Think of tango and the classic images of Argentina’s beloved dance come quickly to mind: a woman draped in red, her heel kicking up under an asymmetrical, lace hemline, clinging closely as her partner leads a dramatic display of love and longing. But almost two centuries into its history, a new generation of dancers are taking tango into the 21st century.
Yes, the silhouette of a cherry-dressed brunette guided by her partner, his face shadowed under the brim of a dainty fedora, remains on the postcards peddled on El Caminito and in some of the most touristy tango shows. But away from the spotlight of tourism, in the milongas of Balvanera or Boedo, tango is modernising.
Dancers dressed in black, orange, blue, even plain clothes, electro-tango playlists on Spotify, and shows with elements of surrealism hint at some of the changes that the rhythmic dance has seen in its history stretching back almost 200 years. Yet, the updates to the dress code and the music of tango only expose the absence of one glaring revision: the role of the dancers has remained remarkably immutable.
“The traditional tango couple is a man and a woman,” said Mariana Docampo, the founder of Tango Queer, one of the first LGBTQ+ tango classes in Buenos Aires. “The man leads, the woman is led.”
In the void of studios offering flexible roles – ironic for a dance that requires lithe movements – the idea for a new space for tango was born: one that not only allowed for the queerification of the dance, but permitted dancers of any gender to fill the role they pleased: lead, or be led.
Seventeen years ago, emerging from the lesbian spaces where she taught tango classes and performed in a monthly milonga called “Bitch Kisses,” Docampo founded a new studio. Tango Queer, as she named it, was created for “lesbians and feminists,” but also for anyone who wanted to be liberated of the binary tanguero roles.
The motivation behind Tango Queer was as simple as the roles themselves: to create a safe space for people of all sexual and gender identities to practise tango and to be able to dance with whoever they want.
“My desire was to dance with other women,” said Docampo simply. “And I wanted to be able to guide with either a man or a woman.”
Many of the traditional tango spaces were initially resistant to the change. But, Docampo explained to the Times in an interview, the queer tango movement forced progress; disseminating the idea that women were questioning gender roles and queer people interrogating heteronormativity began a gradual remodel of the norms both inside and out of dedicated queer spaces.
The history of Argentina’s iconic dance is long, winding – and it depends on who you ask. For 60-year-old documentary filmmaker and expert Liliana Furió, it’s all relative to the creation of Tango Queer.
“It’s the before and after in the tango world,” she said.
Consult the history books, and the answer begins in the late 19th century in the working-class areas of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The recent influx of immigrants to the sister cities created a cultural dust storm that spun together the European waltzes and polka with African candombe and Cuban habanera.
The dance, with its jumbled history, became known as “music of the immigrants.” That is, until it reached the inner city, where people of all classes began to enjoy tango dances and the accompanying gramophone records.
As the tango craze struck the city, men led full-skirted female partners and other tuxedoed men through the streets –– they danced with whoever they could find to practise their new moves. Eventually, dancing with a partner of the same gender was disparaged for reasons of “immortality,” and gay coupling was erased from tango’s history.
But, Docampo noted, “it wasn’t always like that. In the history of tango there are many examples of same-sex couples, of men dancing with men and women with women.”
Queer tango as a movement itself didn’t emerge until the 1990s. And even that existed in the subterranea. Argentina, though theoretically progressive in terms of LGBTQ+ rights –– same-sex marriage was legalised five years before the United States and transgender job quota laws in the public sector are ahead of most of the world –– is practically very machista.
In the tango world, this was especially flagrant. In many of the city’s traditional milongas, Furió said that a few years ago, dancers would be glared at or even thrown out for dancing the opposite role or in a same-sex coupling. It was discouraging, she admitted.
“I thought tango was an absolutely beautiful dance, but also absolutely machista, so I wasn't interested in it at all,” Furió divulged.
Then, she was introduced to Tango Queer.
“[Docampo] was proposing from the start that all people could have access to both roles, wasn't she? It was in a space where we were all women, in a space of lesbian militancy, and I thought the idea was fantastic,” Furió said.
Not only did Furió learn to tango at Tango Queer, she learned to lead and met the love of her life. She later opened her own queer milonga, La Furiosa Milonga, which she runs with her now-wife. Furió was so enraptured with the queer tango movement that she began filming a documentary about the history of queer tango, quippingly titled Tango Queerido.
Almost parallel to Furió’s tango evolution, the queer tango movement developed throughout the capital, with several LGBTQ+ milongas now freckling the map and a queer tango festival held annually. While discrimination in traditional milongas is far from eradicated, most dance studios in the city allow for gender intermingling amongst dancers.
“In a way, for me, Tango Queer was a big part of the transformation we see today in Argentine tango, where roles are danced much more flexibly,” Docampo told the Times. “Two women dance together, two men dance together.” It’s not so complicated.
Tango in BA
Cheek-to-cheek, feet flipping up and legs rhythmically weaving together, two women dance at a milonga co-organised by Tango Queer and La Marshall, its gay counterpart, in Almagro.
Across the city, on the border of Puerto Madero, visitors to the Tancuir milonga see a similar sight on Saturday nights: mixed-gender couples in close embraces, dancing to live music played in front of a large pride flag.
In established studios and some random spaces –– Tango Queer often hosts dances at the Macedonian Cultural Center –– queer tango is springing up in venues dispersed around Buenos Aires.
For 34-year-old Anahí Carballo, the director of the Tancuir milonga, Estudio Tango Cuir and dance company Tango Entre Mujeres, the dance has always been a part of her life. With parents who were both tango and folk dancers, Carballo has been stepping to the baldosa and molinete since she was young.
But she says dancing the tango with another woman was a whole new experience for a life-long tanguera –– it was liberating.
“For me, queer tango is synonymous with freedom,” Carballo pronounced. “It is to be able to express myself with freedom through a dance that for many years I considered had only one way of being danced and performed.”
Through her classes and her performances, Carballo aims to create a safe space for everyone from newbies to longtime dancers like herself to feel the same escape from the dance’s traditionally-rigid heteronormativity.
Through choreography and staging –– hands on bare backs, bodies pressed together –– Carballo presents a different reality than many of the traditional tangos she’d seen: women who want to dance together. That, she explained, is “opening the spectrum of tango structures and breaking with this dance that is an icon of the heteropatriarchy.”
Desire and visibility typify a dance that is traditionally vibrant and seductive. But assign those same descriptions to queer tango, and it becomes a radical act, one that closes doors and inspires whispers. So instead, queer tango embraces its provocation and proposes something new: a dance with all the same moves, but with a subversive flare.
“I think that the flag of queer tango is militancy, the need to be able to give this surname to a genre that is already very established,” Carballo explained.
“It’s a dance and a political objective,” agrees Furió. Queer Tango, which she often dances with her wife on their porch, represents queer desire and closeness, and that in itself is powerful.
“It’s a very important tool, that which the embrace gives you, that possibility of feeling that you don't always have to play the role dictated to the woman or the man, but that you have all the information and you can choose the embrace and the way of dancing as you feel it or want it at that moment,” Furió posited. “That seems liberating to me.”
In the safe spaces of specifically queer tango classes and shows, LGBTQ+ dancers don’t have to choose between comfort and dancing the role that they please. With more and more queer-led studios emerging around the city, dancers of different identities don’t have to travel far to tango with their communities.
The goal of queer tango, however, was never to stay in gay enclaves. As Furió explained. “It has always been to get out of these so-called ‘ghettos’ and to be able to take this form of dancing to every other milonga.”
In many ways, this goal is promisingly underway. In the 20 years since Docampo first tangoed with another woman, lesbian, gay, trans, and switched-role dancers are increasingly visible. The list of those who have invited Tango Queer to perform includes the British Embassy, who invited its dancers to put on a show at an event in 2021.
Outside of LGBTQ+ spaces, queer tango is becoming more mainstream and influencing even the most traditional tango studios in the city to allow for more malleable roles.
Tango Queer is perhaps the first true modernisation of an almost untouched relic of Argentine cultural history, but Docampo is humble about its impact.
“I believe that the success is that it exists, that the concept has been spread,” she insisted. “The biggest success is that it survives and continues doing so.”