-garde bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992).

            In the 1980s the worldwide success of the show Tango Argentino, created by Claudio Segóvia, brought the tango “back home” by showing the Argentines that tango dancing was much more than merely a nostalgic exercise for the elderly who remembered the tango’s Golden Age. As commented by the voice-over in the 1987 Argentine documentary Bayle Nuestro: ‘You are born again in the world, milonga… as in 1913. When you succeed abroad they love you here’ (Zanada). The tango’s comeback appears to be a lasting one, as a growing number of people of all ages, in most large cities of the world, take up tango dancing.

As a living tradition the tango is ever changing, and new styles of dancing develop all the time. A relatively new style such as tango nuevo (described in ‘Appendix 2’) may receive the comment ‘That is not tango!’ by some of the older milongueros. Nevertheless, the basic technique of this style is still so similar to the more traditional forms of the dance, that practitioners generally regard tango nuevo as just another style of tango. Often tango nuevo dancers themselves try to avoid the label, as they consider themselves merely tango dancers, rather than something separate from the rest of the dance tradition.


Inside the tango embrace: “Caught” or exhilaratingly “free”?

Most people know what an embrace feels like – that it involves another person invading one’s space and enveloping one’s body with his or her arms – and that it may involve feeling crushed by that other person, if not the opposite: disappointment that one was not touched more or for longer.

The tango embrace is different from the usual, friendly embrace, which rarely lasts more than a few seconds, in that it lasts a minimum of three minutes – the duration of a tango. What is more, the tango embrace needs to “collaborate” with intricate footwork, musical rhythms and sentiments, and the rules of a crowded dance floor. Indeed, it is the result of more than a hundred years of choreographic experiments, and usually takes years to learn to master. In other words, the tango embrace involves much more than what people generally think of as an “embrace”.

The following quotation from Canadian film studies scholar and tango dancer, Erin Manning[14], will convey some of the complexities of the tango as an improvised, embraced dance:


Tango is an exchange that depends on the closeness of two bodies, willing to engage with one-another. It is a pact for three minutes, a sensual encounter that guarantees nothing but a listening. And this listening must happen on both sides, for a lead is meaningless if it does not convey a message to a follower. … the lead can never be more than an invitation, as a result of which the movement in response will remain improvised. The dialogue is rich and complex, closer to the heart, perhaps, than many exchanges between strangers and lovers (Manning 2003: point 13).


Indeed, the dancers’ ability to communicate subtle messages, and to receive and respond appropriately to such messages, is constantly challenged when dancing the tango. All forms of communication involve some negotiation of power, but in the tango such negotiations are particularly tangible, as they are expressed through touch and therefore have an immediate physical impact on the body. In the above quotation Manning describes the “ideal” tango where the dancers “listen” carefully to each other. However, for various reasons, this does not always occur.

First of all the dancers must be willing to listen. As we are merely human, such willingness may drop a few degrees if, for example, one has ended up dancing with someone as a matter of politeness, rather than a true desire to connect with the other person.

Secondly, culturally determined ways of using one’s body and of perceiving the entire situation have a major impact on the quality of bodily communication between the dancers, and therefore also on their ability to connect[15].

Thirdly, the physiology of the dancers will have an impact on the ability to connect. Great discrepancies in the physical size and/or capabilities of the dancers will make it more difficult to communicate in the dance. However, with a high level of willingness it is usually possible to find a solution, at least for a couple of tangos.

Finally, the dancers’ individual psychology will have an influence on their communication on the dance floor. The greatest obstacle is perhaps a lack of self-confidence and thus excessive preoccupation with one’s own performance, leaving little room to perceive the other’s messages. As one becomes more competent in the dance this obstacle tends to diminish. The opposite, that one dancer’s ego takes up too much “space”, is also possible. But no matter how skilled a dancer may be, he or she will still have to accommodate his or her dancing to the other person, at least if the idea is to make it a pleasant experience for both dancers.

In relation to the dancers’ psychological baggage it is interesting to note that, as dancers become more competent, they get used to playing out a “spectacle of passion” while dancing, allowing them to leave behind the problems of their daily lives[16]. Acknowledging this theatrical element should not be seen as a lessening of the intensity felt during the dance. A good actor/dancer will become the character he or she plays, for the duration of the scene, thus allowing for a cathartic release. The emotions expressed while dancing may also be seen as a dramatization, or intensification, of feelings already stored within the dancer.


No two people will dance in the same way[17]. As mentioned above, the willingness to connect, as well as cultural, physiological and psychological factors will affect how one moves and what is transmitted to the other person. To further complicate the issue, the variety of tango styles, techniques and philosophies, taught all over the world, makes for an endless variety with regard to what one may encounter on the dance floor. Some like to be “glued” to their dance partner from knee to forehead, and some prefer a completely open embrace where one holds on to the partner at the upper arm and hand.

Between these two extremes exist a range of possibilities: the dancers may be in a close embrace from the chest (or navel) upwards (or merely the arms and head being close, chests not touching), with their lower bodies apart – thus creating an ascending triangular shape (or “A” shape). This style of dancing is often referred to as milonguero style (see ‘Appendix 2’). If the man is much taller than the woman, in his effort to “reach” her, it may look as if he is bending over her. If he is short and overweight it may look as if the woman is “lying” on his stomach (generally a comfortable position for the follower!).

The dancers may be facing each other almost front on, or they may be very close on the side where they have their arms around each other (the woman’s left arm around his neck, his right arm around her back) and then open up more to the side where the hands hold.

Some prefer a strong handhold, whereas others prefer merely a light touch. Such preferences, together with the many factors mentioned above, are also related to the leader’s dance style and choice of movements. If he wishes to do many complicated figures it is likely he will need to “steer” the follower on both sides (made possible by both dancers having a firm grip on each other[18]). However, if they dance mainly in a close embrace and/or have a good upper body connection, he will not need to use any strength in his arms or hands. It is generally more comfortable for the follower to dance with a leader who leads “from the chest”[19] (whether in a closed or open embrace), rather than one who pulls her about. Similarly, it is more comfortable for the leader if the follower does not “hang” on his neck or put a lot of her weight on his chest. While maintaining the closeness that is necessary for moving in unison, the follower should try to be over her own axis (not an easy combination!), which will allow both dancers to move more freely.

Just as leaders have their preferences or (unconscious) habits, so do followers. In an informal group conversation about different dance styles, I once heard a middle-aged Argentine woman exclaim: ‘Me gusta que el hombre me marca fuerte!’ (‘I like that the man leads me strongly!’). At the opposite extreme, other women get put off by a strong lead because it makes them feel contrived and less in control of their own movements and timing. These differences in how dancers perceive their experiences on the dance floor are influenced by generational, cultural, psychological, and other factors.

In a close embrace it gives extra support if the heads touch (usually the follower will face the leader, thus having her forehead on the side of his head) but not all dancers like being so close (perhaps because it somewhat limits the freedom of movement, can be uncomfortable, or because it may get very sweaty). At the opposite extreme, some press their head so hard against one’s head that it leads to a cramp-like pain in the neck, as one is forced to resist the other’s head with equal amounts of strength.

A lack of tactile communication will often lead to stiff and uncomfortable positions, which may even result in a traumatic dance experience. On the other hand, if the tactile communication does work out and other factors such as music, available space, etc. are also amenable, the dance may be experienced as an intensely sensuous melting of two bodies into one.


Embracing the multi-sensory experience

As mentioned in the prologue, the body “speaks” and it is difficult to hide anything in the close embrace. It therefore takes a great deal of courage to enter into that kind of intimacy with complete strangers (or with people one knows well but may not wish to be physically close to). Despite the “dangers” of either perceiving things about one’s dance partner that one would rather not know, or of giving away information about oneself that one would rather not reveal, the tango is more than anything a celebration of our ability to sense the world around us, our dance partners, and our own inner states. The following description is an attempt at capturing the multi-sensory experience of dancing the tango at a milonga.


When dancing… one hears the notes of the music; the sound enters the body. One hears the other person breathing, a heel stamping out a beat or “slicing” the floor in a slow decoration, perhaps a giggle of confusion, or a sigh letting out some of the tension.

The leader of the dance sees and “measures” the available space but often the surroundings are only perceived out of the corner of the eye, allowing most of the leader’s attention to be directed at his dance partner, and at thinking up the appropriate movements then and there. The follower, on the other hand, may have her eyes closed, or be focusing entirely on the partner’s throat, thereby shutting out unnecessary visual information from the surroundings. If bored or uncomfortable, the follower might “escape” the confines of the embrace by looking at the surroundings, directing some of her attention away from her dance partner.

In the close embrace one suddenly notices the other person’s odours: sweat, perfume, bad breath, and so forth. The sense of taste plays a minor role when dancing the tango, as eating, sucking or kissing generally does not occur while dancing.

The sense of touch, on the other hand, plays a key role. The proximity of the bodies and the pressure applied to different parts of the body determine various aspects of the dance experience. Other tactile sensory experiences also occur, such as sweaty hands or trembling (if one dancer is extremely nervous), a partner’s collar or hairclip irritating one’s skin, sore feet or other kinds of pain, or even injuries (occurring mainly when bumping into other couples). The music is also sensed tactually, since the skin ‘is capable of responding to sound waves just as it is to those of pressure’ (Montagu 1986: 308). As biological and social scientist Ashley Montagu (1905-1999) noted, some types of music – lullabies, for example – have particularly soothing tactile qualities (ibid, 311). The tangos composed between the 1920s and 1940s, most of which follow a steady 2/4 “heartbeat” rhythm, undoubtedly have this quality as well. One feels caressed by the music.

The “kinaesthetic sense”, also called the movement sense, receives and processes information about the posture, location, and movement in space of the limbs, while the “vestibular sense”, i.e. our sense of balance (which arises from two vestibular structures within the inner ear), provides information about gravity and linear and rotary movement (Schiffman 1997: 236). The vestibular sense also assists in the maintenance of an upright posture (ibid. 237-38), and in one’s awareness of being tilted or whirled about (Farnell 2003, accessed online). These two senses, although not commonly thought of as “senses” on equal terms with, for example, sight or hearing, are essential for perceiving the corporal messages from one’s dance partner, and for managing one’s own movements. The kinaesthetic and vestibular senses, just as the other four senses essential for tango dancing (i.e. excluding the sense of taste), can be trained and sensitised through continuous practice. They can also be impaired through, for example, excessive drinking of alcohol or exhaustion.

Finally, emotional sensitivity or intuition could be described as another sense that is crucial for tango dancing. Of course it is possible to dance a tango whilst barely paying any attention to the other person’s emotional state (and physical and technical abilities) but such a tango is unlikely to be a fulfilling experience for either dancer. Some practitioners might even argue that dancing with no connection or empathy equals not dancing the tango. Or as the old milongueros in Buenos Aires admonished a man who had exhibited a lack of engagement with his dance partner: ‘When you dance tango you must give everything. Wait for the right music, and then give EVERYTHING! If you can’t do that, do not dance’ (McGarrey 2006, accessed online).














Chapter 3


Sensory Anthropology

To begin to understand the sensuous experience of the tango embrace in relation to history, culture and gender, some of the concepts developed within the relatively new field of sensory anthropology will be of help. The parameters of race, class and age also have a tremendous impact on how tango dancing is experienced. It is beyond the scope of this thesis, however, to fully elaborate on these.


A tango “sensorium”?

Until recently the study of human perception and sensation was considered a purely physiological matter belonging to the field of neurobiology (Howes 2006: 114). However, the sensual revolution in the humanities, social sciences and the arts – which is part of a general trend in contemporary scholarship of questioning the Western scientific paradigm – has brought to our attention the multiplicity of formations of the senses in different cultures and historical periods (Bull et al. 2006: 5). Within sensory studies such a formation of the senses is termed a “sensorium”, meaning ‘the entire perceptual apparatus as an operational complex’ (ibid.). The sensorium of a particular time and place is understood as ‘an ever-shifting social and historical construct’ (ibid.). Such a conception of the senses is radically different from that of the Western scientific tradition, which sees the senses as simply a matter of cognitive processes or neurological processes located in the individual subject (ibid.). Sensory anthropology’s project is to tease out how sensory experience is in fact permeated with social values. As anthropologist David Howes says,


Tastes and sounds and touches are imbued with meaning and carefully hierarchized and regulated so as to express and enforce the social and cosmic order. This system of sensory values is never entirely articulated through language, but it is practiced and experienced (and sometimes challenged), by humans as culture bearers (2005: 3).


In other words, because the senses are implicated in the fabric of culture, as created and recreated by human beings, it is indeed within the subject matter of the social sciences. 

            As a means of uncovering the historical and social constructedness of Western culture’s particular sensorium, much scholarship within sensory studies focuses on explaining the sensoria of other historical periods, thus historicizing how we have come to know the world in the particular fashion that we do. An example of such a study is Lissa Roberts’ investigation of the late eighteenth century transition of chemistry from a field of human technique and sensuous analysis to a domain of laboratory technology and mathematical analysis (Howes 2005: 56). In pre-modern and early modern times complex bodily techniques, involving the senses of smell and taste, were used to investigate the characteristics of natural phenomena. However, with the arrival of modern science, the “instrument” of the scientist’s own body was taken over by the precision instruments of the laboratory[20] (ibid, 57). This is just one of many examples of how, within Western science, the “distance” sense of vision gained in importance, overshadowing the “proximity” senses of taste, smell and touch. Such changes in the values ascribed to different senses will eventually have an effect on the way the members of a society know and relate to the world that surrounds them. 

            Ethnographic studies that explain the sensoria of non-Western cultures, or of counter cultures within Western society, also serve to bring out the constructedness of the Western scientific (male dominated) paradigm, which still has a very strong hold in Western culture. One such “sensory ethnography” is Kathryn Linn Geurts’ Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community (2002), in which she analyses the sensorium of the Ewe-speaking Anlo people of south-eastern Ghana. Whereas we in the West relate to ourselves and our surroundings very much through the external senses of sight and hearing (“exteroception”), in Anlo-Ewe culture the inner senses of proprioception[21] and kinaesthesia (“interoception”) play an equally important role (Howes 2006: 116; Geurts 2005). Geurts uses her findings in the Anlo-Ewe community, as well as her own experiences of this alternative way of being-in-the-world, to question the notion that consciousness equals the ability to produce a visual representation of what is happening. Rather than conceptualising consciousness purely in terms of this ability to translate experience into language or symbols, her Anlo-Ewe material suggests that consciousness may also be understood as a “feeling in the body” (Geurts 2005).

            Of paramount importance in sensory ethnography is the ethnographer’s physical participation in the events that take place, that is, an empathetic and experiential identification with one’s informants (Howes 2006: 116). As anthropologist Phil Jackson states in relation to his years of participation in the English club scene: ‘The knowledge found in clubs is an embodied knowledge that you can feel deep in your guts and it must be lived if it is to be truly comprehended’ (2004: 1). The same, I would argue, is the case with tango dancing. Perhaps this is so because both clubbing and tango dancing can lead to altered states of consciousness. Whereas in clubbing an altered state of consciousness is often induced by drugs, in tango reaching such a state depends, to a much larger extent, on one’s own sustained effort.

The description of the sensory implications of tango dancing (in the previous chapter) showed the importance of particular senses: the sense of touch, the kinaesthetic and vestibular senses, the sense of hearing and that of smell, the intuitive sense, and perhaps less so, the sense of sight. The way in which these senses are valued and applied in tango is different from the way these senses are understood in mainstream Western society. Tango dancers thus sensitise their bodies in an extraordinary way compared to the members of other parts of Western culture, and thereby may alter their very perception of different sensations. As a particular formation of the senses, it therefore makes sense to talk of a “tango sensorium”.

Is touch “male” or “female”?

Asking whether a sense is gendered may seem bizarre, since we all, theoretically speaking, can touch or be touched. However, expressions such as ‘the female touch’ reveal that certain associations do exist between the different senses and genders.

            In ‘The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination’ (1998) cultural historian Constance Classen traces the connections between the cosmological, gender-specific, and aesthetic ideologies in a historical overview of sensory symbolism. Of particular relevance to a cross-cultural study of gender dynamics in the Argentine tango is her take on sensory symbolism and practices in relation to gender roles. The following extract will make clear why it is so important to uncover the history of the senses:  


The cloak spread over the history of the senses in modernity has also obscured other domains of history, notably, women’s history. Women have traditionally been associated with the senses in Western culture, and in particular, with the “lower” senses. Women are the forbidden taste, the mysterious smell, the dangerous touch. Men, by contrast, have been associated with reason, as opposed to the senses, or else with sight or hearing as the most “rational” of the senses. The occultation of the sensory underpinnings of Western culture by the modern visual and rational world view may therefore be read as an occultation of certain feminine dimensions of that culture (Classen 1998: 1-2).


Let us begin by first of all asking why it is that women were, and in many ways still are, associated more with the sense of touch than men are. Is it that the female sex is just “naturally” more prone to physical contact and/or less interested in the visual and aural aspects of social life? The answer to this must be no, since the variety of “female behaviour” is just as great as the number of individuals that go into the category “woman”. To make a generalization regarding female characteristics on such a scale, particularly nowadays when females are immersed in all social spheres, would be absurd. Following Classen’s cue, it seems more likely that


The gender-coding of the senses served to explain and legitimate the assignation of different social spheres to men and women. Men’s star-set mastery of the distance senses of sight and hearing empowered them to travel, to read and write, to conquer and govern. As the guardians of the proximity senses of smell, taste, and touch, women’s place was in the home, cooking, sewing, and taking care of their families (1998: 6-7). 


The senses associated with women began to take on more negative connotations during the Renaissance when a rationalist model of the world began to gain strength. “Women’s senses”, that is, the sense of smell, taste, and touch, which were linked with sensuality, intuition, and emotion, came to be seen as dangerous obstacles to the establishment of modern scientific practices. Classen sees the witch hunts of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century as a consequence of such sentiments. As she says,


The obsession with the witch’s supernatural sense of smell, her seductive/destructive touch, her evil eye, her gluttonous appetite, and her poisonous speech all evidence anxiety over female sensory powers. When the enthronement of the scientific world view was finally assured in the late eighteenth century, the figure of the witch ceased to threaten the cosmic and social order with her transgressive female sensuality. In a masculine age of reason, the expectation was that “irrational” feminine sensibilities could henceforth be contained and controlled (ibid. 6).  


However, “Man’s” control over “nature”, “drives”, or sensuality can never – and should never – be complete. As even “men of science”, such as Ashley Montagu, assert: the human species needs large amounts of caressing, and other forms of loving care, for its survival (1986)[22]. A cultivation of the proximity senses is therefore a highly rational project.

            Montagu himself, however, is not free from making stereotypical associations between females and touch when, for example, he writes: ‘Tactile stimulation is much more meaningful to females than it is to males’ (1986: 233). To enforce this claim, he notes:


Sex differences in tactile sensibility become apparent very soon after birth. Girls having lower touch and pain thresholds than boys, a difference which remains throughout life. At all ages the female is very much more responsive to tactile stimuli than the male, and more dependent on touch for sexual arousal than the male, who depends more upon visual stimuli. The difference seems to be, at least in part, genetic, but cultural differences undoubtedly also play a role in the development of tactual responsiveness as between the sexes (ibid.).


A couple of pages later, however, he mentions several studies of childrearing patterns in the United States, which evidenced that ‘baby girls received more demonstrations of affection than boys, and that mothers seemed happier about having girl babies than they were about having boy babies’ or that ‘girls were weaned later than boys, suggesting … a more indulgent attitude to girls’ (ibid. 235)[23]. Another study showed that ‘boys are handled less, caressed less often, and held for shorter periods than girls’ (ibid.). This leads Montagu to admit that an individual’s tactile experiences in early childhood are likely to have a significant impact on that person’s behaviour throughout life (ibid.).

            That women are indeed still associated more with touch than are men was confirmed to me by a comment made recently at a London milonga. A competent male dancer commented that closeness and touch seemed to be more important for female tango dancers; at least that was his impression after years of going to milongas and practising the tango with different dance partners.

A variety of issues here would be interesting to investigate further: Whether such comments should be interpreted as a form of male chauvinism. And if his observation merely reflects reality, why women are more interested in touch. Is it (partly) genetically determined? Or is it entirely a result of female socialization (including society’s expectation that women are more “touchy”, “feely” and “nurturing” than men)? Finally, it is also possible that this informant’s observation does not reflect reality, that in fact men and women are equally interested in touch, and that he expresses such a view – not because he is a male chauvinist – but simply because it is a common conception… that may or may not have any truth to it.

What makes the tango so problematic, from a feminist perspective, is that the traditional set-up (of an “observant” male leading a “blind” female follower around the dance floor) appears to only strengthen male domination over women, if not women’s “unconscious” or “passive” social role. Classen notes that ‘the blind are symbolically female, just as women are symbolically blind’ (1998: 10) and the tango seems to emphasize such associations. However, as soon as people begin actually to learn the tango, they realize how dependent the leader and follower are on each other – and that the follower in the dance can even be the most dominating of the two! The leader’s efforts are worthless if the follower does not understand what is led – or, if for some reason, she chooses not to respond enthusiastically to the lead.

            Returning to the view from the outside: if the performance of a traditional tango couple appears to reinforce male domination, then playing with, or reversing, this traditional set-up can have a very strong effect. There is no reason a woman could not lead a man, or two individuals of the same sex dance with each other, or that the dancers swap between leading and following during a tango. The possibilities are endless, and, as mentioned earlier, as an embodied practice the tango may offer a particularly interesting domain for experimenting with gender identities, that is, for experiencing the “Other’s” role. Classen seems to encourage exactly this kind of artistic practice when she writes:


The symbolic overlap between the blind and women in the Western tradition means that creating a space for the alternative aesthetic experiences of the blind may help open up new domains for the artistic expression of women’s experiences. The notion of an art of tactilities or aromas seems to hold, however ephemerally, the tantalizing promise of a medium of aesthetic communication untainted by a history of exclusionary doctrines and practices (ibid.).













Chapter 4


The Milonga: Temple of the Embrace


Cult or subculture?

In joking conversation practitioners who meet at a milonga might talk about how, once again, we have gathered to worship the “tango god”. Sometimes, being part of a community of tango “addicts”, who dance most days of the week and have little energy left to stay in touch with non-tango friends, can feel like being a member of some esoteric cult. Perhaps this feeling is enhanced by the fact that non-tango friends and family often cannot comprehend one’s “addiction”. Sometimes, one halts for a few seconds to think ‘have I gone mad?’… before being seduced into yet another tango embrace. 

            The tango community, however, is not a cult. Referring to the work of tango dancer and sociologist Paula-Irene Villa, the Danish tango practitioner Mads Bruun Pedersen writes:


Tangoen er ingen religion, holder ikke fast på sine medlemmer, straffer ikke afhoppere. Derimod er tangoen helt klart en subkultur… Tangoen har noget, som binder mennesker vældig stærkt sammen. … en subkultur kan tilfredsstille menneskers behov for symboler og ritualer på nogenlunde same måde som en religion. Således har tangoen sine mytologiske helte som Carlos Gardel, og milongaen har sine koder. Danserne klær sig på en bestemt måde og diskuterer trin og teknikaliteter på en made, som kun indviede forstår.

      (The tango is not a religion, does not attempt to hold on to its members, does not punish defectors. Rather, the tango is clearly a subculture… The tango has something that connects people in a very strong way.  … a subculture can satisfy people’s need for symbols and rituals in approximately the same way that a religion does. The tango has its mythological heroes such as Carlos Gardel, and the milonga has its codes. The dancers dress in a certain way, and discuss steps and technicalities in a way that only initiates understand.)

(Bruun Pedersen 2005: 12, translated by author)[24].


However, as Villa also remarks, ‘it is not about getting a new identity, as in the cults, but about a kind of role-play’ (Villa, in ibid.).


Tango “rituals”

Of all the activities related to non-professional, social tango dancing, this study sees the milonga event as the most important. It is the tango’s “magical space” where daily reality and ordinary rules for social comportment recede and a different set of rules takes over. In order to understand the social dynamics of a milonga, the different components and phases of the event may usefully be analysed as “ritual-like”.

Religious scholar Catherine Bell notes that a common conception of ritual is that it is a set of activities inherently different from daily routine action and linked to the sacralities of tradition and organized religion (1997: 138). In contemporary Western society this entails that ritual is often viewed as somewhat antiquated and therefore at odds with modernity. To some extent a milonga may indeed be viewed as a colourful expression of tradition, or as a reliving of the past. A few practitioners in London seem to cultivate this aspect of the tango by, for example, dressing in the style of the 1920s. However, the approach taken here is one that focuses on relatively common activities that have been “ritualised”. Following Bell’s example, ritual will not be studied as an essentially different type of activity; rather the activities related to a milonga will be conceived of as daily, secular acts that have gone through a process of ritualisation.

What makes these acts ritual-like will be discussed in the following description of milonga practices. The description is inspired by the work of Arnold Van Gennep (1873-1957) and Victor Turner (1920-83), both anthropologists and “classic theorists” of ritual. The conception of ritual and “magic” of contemporary British magicians, as investigated by anthropologist Susan Greenwood, will also prove surprisingly useful for this analysis of tango practices.

Observing that rituals around the world often relate to the “passage” of people from one position in society to another, Van Gennep called this type of ritual a “rite of passage” (Schultz & Lavenda 1987: 177). An important concept in relation to Van Gennep’s analysis of ritual is that of “liminality”, derived from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold” (Barnard and Spencer 2001: 489). The “liminal” phase of a rite of passage is when ‘things are not as they are in the ordinary world’ and ordinary social roles may be suspended or reversed (ibid. 489, 611). Participants are ‘betwixt and between their former social position and the new position to which they are moving’ (ibid. 611). Prior to the liminal phase participants go through a “preliminary” phase of separation from ordinary society (ibid.) and of being “stripped” of their old identities (Schultz & Lavender 1987: 177). When the liminal phase finishes, a “postliminal” phase will allow the participants to return to the ordinary social world. In this phase a participant’s new social identity or status (if achieved) is also confirmed (ibid.).

Although going to a milonga does not involve passing from “child” to “adult” status, or unmarried to married status, it does involve the hard work of reconfirming one’s status as a dancer. Savigliano describes the transition from a low-status wallflower to a high-status ‘object of desire’ as one that every woman (and, to a lesser extent, every man) must go through at every milonga:


A woman’s wallflower position will be tested every single night at the milonga, no matter how good a dancer she is. The events of the night, some of which are easier to predict than others, will bring her, more or less successfully, out of this position and closer to its opposite, the one of the dancing femme fatale (Savigliano 1998: 109).


Thus conceptualising the milonga in terms of the structure of a rite of passage, the following sub-sections will follow the phases of such a ritual.





The “preliminary” phase: Preparing for the milonga

Tango practitioners may have boring office jobs, occupy high or low positions at work or at academic institutions, be mothers of fathers, but these aspects of their identities are often left behind, if not reversed[25], as they prepare for the night. As Sonia Abadi writes:


Sale de la oficina al final de la tarde, cara de hombre serio, ¡quién diría! De Clark Kent a Superman, en pocas cuadras se transforma: perfume, zapatos de suela…

      (He leaves the office at the end of the afternoon, the face of a serious man – who would have thought! From Clark Kent to Superman, in a few blocks he transforms: perfume, leather-soled shoes…)

(2003: 39, translated by author.)


As noted by Abadi as well as by anthropologist and dancer, Julie Taylor (1998: 26), it is common in Buenos Aires that milongueros always carry with them the essential objects for the make-over: deodorant, chewing gum, dancing shoes and perhaps another set of clothes. This may also occur in London, but perhaps not in the same routinised manner, the simple reason being that there are fewer milongas in London and therefore fewer opportunities to simply drop in at a milonga wherever one happens to be.

            As will be elaborated upon in the next chapter the physical make-over is an important aspect of entering the “role-play” of the milonga. Often women spend a long time “powdering their noses” prior to entering the dance salon, in an attempt to become more ladylike. As one frustrated practitioner commented in one of these “toilet conversations” (while changing into something more elegant):  ‘Ah! I’m nowhere near female yet!’

            These last-minute preparations are preceded by the long-term preparations of acquiring the correct shoes and clothes (elaborated upon in the next chapter) and, of course, spending hours of practice in dance studios (or other practice spaces) in order to perfect one’s dancing skills. Being knowledgeable about the music and history of the tango may also add to one’s “tanguidad” (tangoness), and therefore familiarizing oneself with these aspects of the cultural form could also be seen as preparation for the milonga as the place where one gets to impress other practitioners.


The “liminal” phase: Inside the “temple”

A milonga can in principle take place anywhere that has a somewhat decent floor, at any time of the day. I have attended milongas in parks, on city squares, on the docks of canals, school gyms, class rooms, dance studios, church halls, and living rooms – in sunshine, moonlight, candlelight, rain and storm. The place where a milonga is held, therefore, does not in itself make it a milonga. These places serve other purposes at other moments, and therefore the physical location must be altered to turn it into a milonga. The most important component here is the music; there must be a constant flow of tango music, preferably chosen by a DJ who knows people’s taste, and organized into “tandas”. A “tanda” consists of three or four songs of a similar style, either tango (old or more modern compositions), tango vals, milonga, or tango nuevo. Between each tanda there is a “cortina” (curtain), that is, a few seconds of non-tango music which indicates the end of the tanda.  

            At a milonga in a park in Barcelona, the DJ carried his loud speakers on a trolley. When the “official” milonga had finished, a group of dancers followed the loudspeakers that were pushed around in the streets, stopping here and there for another few dances, thereby making it a “mobile” milonga. Similarly, a man in Copenhagen used the sound system of his old Volvo and would organize milongas in public places, wherever he could park the car and play music. These milongas, advertised on the internet on a week-to-week basis, were called ‘VolvoTango’.

            A more traditional location is an indoor dance salon, but there may be a dance lesson before the actual milonga begins. When the lesson finishes, the lights are dimmed, candles lit, the DJ puts on the music, people’s interactions become more codified, and then it is a milonga.

            One of the codes for interaction that may be particularly difficult for newcomers to learn is the “cabeceo”, the gesture used to invite a woman for a dance. The cabeceo involves a ‘slight tilt of the head after the man has made visual contact with the woman from a distance’ (Sabá 2004: 101). Julie Taylor, an American anthropologist who lived and danced the tango in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s, describes how, to her, learning to hold the man’s gaze (and thereby accept the invitation) was much harder than the technicalities of the dance itself (Taylor 1998: 38-39). In the traditional milongas, particularly those in Buenos Aires, this way of inviting a woman for a dance is still very much in use, but in London much less so. Nonetheless, most dancers in this part of the world are aware of such traditional codes and therefore consciously neglect to apply them if they are at a less formal milonga. The cabeceo functions as a face-saving device in that a man can invite a woman without anyone else in the room noticing. If she declines (by looking the other way) no-one else will know that he was rejected. If she accepts, they will meet on the dance floor, as if telepathically having decided to do so. The gesture of the cabeceo developed in an environment of “macho” men competing for dances with the few available women, and may perhaps seem old-fashioned. Having said this, rejection is always painful and public rejection perhaps even more so. Therefore, by upholding such codes, the interaction between dancers – in the intensely emotional atmosphere of the milonga – could perhaps involve less friction. Women may have good reasons not to want to dance with certain men. As one female practitioner stated in a recent discussion on Tango-UK:


A lot of us don’t want to dance with men who won’t go to lessons and get corrected – because we’re tired of having our backs done in, we’re tired of men suffocating us with a brick embrace, we don’t want heads leaning over staring at the floor and knocking us off balance, we don’t want to be prodded, we don’t want to be shoved around! (Anon. 2006, accessed online.)


As the cabeceo is clearly not the norm in London, the frustrated female dancer continues,


What is the best way to say no without appearing to be a snobbish tango bitch? … A lot of men DON’T get the polite signs – when we avoid eye contact or suddenly go to the toilet or get into a deep conversation. Some men don’t even take no for an answer and continue to hound women on the basis (I guess) that eventually we’ll feel so guilty we’ll say yes? (ibid.)

Perhaps one reason the cabeceo is falling out of fashion is that women no longer necessarily wait for invitations from men, but rather seek dances in very direct ways. In this sense, the changing codes of the milonga may empower women (or at least be a result of women’s empowerment). However, as the quotation shows, letting go of formalities such as the cabeceo may also lead to less freedom of choice regarding dance partners. Perhaps the solution would be that men and women can invite each other, both sexes applying the cabeceo, and both accepting polite rejections.


Once on the dance floor, a whole new set of challenges arise in relation to all the other couples already there. Only at very few venues in London does the dance floor get crowded. What “crowded” means will depend on each dancer’s perception of the situation. What is more, whether or not a dance floor feels overcrowded is not merely a matter of numbers; it depends on the dancers’ level of dancing, knowledge of milonga codes, “floor craft”, and general sense of community.

            What the un-initiated onlooker will not know is that the dance floor is in fact regulated by “traffic rules” in order to avoid jams or collisions. First of all the couples move around the dance floor counter clock-wise. In most other contemporary social dance forms this constant circular movement does not exist. In popular couple dances such as swing or salsa, for example, the couples dance on the same spot. The circular movement is divided into lanes – two or three lanes, perhaps more, depending on the size of the dance floor, while the middle of the floor is less regulated. If all the leaders move around the floor in the same steady speed, and stick to their own lane, they will be able to calculate how much space is available and for how long, and then lead their partners accordingly, avoiding collisions with other couples.

The traditional milongas of Buenos Aires are famous for packing in extraordinary amounts of people on the dance floor, and no-one getting hurt! In other parts of the world the issue is often more problematic. One thing I have heard several leaders complain about in London is that the leaders here do not follow the music in the same way. If other leaders do not follow the same speed, or if they make sudden, unexpected moves, a leader has no way of knowing when he can safely move forward. Certain moments in the music “invite” the dancers to pause and make figures (if the space allows it) while other parts of the music are good for moving forward at a steady pace. But apparently many leaders in London do not pay attention to such changes in the music.

What the follower can do to avoid painful collisions is to control her footwork. On a crowded dance floor she will have to accept taking shorter steps and not doing voleos[26] unless they are clearly led. However, some leaders may hope for more help than that; as a man wrote on Tango-UK:


One teacher asked the women/men to help the men/women navigate around the dance-floor, presumably with their eyes open. We try our best to lead well, but I for one am grateful for a partner’s help to avoid a collision, be it a squeeze of the hand or a full blown stop! (Anon. 2006, accessed online.)


A female practitioner then commented on the above remark:


Sure, it is fine to help for a while, but that can sometimes make men/leaders lazy plus there are other things to do too, which often seem invisible to the men too concerned with their lead only! (Ibid.)


The same female practitioner (a respected teacher, performer and organizer of tango events in the UK) argued that the follower in the dance should not only be allowed to have her (or his) eyes closed, but that in fact this serves an important purpose. As she explains with regard to closing her eyes while dancing:


I can then become “eye” aware of other elements as important WITHIN the dance as its direction WITHOUT, which have to do with emotion and a kind of catharsis, something that my role of a follower is there to strongly bring about, in my view (ibid.).


Another feature of English tango dancing (again, compared to the dance practices of Buenos Aires), which has an enormous impact on the sharing of floor space, is the style of dancing. Many dancers in this country love flashy figures – perhaps because the tango that inspired them to learn the dance is the tango of the shows – and either they do not know how to modify their style to fit in with the available space, or they simply do not want to change it (despite the cost of injuring themselves and others!).

            Susana Miller, an Argentine teacher of milonguero style tango (see ‘Appendix 2’), based in Buenos Aires, says about the relationship between show tango (for the stage) and tango de salón (for the milonga):


It is due to those fine, skilled dancers [of the shows], true artists and thanks to their inspiration… that tango is known worldwide, but the origin of tango was the salon, a place where it still resides full of life. This tango form has to do with the passion that awakens and grows in the couple, with a particular handling of the space and with a special combination of rhythms. This is the reason that those that live abroad discover in Buenos Aires a different tango and finally understand that stage tango belongs to the stage.

(Published in El Tangauta, a Buenos Aires tango magazine, in the 1990s,

reprinted on Tango-UK by anonymous, 2006, accessed online).


Aside from show tango, tango nuevo is now also inspiring many dancers to do more kicks and flashy moves, and again, some of these dancers either cannot or will not accommodate their dancing to the circumstances.

            Tom Stermitz, a milonga organizer in Denver, USA, wrote an article on floor craft, discussing the issues just mentioned. At the end of the article he asks: ‘Can you reach tango heaven when it is so crowded?’ (Stermitz 2006, accessed online), to which he answers:


For me it is precisely this crowd energy that completes the tango trance. It takes getting used to, but there is an amazing intuitive aura that comes over me when I reach that stage. Steps happen to the music by themselves, and I become the watcher of the game… Kind of zen-like (ibid.).


The people who learn to appreciate a crowded dance floor in this way tend to be those who have experienced the packed milongas in Buenos Aires, where the connection to the music and the connection within the couple is more important than fancy figures, allowing for a more enjoyable co-existence with other couples on the floor. One wonders whether a trip to “tango Mecca” is necessary to develop such an understanding of the tango, or whether there are places in other parts of the world where tango communities have achieved similarly harmonious conditions on their dance floors.


Aside from the cabeceo and the codes of conduct on the dance floor, other little gestures and types of interaction are also specific to the milonga: the way one sits or walks, the way one orders a drink, the way a man will allow his partner on to the dance floor first, the fact that it would seem impolite not at least to dance a full tanda (i.e. three or four songs) with one’s partner, and so forth. That tango practitioners choose to spend their Saturday night in such a “rule bound” environment may seem strange when explained to non-tango dancers. However, such rules and codified behaviour, together with the symbols of particular forms of dress, are exactly what give the milonga its “magical” feel. Catherine Bell mentions as typical characteristics of ritual action “formalism”, “invariance”, and “rule-governance”. The following is a brief outline of what these terms imply and how they may be observed at a milonga.



‘Formality’, notes Bell, ‘is one of the most frequently cited characteristics of ritual… the more formal a series of movements and activities, the more ritual-like they are apt to seem to us’ (Bell, 1997: 139). Indeed, what often seems to strike non-tango dancers who happen to observe a milonga, is the serious or concentrated appearance of the couples on the dance floor, the often elegant and/or conservative style of dress, and the lack of frivolity one would normally encounter in a room with music and people dancing. I have often seen such “outsiders” stand in the doorway, staring open-mouthed at this strange phenomenon; sometimes they will even giggle at this unexpected sight, not quite knowing how to react. I have also heard the awestruck comment: ‘These people are dancing really close!’ 



The quality of invariance can usually be observed in ritualistic practices in the form of ‘a disciplined set of actions marked by precise repetition and physical control’ (ibid, 150). As opposed to traditionalism, which appeals to the authority of the past that subordinates the present, invariance is more concerned with ignoring the passage of time in general. The significance of the personal and particular moment is suppressed in favour of the timeless authority of the group, its doctrines or practices (ibid.). The component of discipline means that this aspect of a ritualistic practice involves the ‘shaping of persons according to enduring guidelines and conditions’ (ibid.). This aspect of tango culture is undoubtedly stronger in Argentina, where there is more continuity to the way the tango is practiced, since the older milongueros are respected for their knowledge of the dance and pass on this knowledge to younger generations. Basically, there is a longer and stronger tradition of tango dancing in Buenos Aires than anywhere else in the world.

The element of repetition is strong in tango practices – not merely in the sense that one has to practice the same movements endlessly to perfect one’s dancing, but also in the sense that tango dancers find it enjoyable to do the “same” things again and again: executing the same or similar movements and only rarely adding new choreographic elements, dancing to the same tunes, perhaps several times a week, and rarely “risking it” with a new dance partner.

Anthropologist Victor Turner calls this repetitive aspect of ritualistic practices the “mantric” frame (Turner 1982: 58). Importantly, Turner notes that ‘severe subscription to rules is the frame in which communion may be induced’ (ibid.). Although the actions as such are relatively simple (for the experienced practitioner) and the music does not change much[27], it is exactly this stability and boundedness of the experience that may free the mind and body and induce a trance-like state, or a feeling of strong connection with other persons (as described by Turner in his notion of “communitas”).  



Using examples such as boxing, or stylised displays of sexual sadomasochism, Bell brings to our attention how ‘rule-governed activity is often compared to ritual, particularly rule-governed contests in which violent (and we may add, sexual) chaos is barely held in check by complex codes of orchestration’ (Bell 1997: 153). Much of the action on the dance floor at a milonga involves a kind of physical interaction that non-tango dancers would often only experience in the privacy of their bedroom. This is not because tango dancers are more “passionate” or daring than the general population (well, some may want to argue this). Rather, what occurs is that the codes for interaction and the stylised choreography of the dance contain the activity, allowing practitioners to express themselves in sensuous ways within the boundaries of the activity.

            Strong feelings are awakened at the milonga, such as sexual arousal or deep empathy during the dance, jealousy when looking at someone else dance, feelings of empowerment when one’s performance (on the dance floor or in social interaction) is going well, and equally strong feelings of disempowerment when one is “unsuccessful”. Some milongas are harsh, competitive environments, while others are more welcoming, but some form of hierarchy in people’s interactions appears to be inevitable (as in most, if not all, social environments). Codified behaviour helps to keep in check the actions that occur at the milonga itself. It also helps to create the “alternative reality” of the milonga as a social space, set off from daily routine activities, and this ensures that participants accept that the emotions aroused and “played with” at the milonga cannot necessarily be transferred to ordinary reality.


The liminality, “magical space”, and “flow” of the milonga

Van Gennep’s concept of liminality refers to the alternative reality created during ritual, where ordinary social roles may be reversed, and where altered states of consciousness may be induced. Rather than applying the anthropological term of liminality, the high magicians in London, whose practices anthropologist Susan Greenwood studied in the 1990s, use the term “magical space” to denote the ‘demarcated sacred space’ in which rituals are performed (Greenwood, 2000: 41).

            The magicians encountered by Greenwood distinguish between “non-ordinary” reality and the “ordinary” reality of everyday life. This is not because they see the two “realities” as opposed to one another. Rather, the magic in Magical Space is more like a concentration of the magic that exists in all aspects of life, because ‘the action in Magical Space is intensified, faster and more focused than any equivalent intent in non-magical space’ (ibid.).

            Strongly related to “liminal” experiences, and to the magicians’ notion of “magical space”, are psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about being in the “flow”. The aim of Csikszentmihalyi’s research was to ‘understand as exactly as possible how people felt when they most enjoyed themselves, and why’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998: 4). His first studies involved a few hundred “experts”, such as artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters and surgeons, that is, people who seemed to be doing what they found most exciting and fulfilling (ibid.). Based on these individuals’ accounts of what it felt like to do these activities Csikszentmihalyi developed a theory of “optimal experience” based on the concept of “flow” – ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it’ (ibid.).

The term “optimal experience” refers to those special moments when we feel in control of our actions and in harmony with the surroundings, leading to a sense of exhilaration and ‘a deep sense of enjoyment’ (ibid. 3). As an example Csikszentmihalyi explains that this is what a painter feels ‘when the colours on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator’ (ibid.). Recall here Stermitz’ description: ‘Steps happen to the music by themselves, and I become the watcher of the game…’ (see page 50). Importantly, Csikszentmihalyi notes that such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favourable, that in fact people who have lived through the greatest ordeals often recall how, in the midst of extremely challenging situations, they experienced ‘extraordinarily rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest…’ (ibid.). In the course of his studies, Csikszentmihalyi concluded that the best moments in people’s lives were achieved when a person’s ‘body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’, in other words, that it is generally something that we make happen (ibid.). The passive, relaxing and receptive moments (e.g. when watching television) can also be pleasurable, but usually not to the same extent as when one is challenged at the right level according to individual skills (ibid.).

            The theoretical model developed by Csikszentmihalyi during his first studies on the subject were subsequently applied by his research team at the University of Chicago, as well as by scholars around the world, whereby interviews were conducted with thousands of individuals from a variety of class, ethnic, cultural and educational backgrounds. The studies showed that optimal experiences were described in the same way by individuals all over the world, regardless of cultural and other differences. In other words,


The flow experience was not just a peculiarity of affluent, industrialized elites. It was reported in essentially the same words by old women from Korea, by adults in Thailand and India, by teenagers in Tokyo, by Navajo shepherds, by farmers in the Italian Alps, and by workers on the assembly line in Chicago (ibid.).


Optimal experiences occur when a person’s consciousness is harmoniously ordered and the person pursues whatever activity he or she is doing for its own sake (ibid, 6). Csikszentmihalyi explains:


This happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else (ibid.).


Csikszentmihalyi likens the ability to focus one’s attention on a specific task to psychic energy, a crucial aspect of the flow experience. When consciousness is unordered and worries (such as how one is perceived by others) enter consciousness, flow cannot be experienced (ibid, 37). To have an optimal experience it is necessary that ‘the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals’ (ibid. 39). Basically, a balance has to be found where one is neither bored with the activity (as this would allow space in one’s consciousness for thoughts that are unrelated to the activity), nor overwhelmed by the challenge (as this can lead to anxiety about one’s ability to perform well).

            What has been described here in relation to optimal experiences will be recognized by all dedicated tango dancers, although they may use words such as tango “trance” or “high” to describe such moments. The feeling of being “in the flow”, when dancing the tango, is so good that once a dancer has experienced that feeling, he or she is likely to want more – and will therefore take up more lessons and attend as many milongas as possible, in the hope of arriving at that “magical space” again. However, as described by Csikszentmihalyi this is not easily achieved and generally involves a sustained mental and physical effort.

Tango practitioners dedicate a great deal of their spare time to practicing the tango, prepare mentally and physically for the milonga, spend hours at the milonga, may even attend several milongas in one evening, and yet there is no guarantee they will reach flow. All this effort spent on hunting down the precious flow experience may be described as addictive behaviour. In certain periods of practitioners’ lives the tango seems to “take over” completely, while everything else – work, family, non-tango friends – is more or less neglected. From the many personal accounts I have heard, this appears to happen particularly when a dancer has reached a certain level, and therefore is less preoccupied by executing the basic movements of the dance correctly, allowing him or her to experience flow more often. A kind of obsessive need to reach the next level, and the next and the next… sets in. Often tango social dancers have never exhibited themselves in such a way before, and therefore the admiring gazes from onlookers only add to the excitement (an aspect of acquiring skill in tango that may lead to arrogance). Depending on the individual, this obsession will mellow out after a couple of months or years. It may also return after a period of less tango activity, for example after a break-up with a life partner.                    


The “postliminal” phase: On the moon or in the gutter?

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, a milonga can be compared to a rite of passage, since it is very much about reconfirming one’s status as a dancer, or even attempting to reach a higher status through the attainment of certain status markers. Various aspects of one’s performance at the milonga can serve to elevate one’s status. The most obvious “mark of distinction” is if one dances more than just one tanda with a skilled and renowned dancer, and does it well. Another could be to wear a great outfit and do so confidently (having the outfit but not the elegantly poised movements will not do it). A mark of distinction for those of the older generation would be the company of young, good-looking dancers (in Buenos Aires they will even pay for such company, something I have not observed to the same extent here in London).

            All such markers of distinction are important. However, of even greater value for one’s general mood and self-confidence at the end of the milonga, is the amount of quality dancing had during the night, which is partly a matter of luck and partly dependent on the hard work put into one’s performance. The more good dances, and the more “flow” experiences one had (if any), the “closer to the moon” one will be when the milonga reaches its end. Flow experiences give you incredible amounts of energy. I have heard from numerous practitioners that they are often tired after a long day’s work when they arrive at the milonga, but after dancing two or three hours, they actually feel energized! I can confirm that the same happens to me, but only if I have had a certain amount of quality dancing during the evening. However, just one or two tandas, that really flowed, can be enough to keep me “high” for hours.

            Nevertheless, the tango is no drug – one does not simply ‘drop an E’, or the like, and then wait twenty minutes for happiness to arrive. As thrilling and empowering as the tango can be, as depressing can it be not to “succeed”. If one’s favourite dance partner did not arrive (or even worse, if he spent all evening dancing with other girls), and all the dances one had failed to bring any satisfaction, and someone spilt red wine on one’s new dress, and another woman’s heel left a nasty scrape on one’s leg… then a milonga can be one continuous journey down into the gutter. The energy one may have had at the beginning of the evening is “sucked out”. Feeling depressed and worthless, one may even decide to leave before the end of the milonga, thereby missing out on what is usually the most magical part of the evening, when everyone on the dance floor is in heaven.       

            Such a negative milonga experience is of course more likely to occur if one is already low on physical and mental energy. The Danish psychology student, Lise-Lotte Hyllegaard, who also wrote about the flow experience in relation to tango dancing, remarks that if the problems in one’s personal life have become so great that one could not possibly forget them while dancing, then it is perhaps better to stay at home. On the other hand, if a dancer manages to push her problems aside while dancing, it is likely that she will in fact feel better after dancing (Hyllegaard 2004: 83). On a similar note, Csikszentmihalyi argues that


… the ordinary state of mind involves unexpected and frequent episodes of entropy[28] interfering with the smooth run of psychic energy. This is one reason why flow improves the quality of experience; the clearly structured demands of the activity impose order, and exclude the interference of disorder in consciousness  (Csikszentmihalyi 1998: 58).


When the dancer returns to her problems in “ordinary reality”, she may have acquired a different perspective; the flow experience may even have changed how she perceives herself and therefore also her perspective on a particular situation.

            Practitioners, who have experienced the tango’s transformational powers, may choose to go dancing despite feeling almost depressed when leaving their house. Every now and again the milonga will work its magic, but often it will not. After all, it is usually not a “free ride”.


















Chapter 5


Gendered Embraces

Who embraces whom in the tango, and why? What do the dancers feel, and what do onlookers think? These questions are complex and never ending, as gendered performances are elaborated and negotiated every time practitioners meet in this intensely close embrace.


Basic terminology

It appears still to be common practice, within the social sciences, to make a clear distinction between “sex”, which traditionally refers to the anatomical, biological and physiological characteristics of female and male bodies, and “gender,” the ‘culturally specific symbolic articulation and elaboration of these differences’ (Pine, in Barnard and Spencer 2001: 253).

To some extent it is appropriate to make such a distinction, because it emphasizes the fact that although the sexes are indeed physically different, the behaviours attached to each sex are culturally variable. In the process of women’s emancipation it was important to emphasize the extent to which patriarchal ideology had naturalized “femininity”, which is actually a cultural construction. However, to see the “male” and the “female” sex as natural facts, which then form the basis for gender differences, is perhaps an oversimplification. As Collier and Yanagisako argue:


Although we do not deny that biological differences exist between men and women (just as they do among men and among women), our analytic strategy is to question whether these differences are the universal basis for the cultural categories “male” and “female”. In other words, we argue against the notion that cross-cultural variations in gender categories and inequalities are merely diverse elaborations and extensions of the same natural fact (Collier and Yanagisako 1987, in Moore 1993: 195).


Another reason not to merely accept sex categories as natural givens is brought to our attention by the American feminist scholar Judith Butler. The problem with the category sex, she says, is that ‘we can only know sex through gender, and although we “become” our genders, there is no place outside gender which precedes this becoming’ (Butler 1987, in Salih with Butler 2004: 21). In line with Collier and Yanagisako’s argument she clarifies: ‘the body does not antedate or “cause” gender, but is an effect of genders which can only be taken up within existing cultural norms, laws and taboos…’ (ibid.). In other words, we need to be aware that even our way of perceiving “natural facts” is bound up with the values of our culture. Therefore the category of sex is essentially just as problematic and “fluid” as the category of gender. 

            Finally, biologists such as Joan Roughgarden have added to our understanding of sex categories, gendered behaviour, and sexual orientation by emphasizing the diversity within all species, including humans. “Male” and “female” are biological categories, while “men” and “women” are social categories (2004: 23), as are “masculine” and “feminine”. However, the story does not end here. Roughgarden reveals how the two neatly separated categories of “male” and “female” are an illusion, since nature is much more varied than that. The percentage of “males” who develop female characteristics, and vice versa, shows enormous geographical and racial variation (ibid. 288-93). Among Ashkenazi Jews, for example, 1 in 27 girls develop male characteristics, while the number is only 1 in 1000 for a mixed Caucasian population (ibid. 289)[29]. 

            In contemporary Western culture the existence of more than two clearly defined and mutually exclusive sexes and genders is often not even questioned. Nonetheless, a third sex, or gender, category does exist in some cultures. For example, in the Dominican Republic the third-sex category guevedoche flourished in an area where there was a high percentage of intersex people. This ethnographic example is described in Appendix 3. Also described in this appendix is an example of a third-gender category.

Regarding sexual orientation Roughgarden notes the extraordinary extent to which scholars have been ignoring or covering up the often very common same-sex courtship including genital contact in over three hundred species of vertebrates (ibid. 128). Whereas some of the scholars, who do accept this fact, merely regard homosexuality as a ‘neutral byproduct of the evolution of other traits’ (i.e. it does not disappear during evolution because it is harmless), Roughgarden claims that homosexual liaisons are in fact essential for the survival of the species in which it exists (ibid. 144). One of her examples supporting this argument is described in ‘Appendix 3’.


The above discussion should make it clear, first of all, that the categories of sex, gender and sexuality (the same as sexual orientation) are not naturally given, and that one “type”, within each category, is not “more natural” or “better” than another. Secondly, it should also be clear that a person’s biological (sex), social (gender) and sexual (sexuality) identity/ies are not necessarily connected in predictable ways. What is more, such identities may also change over time or fluctuate. The reason I am emphasizing these issues is that if more people were aware of these things, a variety of problems within the social context of a milonga (and society at large) could perhaps be resolved.



Gender diversity and tango


I personally don’t feel I can be openly gay in the Tango scene[30]. (Well I blew that one now... to some extent... but hopefully to some good cause). What should prevent me from enjoying dancing with a woman, without the person dancing with me being labelled as gay or the dance to be seen as some sexual foreplay that turns some people on. I want to dance, and I want to enjoy this dance with women and men. I don’t want to think that I dare not ask someone to dance just because it might be perceived wrongly. And yet it happens. And I somehow think that it is not only happening to me (anon. 2006, accessed online).     

The above quotation was part of a recent discussion on Tango-UK about gender, same-sex dancing, the “lead”/“follow” relationship, and so forth. It is clear evidence that the London tango scene is not as inclusive as one might have hoped. The fact that the woman who wrote this, as a result of her posting (which was polite in every way), received several harassing emails is further evidence of how, at least some practitioners, are very keen on protecting what they perceive as the only correct form of dancing the tango: a masculine male leading a feminine female.

            Such homophobic and patriarchal conceptions are indeed striking if we take a look at the tango’s history. As in the field of biology, just mentioned, so has historical scholarship suffered from a homophobic denial when it came to homosexual matters. Nonetheless, since the second wave of feminism (beginning in the 1970s) began to have an impact on academia, the “hidden” histories of the less powerful groups – such as women, homosexuals, the working class, non-whites, etc. – have received more attention. Scholars such as Daniel Bao (1993), Jorge Salessi (1997) and Magali Saikin (2004) have investigated the homosexual subculture that existed in Buenos Aires at the turn of the nineteenth century.

According to Bao ‘Buenos Aires shared many characteristics with other large European and U.S. cities, including a large population of “sexual inverts”[31], many brought along in the immigrant tide’ (Bao 1993: 192). The inverts, many of whom were transvestites, had their own meeting places, fashion and sexual tastes, organized parties and dances, and were often harassed by the police (ibid. 183-208). Salessi writes about Argentina as a young nation:


In the bourgeois project launched by the Argentine liberal elite in 1880, immigration played a key role in the country’s modernization. But the class in power imagined this immigration to affect agricultural labour only and to have no impact upon the country’s political life. … However, between 1890 and 1900, the new social formations generated by immigration presented a powerful challenge to the prerogatives of the hegemonic class (1997: 142).


Overwhelmed by the masses of poor immigrants huddled together in the city of Buenos Aires (and a few other large cities), the Argentine government began to “police” its citizens in unprecedented ways. Criminologists, medical doctors, sociologists and hygienists collaborated with the police in an effort to uphold the “purity” of the population[32]. Homosexuality, as perceived by these government officials, was one of the main threats and had to be contained. Salessi notes that in an 1880 study, carried out by a police officer, ‘a national, state-regulated prostitution of women’ was recommended as a means to promote a heterosexual norm within an immigrant population made up almost entirely of single males (ibid. 146).

            The legalization of prostitution, however, had the unintended effect of creating an environment in which sexual “inversions”, such as male homosexuality and lesbianism, actually thrived (ibid. 151). Saikin has managed to tease out the homoerotic aspects of the social environment in which the tango was danced at the end of the nineteenth century. Through her gathering of written eyewitness accounts, snippets from theatre plays, tango lyrics, official documents, and so forth, a picture emerges of a tango “underworld” of pimps, female and male prostitutes, tango musicians and singers whose gendered and sexual identities were ambiguous to say the least (Saikin 2004: 83-181).

            Jeffrey Tobin, who researched the tango’s ‘homosocial roots’ refers to the work of Salessi (1991) and Savigliano (1995), as he writes:


[T]he prototypical tango pimp and prostitute are gender transgressive: he is a feminine man, overly concerned with his dandyesque appearance and financially dependent on his woman, while she is a masculine woman, who earns her living in the public sphere and is capable of defending herself with a dagger (Tobin 1998: 96).


Male-male tango dancing was so common in the early days of the tango, and has been documented by so many photographs and descriptions, that not even the most vehement contemporary defenders of a heterosexual dancing norm can deny its occurrence. Nonetheless, arguments are often had between tango devotees about the extent to which this may have occurred (and still occurs), and whether or not the male dancers who engage in same-sex dancing find it sexually stimulating. Rather than continue such discussions here, it may be more interesting to speculate about the effects that same-sex dancing (or the reversion of traditional gender identities) may have had on the actual choreography of the dance. Richard Martin, curator at The Costume Institute (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), notes that the tango is ‘of modern gender reading’ and ‘more equal than most dances’ (in Collier 1997: 176). The most astonishing thing about the tango, he says, is that


… the woman is not called upon to perform any extraneous gesture unaccompanied by the male – gestures which do not necessarily typify female liberty (as some critics have averred) but are instead incidents of the male gaze directed to mandated performance imposed upon the female (ibid.)[33].


This would explain the tango’s liberating quality for “The New Woman”, that is, for the new active kind of femininity that became increasingly apparent among the 1910s and 1920s bourgeoisies. However, it also appears that the “original”, “underground” tango, which may have had such an emancipatory effect for Western women, was influenced in turn by the encounter with modern European norms (or the bourgeoisie internationally). According to European norms at the beginning of the twentieth century, males were not supposed to attract attention for their elegance in dance performances, since this was perceived as “unmanly” (Burt 1996). As expressed in the quotation above, the audience’s “male gaze” had to be directed at the exquisite movements of the female dancer, while the male dancer could be admired for his strength and creativity as the “catalyst” of (or “brain” behind) the dance. Tobin traces how such aspects of modern culture are likely to have some connection to the tango’s passage from an often exclusively male activity, to one that “ought” always to be executed by a heterosexual couple (1998: 90-91). Despite this, he notes that tango de salón ‘displays elements of both its homosocial roots and its European disciplinization’ (ibid. 94) in that there is a high degree of freedom for both dancers and that the style is quite erect and elegant, while the embrace may still be close[34].


Considering how same-sex dancing has fed into all these aspects of the tango’s development, and how it continues to do so (explained below), it seems almost bizarre that English tango practitioners should react so harshly to same-sex dancing, or to the presence of gay people at “their” milongas.

            Leaving aside for the moment the practices that challenge heterosexist views, the next pages will focus on the experience of conforming (or attempting to conform) to traditional notions of femininity. What will be argued here in relation to femininity could essentially also be argued in relation to masculinity, and my analysis has indeed also been informed by literature on masculinity (e.g. Connel 2006; Adams and Savran 2002). Nonetheless, I shall leave the in-depth investigation of men’s experiences to male researchers, as only they can know the “feeling in the body” of being a man dancing the tango.



Gender as performance

The notion that ‘one is not born a woman, but rather becomes, a woman,’ postulated by the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) in her book ‘The Second Sex’ had an enormous impact on feminist theorization when the book was finally translated into English in 1973[35]. For de Beauvoir,


… to become a woman is a purposive and appropriative set of acts, the gradual acquisition of a skill, a “project” in Sartrian terms, to assume a culturally established corporeal style and significance (Butler, in Salih with Butler 2004: 23).


In continuation of de Beauvoir’s work, particularly the notion that gender is not something one is but something one does, Judith Butler developed a theory of gender as performance. In ‘Gender Trouble’ (1990) she writes:


Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a sort of natural being (in Salih with Butler 2004: 91).


Sarah Salih, Butler’s co-editor of ‘The Judith Butler Reader’ (2004), clarifies that the notion of performativity does not imply that gender is merely ‘a piece of theatre staged by a knowing actor who selects her/his script at will’ (ibid.). Since gender is a “doing” rather than a “being” it is not an action carried out by ‘a volitional agent who is free to select her/his gender “styles” (ibid.). Butler’s work does seem to indicate, however, that individuals can become more enlightened about the constructedness of their ascribed gender roles, and that such enlightenment can have an impact on social interaction (of course, the transition from knowledge to action is not an easy one, and may, for various reasons, never occur).



On becoming a tanguera


“Como pensás tu propia femeneidad?” the profesor asked me. How do you think about your own femininity? I looked at him. “Ya es hora,” he said. It’s about time.


Julie Taylor (1998: 84, describing a tango lesson

in Buenos Aires in the 1980s).



For women who are used to wearing high heels, make-up and mini-skirts, and generally behaving seductively around men, entering the tango scene may not be such a great shock. However, in today’s Western society such markers of femininity – embedded as they are in traditional patriarchal values regarding female attractiveness – are far from practiced by all women. Personally I grew up in Denmark where men and women (perhaps more so in the late seventies than today) often dress and behave in somewhat similar fashions. Since the women’s emancipation movement in the seventies, one could argue that men have become more “feminine” and women more “manly” (as an Argentine friend of mine commented regarding German women). My mother – usually a girl’s prime role model – never wore make-up or high heels, but usually trainers and track suits (since she was a PE teacher). Before entering the world of tango at the age of twenty-five I had only worn high heels at a few special occasions, at which I would generally feel out of place. However, to learn the technique of the tango, and generally be part of the scene, proper high-heeled tango shoes (preferably those produced in Argentina) are essential for female practitioners – at least in the beginning. Later, if one acquires an immaculate technique in the dance, one can perhaps get away with flat shoes, since one would then master the technique even without the support of the heel[36]. Furthermore, if one’s tanguidad (tangoness) – that is, one’s posture, gestures, behaviour, and personal style at the milonga – has reached a high status, wearing the “right” shoes is no longer essential. Making a point of wearing flat shoes could even be an aspect of one’s style.

            The clothes worn by women at a milonga are often elegant and glamorous, perhaps tight-fitted, knee-length or shorter. Again, this style was one I had to acquire; no more long hippie skirts. Wearing high heels changes one’s gait and one’s posture. And a fancy outfit only really “works” if one’s attitude is similarly confident and sexy, perhaps even defiant. Through such bodily practices and ways of presenting oneself a former hippie is turned into a tanguera (female tango dancer), the quintessential femme fatale.

            Other women have told me similar stories regarding their entry into the tango scene. The changes in appearance they go through, together with the process of learning a new “body technique” (see footnote 16), often have a profound impact on a woman’s self-perception and, consequently, her interactions with others. An even greater challenge, however, may present itself in the choreography of the dance when one has to accept the role of follower… and trust a man’s lead. As Julie Taylor recalls:


Everyone in the school knew that I had notorious problems with the embrace. The problem is not unusual; but for me it was particularly difficult. It was more than the embrace – el abrazo: It was the handing oneself over into the embrace. La entrega. La puta entrega (Taylor 1998: 111).


Entrega (surrender) relates to the verb entregarse: to surrender or give in to something or someone, and perhaps even to do so indulgingly (Marr 2001). A prerequisite for this to occur in the tango (as in other aspects of life) is complete trust in one’s partner. Taylor’s particular difficulty in allowing this to happen was related to the fact that she was sexually abused and beaten by her father throughout her childhood. Personally I have always found it very easy to trust my dance partners and one wonders whether this is related to the fact that the experiences of my childhood lie at the other extreme, that is, that I always felt completely safe with both of my parents. To be able to say something more general regarding this area of the dance, however, further investigations would have to be carried out.

            Although the entrega is a deeply personal aspect of one’s relationship to the dance, one’s ability to surrender in this way will be noticed by other practitioners, and it therefore also forms an important part of one’s “performance” at the milonga.



It seems reasonable at this point to ask why women manipulate their daily, or previous, behaviour and appearances to such an extent in order to fit into the tango scene. Some of them even claim to be feminists, and yet they conform to the traditional social codes of the milonga (e.g. that the man invites the woman for a dance). Why? It seems the men go to great lengths as well, in order to be considered attractive and skilled dance partners. Perhaps the social codes of the milonga were also unfamiliar to them in the beginning. Yet they also conform. Why?

            Returning to the theme of addiction may offer an answer. As Savigliano writes:


The tango “high” … comes, takes hold of the tango dancers somewhat like a trance, a state of possession that is achieved with much effort and usually not at all. The tango “trance” is, thus, a promise, nurtured by the milongueros/as’ memory of past experiences or by the memories passed down to them by other, more experienced tango dancers (Savigliano 1998: 103).


As already discussed, it is the mere hope of reaching this altered state of conscious again, that makes practitioners practice endlessly, spend fortunes on clothes, shoes and tango lessons, travel far to where the good dancing may be found, go to the milonga – sometimes after a long day’s work and not enough sleep – although they might end up not even having a good time there. Nonetheless, the occasional tango “high” is worth all this.

            Sometimes the sex ratio in tango communities is uneven. In some of the postings on Tango-UK, practitioners have commented on the current lack of competent male dancers, which apparently leads to more competition among the women. In such competitive situations it appears the women are willing to sacrifice their feminist ideals. As one contributor to this discussion notes:


Isn’t any dance better than none at all? And what does a little niceness, or a shorter skirt, or being a little “extra friendly” cost me? Isn’t that how women have got by in a man’s world for millennia? We may be equals in the work place, but at a dance I do what I have to.


I believe most female tango dancers would recognize at least some aspects of their own “milonga-behaviour” in this description. The inevitable question creeps up: does the tango promote traditional heterosexual gender roles and, by extension, the patriarchal structures of dominance to which they are tied? The following two sub-sections will shed some light on this issue.


Performing gender at the milonga

In the sub-section ‘On becoming a tanguera’ I made a distinction between those women who have been ‘used to wearing high heels, make-up and mini-skirts, and generally behaving seductively around men’ prior to entering the world of tango, and those women who acquire such skills as adults when they encounter the tango. For the purposes of my argument this is an important distinction to make (although reality is of course more fluid).

            It appears reasonable to think that the first group, who are likely to have grown up in a culture with a strong patriarchal influence, will be less conscious of themselves “performing” their femininity. For example, they will not think so much about why and how they stand the way they do while having a conversation with someone, or how the other person might be perceiving it; such movements or postures “just happen”. A good analogy may be found in dance: if one has started to learn a specific movement vocabulary at the age of five, twenty years later those kind of movements “just happen” without much conscious thought required for the action.

            Women belonging in the second group, however, are likely to be highly aware of even the minutest aspect of their body language, and perhaps worry about whether their “performance” seems sufficiently natural or “authentic”.    

            Now let me return to the question of whether the traditional gender roles performed at the milonga actually could have the effect of strengthening such gender roles in society at large. Regarding the women of the first group, attending milongas is unlikely to change their attitudes (in either direction) since they are already immersed in the codes of a patriarchal gender system. I will venture, however, that the women of the second group, through the conscious manipulation of their own femininity and their conscious decision to participate in the theatrical games of the milonga, may become more aware of the theatricality of gender in human relationships.     

            I might be mistaken; perhaps practising the tango can have this “enlightening” effect even on individuals who have grown up within tango culture (perhaps such individuals should be regarded as masters of gender role manipulation!). The issue is not one I have discussed with other practitioners, but it seems an interesting theme for further investigations. It is a highly complex area of investigation, though, since it involves unconscious bodily behaviours.


Ruffianesque vs. romantic

A ruffian, or rufián in Spanish, is a pimp (Marr 2001). The early days of the tango is often referred to as the ruffianesque period, because the “wild” tango in those days was danced by pimps and prostitutes in the slums and brothels of Buenos Aires (at least so the story goes and it probably has some truth to it). Male rioplatense (from the Rio de la Plata region) writers such as Vicente Rossi (1926) and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada (1933) describe the tango of this period as an enactment of virilidad, that is, of “true” maleness (Savigliano 1995: 40). The powerful and technically demanding dance they describe ‘was not sensual… Not even romantic, because in the cruel, brutish Bajo [slums] there was no place for the idyllic’ (Rossi 1926, in ibid.). Later, these writers claim, the tango’s choreography got “contaminated” by erotic preoccupations and degraded into a “superficial and showy” style (ibid.).

            Savigliano explains that between the 1880s and the 1930s both the ruffianesque and the romantic style were developed. Generally speaking, however,


… the ruffianesque was the earlier, old-time tango and the romantic was the later, modern tango, but mostly they overlapped, making them styles, not stages. Throughout this period, the ruffianesque tango underwent a process of romanticization, but this process was not altogether unidirectional. Even today, tango as it is danced in Buenos Aires offers solid glimpses of tango’s ruffianesque past (ibid, 47).

The ruffianesque side of tango continues to be very popular as a fresh and provocative contrast to romantic or passionate expressions of the tango. I would also claim that the insertion of ruffianesque elements, even in practitioners’ social dancing (not just in the shows), is used as way to mock the traditional gender roles in the dance itself and sometimes also in “theatrical displays” (of exaggerated behaviour) off the dance floor. Occasionally a milonga might even have a ‘Prostitutes and Pimps’ fancy dress theme. However, because such mocking of traditional gender roles is performed as humorous displays, it may provide a comment on the absurdity of “fixed” gender roles, but is not a great threat to the status quo.

            Finally, one may wonder whether, at times, a ruffianesque style has been applied jokingly by gay dancers (pretending to be heterosexual) in order to keep the romantic side of tango encounters at arm’s length. What I am mainly trying to achieve with such speculations is to get the viewer of tango performances (whether performed “formally” on a stage, or “informally” at a milonga or práctica) to begin to question what is actually going on. Some heterosexual people appear to have more fun when dancing with someone of their own sex, while some gay people prefer dancing with someone of the opposite sex. In other words, one’s preferences in the dance are not necessarily the same as in other aspects of life. Besides, one should always seek to avoid putting people into “boxes”, since gender identities are not set in stone – a person may be open to different types of experience, or may change his or her preferences.


Embodied gender “experiments”

Moving just a few steps away from the most “heterosexually fixed” expressions of the tango, an enormous variety meets the eye at milongas and prácticas all over the world: male and female same-sex dancing, females leading males, dance partners swapping roles during the dance – even attempts at “mirroring” each other, rather than one person “leading” and the other “following”. The latter possibility, although interesting, probably would not work at a milonga where one person in the couple needs to be aware of the surroundings and lead the other person safely through the other couples. Such experimenting with the roles of “leader” and “follower” are often inspired by other disciplines such as martial arts, contact improvisation, or shamanic practices. 

            the younger dancers in particular (and those young at heart!) seem keen to experiment with the traditional roles in the dance. Nonetheless, for some this poses a greater psychological challenge than for others…

As the following quotation shows, many heterosexual dancers, although accepting of others’ same-sex dancing, still find it difficult to conceive of a sensuously fulfilling dance with someone of one’s own sex if one is not gay. The quotation is part of a response to the practitioner (quoted above) who complained about not being able to be openly gay at the “straight” milongas in London.


Sure, I have only rarely danced with women and this mostly in practicas. It left me cold. I assume because most of the women who can lead do so to be able to dance more often, not because they experience, as you do or would, a full, pleasurable, sensual dance (anon. 2006, accessed online).


However, a female tango teacher who has spent years perfecting her skills as a leader, and who not only dances with women when she teaches but also at the milonga, wrote the following comment as part of the same online discussion: 


My heterosexual preference has not changed through that but I have become more open to the joys of the sensuality/sexuality created between two people, man or woman. In that context I have not encountered, through my own dance experience, any problem about dancing with another woman. Well, sometimes I feel that a woman I ask to dance with is a little scared of the intimacy of contact. Maybe she will even tell me that she has never danced with another woman. But I don’t say anything, I will respect whatever distance she is choosing in the embrace and just begin to dance – soon I feel this fear melting away and a smile coming up instead. Usually. With regards to onlookers, I don’t care what they think about my sexual preference.


When comparing these two examples of heterosexual women’s experience of same-sex dancing, it must be noted that the space of a práctica is very different from that of a milonga.

At a práctica, as in a tango lesson, the dance salon or studio will be fully lit, and the music is either not on all the time or played randomly. The dancers’ state of mind will be sober and critical since the purpose of being there is to improve one’s dancing and perhaps work on specific movements. 

At a milonga the lights are dimmed and the atmosphere is warm and sensuous. As explained earlier, it is at the milonga that the dancing is most likely to “flow”, since everything there is geared towards a sensuously fulfilling experience. What I am trying to get at is that if a woman (or a man?) has only ever experienced same-sex dancing at prácticas or lessons, of course she is likely to judge it as less fulfilling than dancing with someone of the opposite sex, as “one” does at the milonga.    

 The way in which the woman who wrote the second posting gently “seduces” other women to share the dance with her in the “magical space” of the milonga, can have a powerful and surprising impact on the women she invites for a dance. As dance anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna writes:


The potency of dance as a resource for promoting gender continuity and change lies in its going beyond language in involving all the senses and seducing us through a multisensory impact. Education specialists have found that experiential learning changes opinions and attitudes (Hanna 1988: 16, my italics).


In other words, to allow oneself to physically experience, not merely watch from a distance, something previously unimagined, can transform one’s understanding of the world. “Playing” with traditional gender roles (or with any other aspect of one’s identity for that matter) through tango dancing may potentially lead to life-changing realizations. As an embodied practice that engages all the senses – through contact with another body, music, and the wider surroundings – tango dancing affects the dancers’ awareness on various levels simultaneously, and as such is very powerful. Most practitioners recognise this power contained in the tango. Maybe some fear it… maybe we all fear it at times. But each one of us can only take the next step… when we’re ready.



Almost ten years ago anthropologist Jeffrey Tobin wrote:


… tango-dance continues to be marked by forbidden homosocial desire. The contemporary tango couple continues to dance its way back and forth, over the fortified and leaky border separating the straight and the gay (1998: 84).


Reflecting the changes in society at large, the views and practices of tango practitioners have changed significantly over the last ten years. Such changes are further intensified by a drop in the average age of the tango community, as more young people join in. In many parts of contemporary tango culture “homosocial desire” (expressed, for example, through a desire to socialize and dance with members of one’s own sex) no longer appears so problematic as Tobin describes it in relation to Buenos Aires in the early or mid 1990s. For example, the young men who join the tango scene today do not seem overly concerned about maintaining a macho image, and may even enjoy the role of follower. Meanwhile, more and more women take up leading, and the overall picture then becomes more fun and relaxed than what Tobin writes about the tango scene in the mid 1990s.  This recent description from Buenos Aires will illustrate:


Katja y su compañero bailan, en jeans y zapatillas, al ritmo de Ultratango, en un ambiente que podría definirse como de “tecnomilonga”. El tradicional protocolo tanguero se rompió: dos amigas de Katja salen a bailar juntas. Nadie se escandaliza. Es tango. Está sucediendo en Buenos Aires, junio de 2006.

   (Katja and her partner dance, in jeans and trainers, to the rhythm of Ultratango[37], in an atmosphere that could be defined as “technomilonga”. The traditional tango protocol has been shattered: two of Katja’s girlfriends go out to dance together. Nobody is scandalised. It’s tango. It’s happening in Buenos Aires, June of 2006.)

(Anon., TANGODATA.gov.ar 2006, accessed online).


According to the same article the “technomilonga” trend started in Germany earlier than in Argentina. It is also Hamburg in Germany that hosts the only specifically gay tango festival (that I have heard of). In Barcelona, one of the most popular milongas is run by a gay couple. And in Buenos Aires some of the gay milongas are now also attracting large numbers of “straight” people. These are just a few examples that I happen to have come across. Although the English tango scene may lag behind when it comes to accepting non-heterosexual tango practices, I believe the above extract points towards a general global trend.

This increasing openness towards playing with the heterosexual norm in tango practices will help release the tango’s potential. And I believe the tango does hold a great potential for personal growth and for social changes in a wider context. Personally I am about to go on the “journey” of learning to lead in the tango. It is a journey that will take several years (and in a way will be endless) and involve so much more than the practicing of steps – a journey that will challenge my perception of the world and myself, since I will have to deconstruct and move away from many deeply ingrained notions and habits along the way. It is a journey I know I must take in order to enrich my life, and hopefully the day will come when I successfully complete the “rite of passage” of leading a dance partner on a crowded dance floor. The consequences of such an achievement in tango may go far beyond the activities of the milonga itself… It all depends on whether one seeks a political dimension in one’s tango practices, or not.

            For those practitioners who think of their tango dancing as merely “a bit of fun”, talking of tango’s political potential may come as a surprise. However, what we choose to do with our spare time is important. In modern society, where work and leisure often belong to two separate realms, people may treasure their leisure time as the part of their life when they “really live”. What is experienced in leisure time is therefore likely to have a deep impact on people’s perceptions of themselves and others. By choosing tango as one’s leisure activity, one chooses so much more than “a bit of fun”, since tango dancing inevitably involves a variety of negotiations of power: Who invites whom to dance? Who says “no thank you” to whom? Who practices with whom and for what reason? The choices that practitioners make regarding dance partners, and how they interact with different dance partners, can have far reaching consequences. With an eye to the political potential of tango, Erin Manning writes:


Tango as I encounter it is a peripheral engagement with the world that introduces us to a different way of living with the other. It is a movement that offers the possibility of improvising an encounter with the other, a dance that turns us toward an other to whom we might otherwise not speak, let alone touch. Tango takes place on the edges of neighbourhoods, at the magic time between dusk and dawn, in the periphery of the social order (Manning 2003: point 4, accessed online). 


What she describes here is the “liminal” or “non-ordinary” space in society that the milonga occupies as the underground phenomenon it still very much is. The liminality and “magic” of tango dancing thus opens up a space in which “unexpected” and perhaps challenging encounters occur. Sometimes, an extraordinary level of bodily communication is possible despite great cultural and other differences. However, sometimes it does not work, and then it may become embarrassing or frustrating for the dancers. Tango dancers are brave to plunge into such “communication experiments”, as we may call the first few dances with an unknown dance partner. This willingness to meet the unknown “other”, and even allow this “other” to have an impact on one’s body and mind, is something that should be cherished and cultivated. If we begin at the interpersonal level, it will eventually have an effect on society at large.

            Recently a poetic posting on Tango-UK described the joys and wonders of dancing the tango. The practitioner saw all this, and more, expressed in the tango embrace:


… wanting for living, extending and wishing to be free and living without fear, fighting against despairs, reaching out for sharing of a caring touch, playing with lust, aiming for love, hoping to reach the very familiar ending that never has come, finding oneself being at peace, the feelings of being at home in the lands of unknown.

(Anon. 2006, accessed online.)


The quotation seems to bring down to the bare essentials what this thesis has tried to explain in thousands of words. It was reassuring for me to read this posting because it showed that many of the themes, I have been working with, resonate with the feelings of the people whose practices I have attempted to describe.

‘Being at home in the lands of unknown’… So I am not alone in feeling paradoxically safe in the tango embrace.






















Appendix 1


Differences Between Argentine Tango and Ballroom Tango

The following outline of the differences between the Argentine tango and Ballroom tango is inspired by the description of these on Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia. On Wikipedia the articles are anonymous and anyone can edit them at any time. For any academic research it must therefore be used with great caution. However, as the Argentine tango is a living tradition, the information on this site may be closer to the reality of global tango culture than what any one person could write about the tango – the articles being an amalgam of many people’s knowledge. Nonetheless, the information taken from this website and used in this appendix (and the next) has been verified by several tango teachers and practitioners with whom I have discussed these articles.


Social dance vs. competition

Ballroom tango steps were standardized by dance schools in order to better facilitate judging at competitions. The steps have been relatively fixed in style for decades. The Argentine tango, on the other hand, is a constantly evolving dance and musical form, with continual changes occurring every day on the social dance floor in Argentina and in major tango centres elsewhere in the world. The Argentine tango is based heavily on improvisation, as only professional performances are choreographed (and these artists get most of their inspiration from the social dance tradition). While there are patterns or sequences of steps that are used by instructors to teach the dance, even in a sequence every movement is led not only in direction but also speed and quality (a step can be smooth, pulsing, sharp, ... etc.).


The embrace

The shape and feel of the embrace in these two dances is remarkably different. Ballroom technique dictates that partners arch their upper bodies away from each other, while maintaining contact at the hip. In the Argentine tango generally the opposite occurs: there is contact at the chest (maybe down to the navel), whereas the hips are free (allowing for dissociation of the lower from upper body). Argentine show tango or tango nuevo are slightly different in that the dancers are mainly over their axis, if not leaning against or off the partner in particular off-balance figures. Whether open or closed, the Argentine tango embrace is relaxed and flexible, and can change during a dance, whereas the Ballroom tango embrace (and connection at the hip) is fixed in the same position.



In the Argentine tango the leader may freely step with his left foot when the follower steps with her left foot. In English, this is sometimes referred to as a “crossed” or “uneven” walk (or as “walking in the crossed system”) in contrast to the normal walk which is called “parallel” or “even”. In ballroom tango the “uneven” walk is considered incorrect (unless the leader and follower are facing the same direction).


The music

Argentine tango music is much more varied than Ballroom tango music. A large amount of tango music has been composed by a variety of different orchestras over the last century. Not only is there a large volume of music. There is a breadth of stylistic differences between these orchestras as well, which makes it easier for Argentine tango dancers to spend the whole night dancing only Argentine tango.

Appendix 2


Argentine Tango Dance Styles

The Following list of tango dance styles sketches out some of the most common styles, as differentiated by tango dancers today. In other words, it is not a comprehensive list of all the styles that exist or ever have existed.

A main source is the Argentine writer and journalist Benzecry Sabá’s book, ‘Glossary: Key Tango Argentino Dance Terms’ (2004). His descriptions of dance styles have been verified by famous tango dancers such as Ana María Shapira, Rodolfo Dinzel, Roberto Herrera, Pedro Alberto Rusconi (“Tete”) and Gustavo Naveira. In relation to tango dancing Sabá defines “style” in the following terms:


1.     Imitation of a Teacher’s way of dancing, either in his honour or because it coincides with our own dance aesthetics.


2.     The way a dancer shows his own personality through the Abrazo[38], by his behaviour on the dance floor, by the sequence of figures he improvises, etc. In other words his individuality.


3.     Dancing with movements and positions associated with a specific group, such as people from a certain neighbourhood. …


4.     Manifestation of the features established during the different tango periods.


(Sabá 2004: 145.)


Tango vals and milonga are not on Sabá’s list of styles, nor on any other such lists that I have encountered. The reason is they may be considered different dances, rather than simply different styles of tango. However, the technical bases of these dances are the same as that of tango; what is different is the rhythm of these dances. Therefore some tango teachers regard them as different dances, while others would see them merely as different styles. However we perceive them, I have found it important to include them here because they are danced at every traditional milonga (tango club).



Originally the word “milonga” denoted a type of improvised singing with guitar accompaniment. When the folk-singers of the Pampas, the payadores, brought this tradition with them to Buenos Aires, it acquired its own steps and thus evolved into a dance form (Collier 1997: 40-41). According to Collier, not enough is known to actually be able to describe what this new dance looked like. It seems likely, however, that it was ‘strongly influenced by the new dances imported from overseas’, such as  the waltz and the polka (ibid. 41).

            Also very popular in mid-nineteenth century Buenos Aires – and therefore also likely to have influenced the milonga – was the habanera. The habanera evolved in Habana, Cuba, but is partly European in origin. Its European roots are to be found in the Spanish contradanza, an adaptation of the French contredanse, derived in part from the English “country dances”, danced by the English aristocracy in the seventeenth century (ibid. 40).

            As explained earlier, this original milonga dance fused with the candome, danced by the black community, and then evolved into tango proper (today danced e.g. as tango de salón or milonguero style). Nowadays, however, tango practitioners still dance a dance called milonga. In Wikipedia milonga is categorised as a dance “related” to tango, yet described as


… essentially Tango; the differences lie in the music, which has a strongly-accented beat, and an underlying “habanera” rhythm. Dancers avoid pausing, and often introduce syncopations and broken rhythm into their walks and turns. Milonga uses the same basic elements as Tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than some of those danced in some varieties of Tango (anon., Wikipedia 2006, accessed online).


The tango teachers I spoke with also mentioned the faster rhythm as a distinguishing feature of milonga. As milonga is danced at a much faster pace, and is rhythmically more complex (than e.g. tango de salón) the steps are shorter, and the knees more flexed, allowing the dancers to play more with the rhythm.


Tango vals

Tango dancers dance the vals much like they do tango only with a waltz rhythm that has one beat per measure (at a beginner-level). This produces a rather relaxed, smooth dancing style in contrast to Viennese Waltz where the dancers often take 3 steps per measure and turn almost constantly. Experienced dancers alternate the smooth one-beat-per-measure walk with syncopated walks, stepping on one- two- or (rarely) all three beats in a measure. Vals is characterized by its lack of pauses, and continual turns (giros) in both directions (anon., Wikipedia 2006, accessed online).


Tango de salón (or salon tango)

This style was the most popular during the tango’s Golden Age (beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1950s) when the milongas were held in large dance venues and full tango orchestras performed. The emphasis is on precision, smoothness, and musicality. The couple embraces closely but the embrace is flexible, opening slightly to make room for various figures and closing again for support and poise. The walk is the most important element, and dancers usually walk sixty to seventy percent of the time during a tango song. When tango became popular again after the end of the Argentine military dictatorships in 1983, this style was resurrected by dancers from the Golden Age.




Milonguero style

This style is characterized by chest contact and reserved leg movements. The milonguero, or “close embrace” style evolved in the 1940s when the space became more limited in the milongas of Buenos Aires. While apparently very simple, the milonguero style is a rich and complex form of body signals and incorporates deep respect for the music and its varied rhythms. The result is a form of tango that allows for simplicity of steps while encouraging a strong connection within the couple (and among all the dancers sharing the floor). Keith from The Hong Tango Academy writes about this style:


The most striking quality of Milonguero style is the very close embrace that is a requirement of the dance. The couples lean forward to make contact from the waist to chest and the hold does not change throughout the dance. The lady drapes herself around the man with her left arm around his neck, her eyes are often closed; she surrenders (Keith 2006, accessed online).




Show tango

(Also called: stage tango, tango ballet, tango fantasía, or tango for export)

Created by Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves in the 1950s the style incorporates elements from other dances such as ballet, modern, jazz and acrobatics (Gazenbeek and Laruccia 2005, accessed online). Although show tango looks very different from the tango danced at the milongas, the first exponents of the style did actually study with milongueros, that is, with self-taught social dancers. Anton Gazenbeek, an expert on the famous show ‘Tango Argentino’, notes: ‘The milongueros were the only ones around who danced tango, so there was no other choice but to go study with them’ (ibid.). But because they were professional dancers, already trained in other dance forms, they soon adapted what the milongueros taught them to their own style, and also added theatrical elements, such as dramatic facial expressions, to make the dance look more spectacular (ibid.). Show tango is characterised by an upright posture, long gliding steps and an open embrace – features derived from the tango developed in Paris (Azzi, in Cohen 1998: 93). Anthropologist María Susana Azzi describes this form as a


… technical and structured tango that does not transmit the popular sentiment, the cadence, the pause, or the adagio of the music; the manner of walking one sees in the milongas is not conveyed (ibid.).


But, as she notes, it is necessary to exaggerate and adorn the “authentic” milonguero style, the social dance, in order to make it visually interesting onstage (ibid.).



Tango Nuevo (or Neo Tango)

Sabá (in collaboration with Gustavo Naveira) writes:


Even though many people consider Tango Nuevo to be a tango style comparable to the classical styles such as Fantasía, Salón, Milonguero, etc., I would apply the name to the latest period of the tango, i.e. from the ‘80s onwards. It can be said, in no uncertain terms, that the tango dancing has experienced its greatest technical and artistic evolution between 1980 and today (2004: 151).


An important step in the tango’s evolution appears to have been when tango teachers and choreographers Gustavo Naveira and Fabián Salas began to collaborate in the early 1990s in Buenos Aires. They set out to identify (in more precise terms than previously achieved) the movements of the dance, and were eventually able to uncover the basic elements in the structure of the dance[39] (ibid. and Elshaw 2001, accessed online). ‘Finally’, writes Sabá, ‘the comprehension of the structure led to its evolution, and the resulting development widened the scope of possibilities for the creation of steps and figures and for the rhythmic application to a degree never attained before’ (Sabá 2004: 151).

            Besides choreographic innovation, Naveira and Salas’ analysis of the dance led to the development of better teaching techniques. The concepts they developed to explain the movements are easier to disseminate across cultures than the metaphorical terms of earlier times, and this has undoubtedly had a positive effect on the tango’s global expansion during the last two decades (ibid.).

            Tango nuevo incorporates elements from other dances, such as ballet, modern dance and contact improvisation. Carlos Libedinsky, creator of Narcotango (a famous electro-tango band) and milonguero, describes some of the technical details of tango nuevo in these terms:


Es un baile más abierto, en cuanto al abrazo; fue desarrollando otras formas de encuentro de la energía del hombre y la mujer. Es interesante el asunto del quiebre del equilibrio. En el baile milonguero mucho del equilibrio tiene que ver con el encuentro del plexo en la forma triangular ascendente. En este tipo de baile nuevo se fueron desarrollando otras cosas, como las volcadas. Es un baile más lúdico, menos emocional. Hay un menor encuentro del torso entre el hombre y la mujer. Es menos dramático, menos romántico en el sentido clásico del término, pero cuando hablamos de erotismo también hablamos de poder jugar.

(It’s a more open dance, in relation to the embrace; it developed other types of encounter between the man’s and the woman’s energy. The question of breaking the balance is interesting. In milonguero dance a lot of the balance has to do with the meeting of the solar plexus in the ascending triangular form. In this kind of new (nuevo) dance other things were developed, such as volcadas[40]. It’s a more playful dance, less emotional. There is less of an encounter between the torsos of the man and woman. It’s less dramatic, less romantic in the classic sense of the term, but when we’re talking about eroticism we’re also talking about being able to play.)

(Quoted in: anon., ‘TANGODATA.gov.ar’ 2006,

accessed online, translated by author.)






Appendix 3


Expanding Our Understanding of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

This appendix consists of two ethnographic examples intended to make the reader question the naturalness of the categories of sex and gender found in Western culture. Finally, an example from the animal kingdom will demonstrate that homosexuality is likely to serve an important function with regard to the survival of the species in which it exists.


Example of a third-sex category

Aside from her biological research, Roughgarden investigated the ethnographic literature to see if there existed a culture in which people conceived of a third sex. One of the most interesting cases appears to be an area in the Dominican Republic in which the percentage of intersex people was so high that this group, called guevedoche, possibly came to be seen as a third sex. Roughgarden explains that


Guevedoche are born with unfused, labialike scrotal tissues, an absent or clitorislike penis, and undescended testes. Some guevedoche are identified as such at birth, others are classified as female, but in either case they are raised as girls, not boys. Until age twelve or so. Then the voice deepens, the muscles develop, testes descend, the phallus grows, erections occur, and semen with sperm is produced that is vented below the phallus (ibid. 384-85).


Guevedoche is only a temporary category, as these individuals – because of their physical development – eventually move into the category “male”. Nonetheless, it is possible that people in this area conceived of three body types: male, female and guevedoche (ibid. 385). Unfortunately we will never really know, as ‘medical doctors told the villagers that guevedoche were males and shouldn’t be raised as girls’ and ‘gave the villagers technology to tell a guevedoche from a female at birth, so the social category of guevedoche is now extinct’ (ibid. 385-86).

Example of a third-gender category

In Polynesia the mahu are a third-gender category and include both “feminine” males and (perhaps more recently) “masculine” females (ibid. 337-40). Roughgarden writes that ‘Polynesians are, on the whole, accepting of mahu, primarily because they view mahu as natural, as “being that way”’ (ibid. 339); as she says, ‘Mahu make themselves known while still children by demonstrating transgendered styles of appearance or a preference for transgendered work’ (ibid.) Whether or not a mahu is sexually oriented towards his or her own sex, or the opposite sex, does not affect his or her mahu status, as this category is purely based on gender performance (ibid. 340), that is, “feminine” or “masculine” appearance and behaviour.

            The reason Polynesians are so accepting of a third-gender category is that they conceptualise all humans as “mixtures” of male and female ingredients (ibid.). They therefore perceive it as natural that ‘people differ from one another by having different ratios of male to female’ (ibid.).


Homosexuality: necessary for survival

As mentioned, same-sex courtship, including genital contact, has been observed in over three hundred species of vertebrates (Roughgarden 2004: 128). Many of the scientists who set out to document this hitherto unacknowledged aspect of animal behaviour were themselves gay, lesbian, or transsexual, and wanted to show the world how normal same-sex preferences are, or challenge mainstream conceptions of body types. Roughgarden is no exception here, as she is in fact a transgendered woman (ibid. 1), that is, she used to be biologically male but underwent surgery to become female.

            Rather than merely accepting the ‘neutralist position’ on the matter of homosexuality in all these species, that is, seeing it as an insignificant aspect of animal behaviour, Roughgarden states:


I’m from the other school, the adaptationist school, which holds that nearly all behaviours and traits benefit organisms, and our task is to figure out how. Here’s where I’m coming from. In my experience, animals don’t have lots of free time for hanging out. The lizards I work with are busy all day. When not actively eating, mating or displaying to one another, lizards are looking around intently for food or keeping tabs on their neighbours. Sure, lizards sleep now and then, and they stay in bed on a cold day when they’re too slow to catch prey anyway. Still, lizards use their time wisely… (ibid. 145).  


In support of her argument that homosexuality is in fact important for the survival of the species in which it occurs, she mentions the Japanese macaque monkey, one of our closets relatives in the animal kingdom.

Female macaques engage in frequent ‘short term relationships’ (STRs) with other females – however, not with close kin. Such relationships may last up to four days and involve sleeping and foraging together, grooming each other, defending each other from challenges (such as dominant males), and frequently mounting each other with genital-genital contact (ibid. 142-43). The sexual aspect of the relationship helps to strengthen the bond, while STRs in general serve to strengthen a female’s social ties to other members of her group – an essential aspect of survival, since a female and her offspring will die if they are kicked out of the group (ibid. 147). The absence of STRs with close kin seems to support this explanation, as it would not be necessary to build bonds with family members through STRs, since a female can already count on the support of her close kin (ibid.).        










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[1] This is not as bizarre as it sounds, as tango street performers will often entice tourists to try a tango. Nonetheless, this can be quite overwhelming if one has never danced the tango before.

[2] Milonga: tango dance club (also the name of a particular, fast-paced form of tango dance and music). What a milonga involves will be described in chapter four.

[3] Milonguero/a: one who frequents the milongas (or even: one whose life revolves around the milongas); also: a master of the milonga (or tango) dance technique (Savigliano 1995: 240).

[4] For a discussion of ‘the hegemony which sight has for so long exercised over our own culture’s social, intellectual, and aesthetic life’, see David Howes (1991: 4).

[5] The “Rishikesh Reihe” is a particular movement sequence in yoga (Strauss 2000: 178).

[6] When tango social dancers get together to practice it is referred to at as a práctica. This is not the same as a lesson where a teacher gives instructions, or a milonga which is a social dance. Nor can it be termed a “rehearsal” as the aim is not to perform a show but merely to become a better dancer.


[7] Dance may be seen as ephemeral because it is difficult, if not impossible, to capture the movements – let alone the intensity of the moment - even on film (see e.g. Brooks 1993).

[8] Within dance studies the notion that the body “thinks” is not entirely new. For example, Mabel E. Todd published her book ‘The Thinking Body’ in 1937.

[9] Gauchos: herdsmen or Indians of the Pampas of Argentina (Velásquez 1985: 357).

[10] Read the description of milonga dance in ‘Appendix 2’.

[11] Compadrito: male of the urban slums, arrogant and defiant; ruffian, usually also a pimp (Savigliano 1995: 239).


[12] See ‘Appendix 1’ for a description of the main differences between the Argentine tango and Ballroom tango.

[13] The Dirty War, from 1976-1983, was a seven-year campaign by the Argentine government against suspected dissidents and subversives (Ferguson, 1996: 26-30).

[14] Erin Manning is also director of The Sense Lab, ‘a creative laboratory that explores the sensing body in movement through the prisms of art practice, philosophy, politics and culture’ (see www.thesenselab.com).

[15] The French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) came up with the term “body techniques” or “habitus” (further developed by Pierre Bourdieu) for the culturally determined ways in which we apply our bodies (Mauss 1979, Bourdieu 1990). Anthropologist Edward Hall’s concept of “proxemics” (Hall 1963, 1964, 1979) concerns how our perceptions of the space around us are influenced by culture, and therefore goes hand in hand with the concept of habitus.  

[16] Daniel Stern’s distinction between “vitality affects” (momentary feelings, e.g. a “rush” of joy) as opposed to “categorical affects” (“long-term” emotions) is useful for an analysis of this “performed” yet truly felt aspect of dancing (1998: 54-56).

[17] In what follows, the leader of the dance will be described as male and the follower as female, as this is still the most common scenario at milongas in London. However, there is no reason the follower could not be male, or the leader female.  

[18] This mainly occurs in the dance styles of show tango and tango nuevo – see ‘Appendix 2’.

[19] A development of the notion of leading “from the chest” is to lead “from the stomach”, meaning that the leader’s intention should come from the very centre of his body, which will allow him to give a clear lead, while using a minimum of muscular effort.

[20] A humanistic anthropology that applies embodied participation as a main method of investigation may be seen as a return of the scientist’s body as a valid “instrument” in the search for new insights.

[21] Proprioception: the ability to perceive stimuli produced within the body, especially those relating to the position and movement of the body (OCED 2001).

[22] Montagu demonstrates this with evidence from a variety of medical studies that show how physical touch and loving care is essential for the healthy development of infants and young children (1986).

[23] A study completed by Elena Gianini Belotti (Italy, 1973) showed that boys were weaned later than girls (personal communication with Andrée Grau, 23/11/2006). Interestingly, Italian men are notorious for their comfortable and confident embraces in the tango.

[24] For a more comprehensive discussion of contemporary subcultures, see Dick Hebdige’s chapter ‘The Function of Subculture’ in During 2001, in which he develops upon the ideas of his seminal work ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’ (1979).

[25] Regarding the reversion of ordinary social status Anahi Viladrich’s research on the tango community in New York adds another layer. She describes how people in high positions, such as doctors, meet and mingle with Latin American immigrants, and how they will exchange favours (e.g. free medical consultations) for tango lessons, or simply for the prestige of dancing and socialising with a good dancer (2005: 545). 

[26] Voleo (or boleo): ‘a sharp movement by one leg when a motion is interrupted’ (Sabá 2004: 142).

[27] Some of the old tango music, I find, has a sort of “mantric” quality – pulsating, as it does, in the rhythm of a normal heart rate.

[28] Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “psychic entropy” to describe the mental state in which consciousness is unorded and all kinds of worries make it impossible to remain focused on a task.

[29] These numbers, however, only refer one category of intersexuality, the relatively common ‘congenital adrenal hyperplasia’, which involves that females produce male hormones and ‘ambiguous genitals’ such as a micropenis (ibid.).

[30] There are some gay milongas in London and other parts of the UK, but they are poorly advertised and do not appear to attract many good dancers. In other parts of Europe, the USA, and in Buenos Aires, there is more of a gay tango scene.

[31] In the early twentieth century “sexual inversion” referred to a broad range of cross-gender behaviour. It was viewed as literally a reversion of the sexual personality of a person (i.e. a man having a woman’s brain and vice versa). What we today call “homosexuals” also belonged in the category of “invert” (Bao 1993: 188). 


[32] An interest in eugenics, expressed as an eagerness to protect the “national stock”, within nation states of this period, gave doctors a further excuse to control public “health” and define what was “good” and “bad”, “normal” and “abnormal” sexual practices.  


[33] Along similar lines, Ramsay Burt, who examined representations of masculinity in twentieth-century dance, talks about how power is linked to the act of looking (Burt, 1996:51).

[34] The question of how the ideological framework of modern nation building made various forms of male homosociality (including men’s bodily expressions in tango) suspect has been treated in greater detail in Helmer Jensen 2004.

[35] The French original, ‘Le Deuxième Sexe’, came out in 1949.

[36] Wearing high-heeled shoes makes it easier to lean slightly forward, and yet maintain an erect posture, which is helpful in traditional styles of dancing such as milonguero style or tango de salón. High-heeled tango (or Ballroom) shoes also have leather soles, which makes it easier to pivot. Tango nuevo dancers, who are mainly over their own axis, often dance in trainers.

[37] ‘Ultratango’ is an electronic tango band that mixes tango rhythms with techno.

[38] I have not added these italics. It is interesting to note, however, how the importance of the embrace is stressed. After the embrace, the dancer’s individual behaviour is appreciated, and lastly, his or her figures. In other dance forms, such as ballet or modern dance, the reverse often appears to be the case.

[39] For an explanation of these, see Elshaw’s interview with Salas (Elshaw 2001).

[40] Volcada (tilt): figure in which the leader leads the follower out of her/his vertical stability axis, so that s/he leans inwards (on the leader), while doing decorations with the foot that has no weight on it (Sabá 2004: 142).