Negotiating Machismo, ‘Exoticism’ and Feminism on the Dancefloor: Tango Argentino and Transcultural Encounters in the 20th and 21st Century

Federico Ribas, La Evolución del Tango …, Mundial Magazine, Nr. 28 (1913).

In the 20th century, tango argentino, Argentinean tango dancing, became a popular cultural practice in many metropolises all over the world. The image the broader public has of the traditional pair dancing style is, to a large degree, shaped by its depiction in mostly Western, but also Latin American popular culture. Movies such as Tango, no me dejes nunca [English title: Tango] (1998), Naked Tango (1998) and Scent of a Woman (1992) as well as celebrity dancing shows like Dancing with the Stars promote Argentinean tango as a highly sexualized, intimate and exotic dance oozing with stereotypical attributes of masculinity and femininity. In this sense, tango dancing can be fascinating and engaging, but may also be perceived as disreputable or discriminatory, and, thus, repelling. This tension makes for interesting and complicated characterizations of tango dancing, both when it first became a transnational phenomenon at the beginning of the 20th century and from a contemporary perspective.

Two recent monographs on metropolitan tango dancing culture shed light on the transnational negotiation of Argentinean tango in European cities and in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. German historian Kerstin Lange, in her published dissertation Tango in Berlin und Paris. Eine transnationale Geschichte der Metropolenkultur um 1900 (2015), explores the ways in which Argentinean tango dancing became a local cultural practice in Paris and Berlin at the turn of the 20th century. In her dissertation, Lange studies the different ways in which the cultural transfer of tango dancing from Buenos Aires to the European metropolises took place, asking how and by whom conflicts and challenges were negotiated in this process of appropriation. Based on an analysis of contemporary newspapers, magazines and (auto)biographies, her historical study addresses the public discourse on tango dancing in Paris and Berlin at the time and demonstrates how tango argentino as a transnational practice brought with it the so-called ‘exotic’, “die Welt in … [die] Stadt” – the world into the city (emphasis by the author, Lange 2015: 189, 191). Alongside other new forms of leisure activities and amusement such as international theater, Argentinean tango became more accessible to a broader public and thus part of a new, growing metropolitan “mass culture” (“Massenkultur”, Lange 2015: 14f.) that threatened the prominence of established bourgeois leisure activities, but also provided new markets and spaces of leisure in the metropolises.

Kerstin Lange, Tango in Paris und Berlin. Eine transnationale Geschichte der Metropolenkultur um 1900. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

Lange’s dissertation follows the way tango argentino traveled from Argentina to Western Europe – specifically, from Buenos Aires via Paris to Berlin. The two chapters of the book, “Tango in Paris” and “Tango in Berlin,” are based on a parallel structure: they first introduce the metropolises Paris and Berlin at the turn of the 20th century, then examine the role of tango instructors in the transfer of the new dancing style in each city, before closing with an overview of the controversies triggered by tango as part of metropolitan culture (“Metropolenkultur”, 189f.). In view of the intense transnational exchange of tango dancers, instructors and musicians between Buenos Aires and Paris, the chapter on the French metropolis offers a supplementary sub-chapter on Argentinians in Paris, displaying the tension between tango dancing as an immoral way of life and tango argentino as a new, modern representation of national pride and identity on an international parquet (Lange 2015: 89ff.).

Against the backdrop of increasing globalization and more affordable and faster ways to travel to, experience, and exchange different cultures at the end of the 20th century, this interplay of the global and the local plays an even more important role in Kathy Davis’s Dancing Tango. Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World (2015). Passion, the American sociologist argues, is key to everyone who dances tango and is engaged with local and transnational tango communities; as such, it is an accordingly central concept for her analysis. Davis acknowledges most of Savigliano’s (1995) groundbreaking findings on the politics of passion, stating that the gender and class tensions generated by early Argentinian tango – machismo vs. the victimized, though autonomous working-class woman – were reproduced globally against the backdrop of colonial practices of othering and exoticization when tango started to travel to other places.

Kathy Davis’s Dancing Tango. Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World, New York/London: New York University Press, 2015.

However, as Davis argues, to understand tango solely as a form of cultural imperialism and colonial reproduction leaves the “experience of passion” across borders unexplored (Davis 2015: 13, emphasis by the author); by the same token, the recent global revival of tango “requires an approach to tango that connects the personal to the political, the experiential to the performative, and the local to the global” (Davis 2015: 14). Drawing on interviews and ethnographic research, Davis explores tango dancing in the metropolises of Amsterdam and Buenos Aires through the eyes of tango aficionados/as – that is, tango lovers. Davis studies why people in different places are so interested in tango and how they negotiate the ambivalences, contradictions and hierarchies of gender, sexuality and relations of power between North and South.

Passion, gender and transnationality are three different, but interrelated themes which Davis addresses. The introductory chapter shows how the “separation of the salon from ordinary life through its aura of ‘past-ness’ and ‘elsewhere-ness’ … links the tango cultures in Amsterdam and Buenos Aires” more than similar clothing or a shared code of conduct could ever connect them (Davis 2015: 41). Tango salons, Davis argues, become spaces where dancers have the possibility to escape the realities of the present (Davis 2015: 47) and to search for a certain, local sense of authenticity and nostalgia of the tango experience. Combined with personal observations of the author, a polyphony of voices drawn from multiple interviews fill the following chapters, centering on the experience of passion in tango dancing and the different ways in which this passion influences personal trajectories. In the last three chapters, Davis addresses the performance of masculinity and femininity through tango dancing, innovative and alternative queer tango practices in Buenos Aires and abroad, and the importance of transnational encounters for the recent global revival of tango argentino.

As much as Lange’s and Davis’s approach and research questions differ, their works share some common ground. Through their focus on the reciprocal cultural transfer of tango dancing practices between Buenos Aires and European metropolises in the past and present, both studies reveal the importance of tango as a transnational, urban phenomenon that has evolved locally and globally since its inception. Their studies are part of a growing literature on tango dating from the mid-1990s, focusing on local, transnational and global practices (Bergero 2008; Fitch 2015), emotions, passion and intimacy (Savigliano, 1995; Törnqvist 2016), the body and sexuality (Klein 2009; Olszewski 2008; Pellarolo 2009), as well as identity formation and tango as social capital (Viladrich 2005). The combined reading of Lange’s and Davis’s analyses provides valuable and complementary insights into the development of engagements with tango in Western European metropolises and Buenos Aires over the course of time.

When Argentinean tango reached the European dancefloor at the beginning of the 20th century, dancing practices from both sides of the Atlantic influenced each other mutually and complicated the image of one single authentic tango dancing style (Lange 2015: 194). During the “golden age” of tango in Buenos Aires (1935-1952), however, given the reformulation of tango as a specifically Argentinean cultural product, a symbol of argentinidad, the tension between cosmopolitan sensibilities and a desire for authenticity (Davis 2015: 9) became an important part of transnational tango dancing experiences.

Another important shift has taken place regarding the discussion and perception of tango as a sexualized, disreputable dancing practice. As Lange shows, in both Buenos Aires and Europe, the early tango dancing culture led to resistance by urban elites who rejected its working-class provenance and provocative style. Moreover, in European cities, dancers, dancing teachers and the media were torn between a fascination for and a rejection of what most of them perceived as ‘exotic’ (Lange 2015: 191). Yet the critiques in Paris were less pronounced as in Berlin and mostly expressed by Argentineans living in the French capital at the time, fearing that the appropriation of Argentinean tango would lead to a negative image of Argentinean culture and lifestyle (Lange 2015: 97-107). In Berlin, the situation at the beginning of the 20th century was different. The emerging metropolis and German capital was still searching for its own identity and trying to demarcate its political and cultural activities from the Parisian lifestyle, even though many dancers and artists were inspired by and envied the French capital’s role as a modern place for international encounters and exchange (Lange 2015: 152-159).

Over the last twenty years, as Kathy Davis shows, tango argentino became an established transnational dancing style in metropolises such as Amsterdam and Buenos Aires. Inspired by critical feminist and postcolonial theory, Davis’s contemporary critique addresses the eroticized and sexualized practice and image of tango dancing and explores how the heteronormativity, notions of ‘exoticism’ and hierarchies of sexuality and gender embodied in tango dancing are increasingly challenged (Davis 2015). In this context, Davis discusses her own uneasiness about her passion for tango dancing as a critical feminist scholar, posing the – unanswered – question of whether given tango’s “hypermasculine machismo and subservient, seductive femininity” (Davis 2015:184), feminism and tango dancing are compatible at all.

Both studies provide fascinating accounts of Argentinean tango in Buenos Aires and European metropolises and offer new insights into the transnational negotiation of tango dancing, its critiques and its role in the shaping of (post)modern cosmopolitan lifestyles. Both also invite further research on those aspects of tango that have had and continue to have an important impact on the practice of tango dancing, its role within (national) identity formation and its implementation as a part of a transnational, local and global popular culture. Notably, three elements, that neither Lange nor Davis addressed in depth, deserve more scrutiny.

Federico Ribas, La Evolución del Tango …, Mundial Magazine, Nr. 28 (1913).

First, the role of religion and the critical, conservative and traditional perception and condemnation of tango as an immoral dance form should be explored. Though recent tango studies emphasize that the current Argentinean pope himself is a tango aficionado,[1] many Catholics and other religious adherents, particularly but not exclusively in Argentina, perceive tangoing as an offensive sin. Little research has yet addressed this issue, which would further complicate the narrative of tango and its local appropriations as a global dancing practice. In a recent study on Global Tangos (2015), Melissa Fitch briefly raises the question of how religious beliefs and ethnic differences could hinder Jewish people and Muslims in Jerusalem in engaging together in the tango dancing scene. But in the end, she dismisses her own argument far too easily by ultimately stating that “tango knows no religion” (Fitch 2015, 195). Her romanticized view of tango as a global and pacifist practice does not hold the ground, even though shared cultural practices may help to overcome political and cultural differences.

Second, tango music plays a significant role for the understanding and promotion of Argentinean tango dancing, the development of different tango styles and, thus, the re-interpretation of form and content of tango argentino. A recent example is the emergence of tango electrónico, electro-tango, which became famous worldwide via bands such as the French group Gotan Project, the Argentinean band Tanghetto and the Argentinean-Uruguyan ensemble Bajo Fondo. The accelerated rhythms of tango electrónico inspired tango aficionados/as to adapt their dancing style; moreover, the modernized electronic form of tango music became much more accessible to a younger and broader audience. It would thus be fascinating to conduct contemporary studies on the interplay between transnational tango dancing practices and tango music in Buenos Aires and abroad – not only in Western metropolises, but also in other cities and urban areas with enduring tango scenes such as Tokyo, Montevideo, Medellin, Moscow or Jerusalem.

Last, but not least, changes in the dancing style of Argentinean tango in Buenos Aires offer new perspectives for feminist and queer tango lovers. This includes not only the queered tango practices outlined by Davis (127-154), which have now become more common in Buenos Aires and other cosmopolitan tango communities, inviting women to take leading roles and men to take the role of the follower or for men to dance only among men, women only among women. It also includes – and here I also refer to my own experience as a tango aficionada in Buenos Aires in the mid-2000s – a new, contemporary tango argentino dancing style that gives its followers, still mostly women, much more space for physical movements through a more open embrace, increasingly encouraging them to decide individually on improvised follower embellishments and turns. In this context, the link between the modernized role of women and the implementation of a “modern version” of tango argentino on the dancefloor[2] should be explored further. In the meantime, Argentinean tango will hopefully continue to attract new generations of passionate tango aficionados/as regardless of their ethnic and social backgrounds, religious beliefs and gender identities.

Reviewed:

Kathy Davis, Dancing Tango. Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World. New York/London: New York University Press, 2015.

Kerstin Lange, Tango in Paris und Berlin. Eine transnationale Geschichte der Metropolenkultur um 1900. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

Selective Bibliography

Bergero, Adriana J., Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires, 1900-1930. Illuminations: Cultural Formations of the Americas Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

Fitch, Melissa A. (ed.), Global Tangos. Travels in the Transnational Imaginary. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2015.

Klein, Gabriele (ed.), Tango in Translation. Tanz zwischen Medien, Kulturen, Kunst und Politik. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009.

Olszewski, Brandon, “El Cuerpo del Baile: The Kinetic and Social Fundaments of Tango.” Body and Society 14 (2008) 2: 63–81.

Pellarolo, Sirena, “Queering Tango: Glitches in The Hetero-National Matrix of a Liminal Cultural Production.” Theatre Journal 60 (2009) 3: 409–431.

Savigliano, Marta E., Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995.

Törnqvist, Maria, Tourism and the Globalization of Emotions: The Intimate Economy of Tango. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Viladrich, Anahí, “Tango Immigrants in New York City. The Value of Social Reciprocities.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34 (October 2005) 5, 533–559.

[1]„Tango Dancers Gather in Vatican to Celebrate Pope’s Birthday.” Irish Times, 17 December 2014: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/tango-dancers-gather-in-vatican-to-celebrate-pope-s-birthday-1.2040860; “The ‘La Croix’ Interview: On Clericalism and the Tango,” Catholic World Report, 28 May 2016: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/4811/the_la_croix_interview_on_clericalism_and_the_tango.aspx, both accessed on 23 January 2017.

[2] “El tango se renueva: ahora las mujeres ‘cabecean’ y tienen un rol más activo” Clarín, 14 October 2016: http://www.clarin.com/sociedad/renueva-ahora-mujeres-cabecean-activo_0_H1lFHkhC.html, accessed 22 January 2017.


Annette Karpp

Annette Karpp is a PhD candidate in history at the Graduate School of North American Studies (GSNAS) at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests include popular culture, music and politics, the history of human rights, and grassroots and social movements. In her PhD project, she explores the tension between certain punk ethics such as anti-establishment, non-conformity, anti-capitalism, the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) approach and the increasing advocacy of punks for human rights since the 1970s. She focuses on strategies and practices of political participation by members of London’s and New York City’s punk scenes studying how punk became increasingly politicized during this period.

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One thought on “Negotiating Machismo, ‘Exoticism’ and Feminism on the Dancefloor: Tango Argentino and Transcultural Encounters in the 20th and 21st Century

  1. Thanks for this piece, super interesting! I’ve been working on tango from a gender/queer, cultural studies, and sociology of embodiment perspective for many years, If you’re interested, please check

    https://www.academia.edu/6181944/Moved_and_Moving_discourses._Why_tango_can_make_gender_relations_dance._Translated_by_Christian_Koop

    https://www.academia.edu/5558344/The_Dance_of_Construction_Tango_and_Gender_Chapter_6_from_Sexy_Bodies_

    and meet me at the Tango Marathon Berlin, August 4-6th 😉
    saludos
    paula

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