The history of the tango is actually kind of gay

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The tango, a traditional Argentinean dance, is typically associated with strong, dark men and long-limbed women acting out sex in dance form. Or, as Julie Taylor, anthropology professor at Rice University says, “over-the-top heterosexist drag.”

From this perspective, the past few years of queer tango in Argentina are an innovation, an adaptation from the traditional gender roles. But, despite a mythology that links the tango with brothels, historical research shows that the tango was danced by male couples from the beginning. And so, rather than pushing boundaries, queer tango is a return to the origins of the dance.

The first published tangos date to the 1870s, suggesting the dance began informally the previous decade, at a time when Argentinean society was predominantly male. A famine in Europe led families to send their sons to the new world to make money, and this wave of immigration created a skewed gender balance in Buenos Aires.

“There was a much greater population of eligible young men than women,” says Daniel Trenner, a tango teacher who lectures on the subject at Mt. Holyoke College and Smith College in Massachusetts. The men lived together in tenement housing, and one of the few places where they might hope to meet a young woman was at a social dance. But the competition was fierce, says Trenner, so “you did not go to dance with a girl not knowing how to dance.”

Men would practice together, perfecting their polka and waltz so that they could impress a woman when the time came. It seems the tango began in the tenements as the men’s fantasy dance.

“The risqué thing that made the tango different from other dances is you put your leg in between the space between the follower’s legs,” Trenner says. “The tango was their fantasy dance of what they’d like to do with the girls but didn’t get to.”

Both Trenner and Taylor say there’s no evidence to suggest the tango began in brothels in that time. “If you do any historical research you realize brothels in Buenos Aires in 1880s were like brothels in Bombay India. The women hardly got off of their backs. There was no place for socializing and dancing and piano and wood floors and dressing up,” says Trenner.

Though men began dancing tango with an eye to wooing women, Trenner says there was certainly a “semi-secret” gay culture. There were certain dancers who were famously good followers and who didn’t go to social dances with women. These men were “fought over,” says Trenner, as the preferred partners. “There was an unstated queer element of the male practice.”

At first the tango was considered a scandalous dance, both for its African inflections and its sexual connotations. But those who embraced the dance considered it an expression of distinctly Argentinean culture. And over the decades, the tradition of men learning the dance together continued, with fathers teaching their sons the proper steps inside the family home.

Taylor says that older generations have told her about “nurturing” the dance. The tango belonged in the home, she says, in part because in the early 20th century the streets were dark at night and nightlife was considered indecent. Fathers considered it their cultural duty to pass on the tradition of the tango. “They understood this was an Argentine dance,” she adds.

This was solidified in the 1940s, the golden age of tango, when the dance reached its zenith and became the pinnacle of Buenos Aires social life. While the rest of the world was at war, Buenos Aires was culturally vibrant and the tango was “much like the hip hop scene in New York,” says Trenner. “It was gangster culture.”

But though men and women danced together at social events, called milongas, much of society was still conservative and segregated along gender lines. Milongas were “highly formalized rituals” where “you could not be bad at it to participate,” says Trenner. This meant men and women still had to practice with members of the same sex.

The tradition of men practicing tango together continued through the 1950s, meaning all-male couples were the norm for close to a century. Taylor says she’s heard reports that the classic tango turn, the giro, was invented at a construction site.

She points to a famous photograph of butchers posed in tango positions together. The photograph reflects power and identity, says Taylor.

“It’s taken from the front. You can’t see any man’s hand around another man’s waist. All you see is their fists. It’s a powerful photo and a powerful stance. And no women,” she adds.

In the mid-fifties, the Argentinean economy collapsed and the country went through 30 years of corruption and oppression. Social events, and with them, the tango, were suppressed. Once the tango returned, slowly, in the mid-1980s, feminism rejected the notion of gender separation and encouraged women to practice alongside men.

“So in tango’s modern revival, you had men leading women [during practice]. Which is really far from the tradition,” says Trenner.

This was a mistake, says Trenner, because to be truly good at the tango, you have to understand and be able to dance both roles. Slowly this is being re-introduced, both at queer tango social events and throughout the tango world. “In order to prepare for the ritual environment of tango you have to learn how to lead and follow. You have to have embodied experience of both parts to be good at either,” he says.

At La Marshall, a gay milonga in Buenos Aires, tango instructor Augusto Balizano says that he believes men practicing tango together in the past was often an erotic experience for those who were secretly gay. But he says he’s only heard vague mentions of the history of men dancing together. This history is not particularly well known, says Taylor. As with many popular arts, the lack of precise documentation at the time of its origin means that mythology and rumor can obscure evidence. And so there are still some conservative tango dancers who see two men dancing together as shocking, and a flamboyant heterosexual couple as the proper pairing.

But though gay milongas still face some opposition, two men dancing together is the most traditional form of the tango. And in other ways, too, queer tango embodies the spirit of the dance. “The dance represents a culture that is not dominant. It’s not the mainstream culture,” says Taylor. “For a long time, this was an art not of entertainment but resistance.”