“You’re not getting the lead,” he tells me. Gruff, mid-fifties, beady eyes, a ponytail dwindling halfway down his back, Ponytail Man chose me as his partner for this advanced tango class at Floreal, a traditional milonga in Buenos Aires. It’s nice to be chosen, but now I’m not sure. Two famous teachers, los Totis, are teaching an unusual sequence. We’ve danced three songs and aren’t getting it. (A milonga, for those who do not dance, is the sacred place where where people gather to dance tango.)
“You have a vicio (a bad habit) with your elbow that is breaking the lead,” he barks, clearly blaming me. I narrow my eyes and stay silent to keep the peace.
After two songs I escape his clutches and try the move with the teacher. No problem. I try the sequence with another man, a sweet twentysomething in a gray suit with a pink handkerchief who is trying with all the women in the room. With him the move works fluidly.
Ratty Ponytail Man, standing in the corner, beckons me to try again.
“I will try if it’s in the spirit of being partners,” I tell him. “I got it fine with the others.” This time I’m not letting him walk all over me.
Time stops, and the room goes fuzzy.
“You don’t want me to tell you things?” he says, his eyes incredulous. “You need to know you are in tango and tango is machista. Tango is the creation of men, that’s the way it is and you need to accept it, you are in Buenos Aires.” He looks around the room, as if I don’t know where I am. “You can go to milongas with the pibes (boys) where it’s 50-50 but in a traditional milonga it’s machista and that’s the way it is.”
To be “macho” could be a male aspiration, to be manly, strong, protective, and even nurturing. But in Argentina machista has come to mean “chauvinist,” a male desire for control and domination.
“So what does that mean? I don’t get a voice?” I ask in disbelief.
“If you want to become a professional dancer then you can have something to say. You need to work on your turns.”
“Oh, right. My turns. So I need to be a professional to say something. I’m here to enjoy myself.”
He extends his hand to me. Does he really think I’m going to dance with him now? Is blatant sexism attractive to other women?
“You tire me. I’m tired,” I say.
He stalks off. I sink into a chair on the periphery and watch him invite his new partner. . . err, victim. His bluntness shocks me. This is a man’s world so shut up and accept it? Really? I grew up in Rhode Island in the 80s listening to Annie and Free to Be You and Me, believing that the world belonged equally to all of us.
The milonga starts. I join three friends over a bottle of Malbec. My three friends and I met in 2012 at Dinzel Studio, a hippie tango school that teaches the dance as a dialogue between equals. I tell them about Ponytail’s comments as I pour myself a glass of wine.
Elyse, a French physicist who switched careers to become a tango teacher, says, “You should have recorded it. It’s such a caricature.”
Linda, a physical therapist from Idaho, tells me, “He’s a jerk, let it go.”
I can’t seem to let it go. I change out of my tango shoes and into street shoes and on the way out I pass the male Toti smoking a cigarette in the vestibule. I tell him what happened.
He says, “You shouldn’t put up with that.”
“I tried and got a machista speech.”
“Mala suerte (bad luck),” he says with sympathetic eyes that say, “Move on.”
Easy for you to say, dude, I think, as I head out to find a cab. Perhaps I’m being dramatic. Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a moment of seeing reality for what it is. Tango reflects society, and brings up many of the familiar struggles of womanhood. The older I get, the more clearly I see that sexism shapes our world. I didn’t notice sexism as much when I was younger and the beneficiary of youth’s privileges. But now I can’t deny that arrogant men will mansplain on the dance floor and there’s far more pressure on women to look decorative, young and thin than there is on men.
Why would I accept sexist rules in the world I love? I flag down a cab and get in. These are my spinning thoughts on the cab ride home, through Buenos Aires’ graffiti- and street-art-marked streets of European buildings and Latin chaos. You’re supposed to be a good girl and smile and pretend that sexism doesn’t exist. I don’t feel like pretending. When I get home I slam the cab door.
Is tango macho?
The next day I call Miles on Skype. Miles is my Argentine ex, and ever since we broke up, he’s remained a close friend and interpreter of Argentine culture and men. Miles is a sensitive Argentine man, intellectual, kind, very unlike the stereotype of the arrogant Porteño (resident of Buenos Aires). Back when we were getting to know each other in 2013, Miles would come over to drink mate–the ultimate Argentine ritual, a way of relaxing and doing nothing together–and listen to tango songs. He shared explicitly macho songs with me, like the classic “Porque Canto Asi,” “Why I Sing as I Do.” The lyrics radiate macho feeling:
And I was made in tangos
Because … Because tango is macho!
Because tango is strong!
It has something of life,
It has something of death.
After playing that song for me, Miles asked me, “How can you be a feminist and like tango?”
I laughed. Why not? “Of course I can,” I said. “Feminism is about freedom. It’s about seeing women as human beings. A feminist can enjoy dancing.”
Everyone who knows me knows I am a feminist. I have never hesitated to use the f-word to describe myself; it’s always seemed like the most common-sense thing in the world. I’m a woman, why wouldn’t I support women?
Everyone who knows me also knows I love tango. I rearranged my life to live in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, back in 2012.
Nothing has ever given me more mind-cleansing pleasure (or revelation) than tango. I like being seen as a woman. and I don’t mean dresses or high heels. I mean being a woman in the deepest sense: embodying femininity, receiving a masculine energy and sending something feminine back. I love being embraced by men with puffed-out chests that invite me to puff my chest out too. I enjoy the gender play: being a woman and dancing with a man, or even, being a woman and dancing with a woman who adopts the masculine, assertive lead role.
As a tango follower, I close my eyes, surrender to the music and the moment and let go in a way that I don’t do in any other part of my life. Tango has also made me taller. In six years, tango molded me into a queen in a way no therapy or physical therapy ever could have. Tango trained me to stand up straight with a more powerful physical presence.
Why should there be any contradiction at all between tango and feminist? Tango is a lead-follow dance. Men lead. Women follow.
Do we see the dance as a dance of equals?
Do men see followers as equals?
Do we women see ourselves as equals?
After last night with Ponytail, I wonder if Miles was right. I tell him the story of Ponytail and now it’s Miles’s turn to laugh.
“Obviously your feminism is stronger than your love for tango.”
“You’re right,” I tell him. “I refuse to stay in an environment that degrades me.”
“Tango is very macho,” he said. “And Buenos Aires tango is more macho.”
“I know,” I said.
What am I supposed to do, stop dancing? If we’re honest, tango in Buenos Aires is not the only male-dominated arena. What about Congress, Uber, Fox-news, or the streets? If most of the world is male-dominated, how do women keep dancing within it?
Ponytail man was right about one thing. Tango’s origins are definitely history: the dance was born primarily among men. Tango’s roots come from Africa, the Caribbean, and the pampas (the plains of Argentina), but most agree that the dance crystallized in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina and Uruguay, in port cities among waves of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century.
In the late 19th century Buenos Aires was male-dominant. More men than women sailed from Spain and Italy to Argentina, hoping to make their fortune and return to Europe. Most stayed in Argentina and Uruguay, where there were few women. Men practiced tango together in crowded conventillos (like the teeming tenements on New York’s Lower East Side) with the hope of getting good enough to dance with a woman. Tango was the lonely man’s chance to embrace a woman. Some would say that tango was always an homage to the woman, to the mother, to the desire for a hug.
Fast forward 120 years. Tango went dark under Argentina’s repressive dictatorship and bounced back going global in Europe, the U.S., and Asia in the 90s. The gender situation has reversed. Globally and in Buenos Aires, more women than men dance.
Even though women are now the majority in tango a macho vibe persists. Sexism dies hard out of respect for the traditional codes.
The only way for a woman to escape the sexism seems to be to learn to lead. A leader, male or female, can ask anyone to dance. Women leaders are now enjoying an in-vogue status in Buenos Aires where they had to fight for respect in the past. I enjoy leading. Dancing the lead allows me to fully express my musicality. While following taught me about surrendering to the moment and pleasure, leading helps me develop qualities of decisiveness and assertion.
But my first love is undeniably following.
Finding myself as a follower
But I can’t help but ask, if tango is macho, or machista, does the feminine energy in the follower role get a fifty percent equal role in the dance?
I have been to many tango classes where tango teachers teach passivity in the female role. I’ll never forget the women’s technique class I took from a well-known Argentine woman teacher who told a group of women, “Technique is all you need. You don’t need any style. If you had a style, that would actually hurt because you would be less malleable.” I wondered if she thought a woman’s job was to be malleable off the dance floor as well as on it. She was married to her dance partner. I thought of a woman adopting all the preferences and personality of her husband. You like that wine, I love that wine. You love that neighborhood, I love that neighborhood. She was a beautiful dancer but there was something generic about her dance. It was technically perfect but soulless. Boring. She seemed too malleable.
I love the female role in tango. But I also want a voice. I want to be a full partner, not a sexy rag doll being danced by a man. Following is boring if don’t make it your own. I want to feel like I’m dancing.
After five years of dancing, my discontent with boring following welled up within me. I decided to do something about it by August 2015. I stop taking classes from that woman and return to DNI, a tango school founded by Dana Frigoli, a woman who teaches an active female role based in technical precision. If you want to be a strong woman, you need the inspiration of other strong women.
When truly expressive women dance there is a higher order to the game. You speak with your own voice in your follower response; you make your personality apparent. This is the active follower who speaks.
I book a lesson with Vicky Cutillo, a teacher who often wears cargo pants and Converse sneakers. She doesn’t seem worried about dressing traditionally hot (after all, there’s nothing less sexy than feeling obliged to dress sexy) and when she gives performances with her husband Jose, you can see her daring and teasing him before connecting with him. She’s ridiculously sexy, never boring.
“What do you want to learn today?” Vicky asks as she queues up songs on her iPod.
“Aesthetics. I want to dance more beautifully. Expression.”
“Bueníssimo,” she says with a sparkle of excitement. “Great. Learning aesthetics is the most exciting part of the learning process.”
We dance two songs. The lesson takes an unexpected turn. “The first thing to learn is how to brake the man,” Vicky explains. “This is how you show him that it’s your time. You squeeze his hand this way, at the same time grip his back put energy into your own back muscles to say, STOP. This is my moment.” I find this fascinating, and I listen to her carefully.
“It’s also important to be aware of the music at the same time,” she explains, “because you are choosing to decorate a moment. You don’t randomly stop your partner at a moment when it doesn’t make sense.”
“Tomar espacio?” I ask. “To take up space?” I expected her to teach me technical things about how to make embellishments with my feet, but she is teaching me the technique of the follower’s assertion within the couple. To make our voices heard, we have to make space for them.
“Yes, to take up space.” Vicky looks delighted that I had used these words, as if she knows there is a feminist trajectory in learning tango. A beginner starts out simply following, but as you advance you learn how to express yourself too within the lead-follow dynamic.
Tango already had unlocked so many things for me: the ability to live in the moment, let go, stop thinking, feel pleasure and stand up straighter. But this lesson felt like the cherry on top of all the other lessons. In a very physical way, tango was teaching me how to shine as a woman in a male-led dance. I could use my body to speak. To use braking body language, “Mi amor, mi vida, this is my time.”
Tango lessons have always translated for me as a reference point for life off the dance floor. The world de facto tells women to take up less space: to cross our legs while men spread theirs on the subway; to diet; to smile when a man interrupts us; to slouch to make ourselves invisible on the street. Tango, by contrast, teaches a woman to be bigger. To stand tall and proud in the encounter with a man.
When I learn something through my body I remember it. Movement anchors the lesson throughout my whole body, not just in my head.
The true meaning of “it takes two to tango”
For my final session that month, I booked a session with JuanPi, one of my favorite teachers. “What do you want from this class?” he asks. “Expression,” I say. “I’m working on being more expressive.”
After the first few dances, JuanPi says, “Show me you. Be more you. I don’t feel you. You need to have confidence that what you are doing is good. You will be playing a game to see who likes that and who doesn’t. What would you say to those men who don’t want it?”
“I’m a person, too,” I say, suppressing a laugh.
The music comes on, a strong beat from Di Sarli’s “Champagne Tango.” JuanPi wraps me in an embrace and I do the same. He walks and pivots slowly, giving me the time to feel the music. I make rhythmic taps with my feet. I pause when I feel the music calls for it to heighten the drama in our connection. I caress my own leg and his with my calf and heel. Between dances we slap five. We feel like a team. JuanPi is clearly still leading, but he’s also listening—and following me. I feel a joy in tango that I had not felt in a long time because I feel like I am actually dancing
After giving JuanPi multiple hugs at the end of our lesson, I bounce down the streets of Almagro, one of the Buenos Aires’ traditional tango neighborhoods to an antique Café Notable, Nostalgia. We took a video of our final songs. I order a cortado (coffee with a bit of milk) and after I order, I press play. I am eager to see if the dance looks as it felt. In the video, I see something I have never seen from myself before: a dialogue, a woman contributing half of the conversation. Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
It’s been a year since the run-in with Ponytail. I haven’t left the milongas. I am clear about what I’m dealing with. When I go out to dance tango, I look for the men who want equal participation from women and screen out those who do not. I study only with teachers who value the female role.
Miles and I continue to talk about the uphill battle of changing a machista culture. He warns me not to have any illusions. I don’t. The macho nature of Porteño tango culture is strong. I spend time in other communities like yoga and tantra where people share more explicitly feminist values.
Men like Ponytail are still out there, as are women who want to follow passively, as are men who find those women dancers boring. What I’ve discovered as a feminist in tango is that male allies are critical. If I dance as an active follower with someone who wants passivity, we will be in a battle of the sexes. When I dance with a man who welcomes equal participation, we can dance.
Ponytail and much of his generation will never get it. But culture evolves as the dance evolves. It’s also important to work on how I see myself. It’s easy to fall into my own potholes of inferiority. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to dance, after I spray on my perfume, I give myself a one-sentence pep talk, “I will see myself as an equal.” Then I go out to dance.
Note: To go deep into the gender dynamics of traditional tango invitation, watch the brilliant feminist anthropologist Marta E. Savigliano break down the “active passivity” of the milonguera in this video on the Wallflower and the Femme Fatale.
Sasha Cagen is the author of the cult hit Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics; she’s at work on a memoir called Wet.
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