Recently, at a tango festival in Saint-Petersburg (Russia), the organiser pushed two women dancing together off the dancefloor in the middle of a song. He insisted that his event honored the “traditions” and did not allow same-sex dance couples. This was not his only attempt to stop women from leading that night. One of them described the incident on Facebook, prompting a broad resonance. Russian tango teacher Viacheslav Ivanov launched a hashtag #tango4all and dancers everywhere showed support by posting pictures of themselves in same-sex or reversed-sex dance couples.
The organising school issued a statement saying that true tango is about men leading and women following and that in their events they will tolerate no exceptions. The timing could not be more ironic. The incident happened on the International Day of Tango, while on the other side of the world, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, motherland of all tango traditions, female leaders were competing in the Tango Championship for Women in Leading Role. So, why do women lead and men follow? Any how is this still an issue?
A male leader and a female follower as a basic configuration is common for all couple dances of the Western world. At its source, a couple dance is exactly what it sounds: a dance to find a couple. In the past, patriarchal cultures controlled gender relations by strict societal rules from which couple dances offered a welcome temporary escape. People could court the opposite gender and find a prospective life or love partner through a ritualised social activity. Men being the dominant gender, their role on the dancefloor was to sweep the woman off her feet. Dance etiquette was put in place to contain this dangerously erotic activity. For a long time, roles and genders were fused and role swapping only happened for practice purposes.
As a dance, tango started with a bad reputation, considered obscene and confined to brothels, lower class venues and mafiosi gatherings, where men would buy a token to have a tanda with the girl of their choice. When Parisians heard about it, they thought “oh, a dirty dance, how delightful!” and set in motion a process that would popularise tango across the world. In the subsequent years both tango music and the dance would undergo a rebranding from sleazy to respectable (including rewriting the obscene lyrics). It would keep, though, its flair of provocative sensuality, of two strangers meeting for a tight embrace and possibly something more than an ocho cortado.
In every couple dance the emphasis, at some point, shifts from “couple” to “dance”. The dance becomes complex enough to be interesting as an art form, as a means of expression rather than dating ground. The roles come somewhat unstuck from gender. This is often the moment when women start outnumbering men. Tango is still both about dance and coupling, but each one of us lives the two components in a very personal way at every particular moment. Many people start tango in hopes of meeting a new love, only to fall in love with a new dance. Also, tango is a tough skill to master and unless you are at least a little bit interested in it as a dance, frankly, there are easier ways to date.
Each role comes with a gendered history. Followers dance on high heels not because they follow, but because women’s party attire traditionally included high heels. Many moves are the way they are because of the initial lack of leg freedom for women in skirts and no such restrictions for men. When around the turn of this century women started wearing pants to milongas, the dance changed too. The wild, loose-legged, fearless nuevo follower was born, with her knockout boleos and whiplike ganchos, moves previously reserved to leaders. The man dumped the suit in favor of baggy pants and a pair of running shoes, and his game became less about seduction and more about freedom, about how far you could stretch the embrace without flying off into outer space. The vocabulary of moves was now almost entirely similar between the two roles. Nuevo, of all styles, was the one to let go of the idea of men necessarily leading and women necessarily following.
Queer tango was born in the same period, starting in Northern Europe and spreading into Argentina and other countries. This movement was about creating a space for people eager to detach themselves from the dominant heteronormative view of tango. They could get together and dance, however and with whomever, without being banned, ridiculed or stigmatised. Queer tango showed us that this dance held within itself possibilities of connection and expression irrespective of gender and sexual orientation, but also that being gay or lesbian and tango were not mutually exclusive.
When salon and milonguero became the dominant styles again, we witnessed the return of the tailor-made pants and proper tango shoes for male leaders, and of a tightly hugging slit dress for the female followers. The embrace closed again, making the couple connection more about depth and less about amplitude. It was a return to the roots, in every way, but at the same time an integration of the previous phase. By now the follower had firmly assumed her role as an equal partner with sophisticated vocabulary. Clearly gender-defined in their appearance, these styles made role swapping less of an obvious choice, but women wanting to lead and men wanting to follow was already too much of a commonplace to be reversed.
I started to lead within the first two years of my tango life. At that time I was living in The Netherlands, a culture of “live and let live”, so around me I saw men lead women, men lead other men, women lead men and women. Bored as I was to wait for interesting leaders to become available and desperate to move to my favorite music, I figured my follower girlfriends would rather dance with a beginning leader like me than not dance at all. I was right. Once I tried it, I loved how it felt. The creativity, the complexity, the responsibility, the feeling of the other person trusting you, the way you channel your musicality through somebody else’s body. I have been leading regularly ever since.
My leading skills became an important part of my profession. The fact that I am an experienced leader as well as an expert follower, makes a tremendous difference. I can teach any role to any person. I tell leaders how their lead should feel, make them feel what I mean and also tell them what to do. I lead followers and assess both their individual technique and their following skills from inside the embrace. Most professionals I know, have a decent level of expertise in both roles. In general, the higher your competence level, the more you see them exactly for what they are: just roles.
As a woman who sometimes leads, I have dealt with various reactions. Like that time in Argentina, when a chubby old milonguero with too much champagne in his system tried to insert himself between me and my follower. Men catcalling me and my follower from the tables. That guy who said: “Would you please dance this tanda with me? You already danced with my girlfriend!” A woman flinging herself into my arms and dragging me onto the dancefloor with the words “I heard you led, here, lead me!” Or the time a group of male friends half-jokingly scolded me because I had the audacity to invite a hot visiting follower before they each had a go.
There are three types of negative reactions dancers get from their environment when they start learning the opposite role. Females are told that “leading too much ruins a good follower”. Males are told “why insist on dancing with other men when so many women are sitting down.” And both at some point confront the statement that “tango is a dance of passion in which a man leads and a woman follows, forever and ever, amen.”
The first belief says that if a woman learned to lead, she would become bossy and rigid in her following, stop listening to her leader, impose her musical interpretation or simply get confused. Also, she might like it and pose a threat to male leaders if good followers enjoyed dancing with her. What this belief reveals, first, is a very unflattering view of a woman’s ability to learn something new and still keep it together. Also, that leading is thought to be a tougher skill than following, challenging to the point of completely confusing or “converting” a fragile female. And most importantly, it reveals a view on leading itself as authoritarian domination, in which the leader commands and the follower obeys.
There are several reasons why we tend to think that leading is more difficult. On one hand, our cultural and political landscapes are still largely male-dominated, meaning that everything men do is by default regarded as tougher, more illustrious and less accessible to the other gender. On the other hand, learning how to lead in tango is really difficult for ANY beginner (male or female) in the first two years of study. Following feels easier in those first years, for reasons I described in another article. It becomes really tough once you start focusing on your technique.
Leading is also more obviously difficult because of navigation, whereas the intricacies of following often hide in little but critical details. Ironically, in many cultures, men are regarded as less gifted for dance except if they are gay, a stigma that can hold a man back from even trying. The male gender is underrepresented in almost any dance class. In tango, the hardships of the first two years scare many men away. When for every advanced male leader we then have several really good female followers, we regard the first one as precious and take the latter for granted.
There is also the issue of high heels. Any female follower knows that dancing on flat shoes feels nothing like dancing on heels. Not only your sense of balance, the sense of your entire body changes on high heels. When men follow, they very rarely do so on heels, so a male follower might get the impression that following is less difficult than it seems. Especially if he struggles with his role as a leader, following might feel like a relief, a giving away of responsibility, of going nicely with the flow. I know men who are appallingly bad at following, yet believe they’ve mastered it and insist I lead them. For a woman to lead comfortably, she would need to change into flat shoes. So role swapping is something men seem to be able to do just like that, but women need to premeditate. I only lead occasionally, therefore rarely have flat shoes with me. When d’Arienzo calls, I would lead on heels. Trust me, it’s not for the faint of the heart.
The domination model, paradoxically, stands in complete opposition to how we teach tango at this day and age. Teachers of my generation and younger see the interaction between roles as a collaboration of equal partners, with a set of shared responsibilities such as embrace, music and dynamic, and some specific ones. The domination model is a reflection of an archaic, neither truthful nor intelligent understanding of tango, but one that we still encounter here and there. In domination model a follower who starts to dance more actively is getting dangerously out of control. In collaboration model, the more a follower is actively participating, the happier the leader will feel. Being intimately familiar with the opposite role becomes a huge advantage.
The only way a follower can go “bad” in the collaboration model is if she can’t quickly switch back to the other role. This could also happen to a leader who follows… right? But has anyone ever told a man that his lead will go stale if he followed too much? There is a wide consensus that understanding the follower’s role does amazing things to a man’s leading. Again, this view evokes the idea that leading is more important, more burdened with responsibilities. Also, that a male leader cannot possibly “unlearn” how to lead. Tango history of men practicing with other men before hitting on the girls, plays an important role in this assumption. Therefore, men are not only “allowed”, in public opinion, to practice following, they are encouraged to do so, but only as far as it serves them to know their followers better. In other words, for practice purposes only.
The moment a male leader falls in love with following for the way it feels and starts inviting other men in milongas, public opinion performs a radical flip. The environment insists on reminding him that we only have “a few good men” against all those followers sitting around getting dusty and sour. A heterosexual man who loves dancing with other men, following or leading, has some explaining to do, including to himself. If people can brush off two women dancing together as girls having fun while the good men are taken, two men enjoying a dance together in close embrace can make people uneasy.
The more homophobia of the surrounding culture imprints itself on a tango community, the less same-sex dancing will be tolerated outside of practice setting. The fact that the incident happened in Russia, comes as no surprise. But even in cultures that pride themselves as open and tolerant, we see female leaders as badass and male followers as cute. We still find “masculinity” to be an upward promotion for a woman but “femininity” degrading for a man. For both genders, we stress that role swapping is either for study or fooling around, suppressing every possibility of a deep, serious human connection or same-sex attraction.
Yet, you see, that possibility is there, every time. When you dance with another person, leading feels different from following in certain ways, but very similar on another, deeper level. It is about closeness. About protecting and trusting the other. About togetherness in fast movements that feels like flying. Conversations in whisper. Sudden moments of complete silence and the joined intake of breath on the rise of the musical wave. The crossing of boundaries, the vulnerability, the mistakes, the joy, the truth, the here and now.
The question, to me, is not whether role swapping somehow damages or dilutes the essence of tango. Non-conforming role interpretation has been in tango from the start and has only grown in popularity. The real question is what its existence says about tango as a dance. And to me, it says that tango has evolved spectacularly, shedding the erotic attraction as a necessary condition in favor of a more encompassing human connection through music and movement. A connection that can harbor erotic attraction of any kind or none at all, and still be true.
Insisting that role reversal is a “lesser” experience is not traditionalism, it is intolerance to a different way of living tango. When you push same-sex couples off the dancefloor, you are not defending some sacred essence, you are being an ass. When a woman leader impresses you because she is a woman, not because she is a good leader, it’s misogyny. If you constantly ridicule men dancing together, it’s homophobia. It’s not about tango, tango does not need us to defend it. Tango wants our authentic desire to connect to another human being. And to me it means that now and then, during a milonga, I will get up to lead another woman to my favorite d’Arienzo while still wearing my favorite heels.
Photo by Lola Berger, www.studiophotoberger.com
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