[Delivered at “Beyond Authenticity and Appropriation: Bodies, Authorships and
Choreographies of Transmission”, SDHS + CORD Conference, Pomona
College · Claremont, CA., USA, November 3-6, 2016]
Queer Tango’s ‘Image Problem’: Men, Intimacy and Pictures from the Past
Abstract: Early 20th century imagery of men dancing tango together is endlessly reproduced
on 21st century tango websites around the world. Tango “began with men dancing with each
other” so the oft-repeated assertion goes. Perhaps. Late 19th and early 20th century society in
Argentina famously consisted of young, largely immigrant men outnumbering women seven
to one. But if they danced with each other, what exactly were they doing? And to what extent
can these images help us find out? Were they just ‘practicing’, as Tobin’s (1998; 2009) and
Denniston’s (2007) 20th century male informants assert? The tango origin myth says (Davis
2015 among others) that they practiced with each other, the better to secure the favors of
women on the dance-floor and beyond? Possibly. Were they gay? Presumably some were.
Another explanation might be that in a society where physical intimacy of all kinds was in
short supply, some of these images show men who found in tango a ‘safe space’ to hold and
to be held. Yet, how are we to know?
The Queer Tango Image Archive – an online, digital collection of pre-1995 historical
imagery – was set up to stimulate debate and address questions like these. Queer theory,
among other things, would have us escape the woman-man, LGBT-straight binaries. ‘Gay’
might be irrelevant. Might this contemporary freedom help support alternative interpretations
of historical imagery? And might that credibly alter and enrich our understanding of what we
think we see?
The Queer Tango Image Archive
The Queer Tango Image Archive was set up early in 2016 by Gonzalo Collazo and
myself supported by the Queer Tango Project.1 We pooled our informal collections of digital
files of historical imagery connected to the themes of queer tango and invited others to add
them.2 So far, we have less than 100 images, but it is early days.3 My particular interest here
is in a selection of photographs taken in the early 20th in Argentina and Uruguay. What can
we know of the circumstances in which these photographs were generated? Why were they
taken? What do they show? What are these men doing? Why are they doing it? To what
extent are we equipped to know the answers to these and similar questions? Towards the end,
I will ask how a queer perspective might help us better understand such imagery.
I have chosen these eight images for us to consider:4
fig 1. Buenos Aires. Bailando tango en Palermo Archivo General de Nación 1890
fig 2. Circa 1890 – 1905, Montevideo. Reservists or soldiers dancing tango on one side of
the Fortress of the Cerro de Montevideo.
fig 3. Buenos Aires. Men dancing tango in the river. 1904 [or January 1912 “Picnic” on the
Rio during a strike of workers of Railway Industries]
fig 4. Market Traders in Tango Poses at the Market at Abasto, Buenos Aires, 1910
fig 5. 1913 Hombres bailando tango en Rosario.
fig 6. 1920s Uruguay. Men dancing tango.
fig 7. Men dancing (?) tango with each other in Buenos Aires – date?
fig 8. Five couples of men posing, Argentina, 1940s or 1950s?
I am going to suggest six reasons why, historically, men danced tango with each other.
Reason One: They were just ‘practicing’
This explanation has had currency for more than half a century: “they were just
practicing, the better to secure the dancing and other favors of women”. As myths go, this
one has certainly had traction. In the 1990s, Christine Denniston dancing in Buenos Aires
listened carefully to older, male dancers who told her how, when younger they practiced with
other men at all-male prácticas for up to three years (Denniston 2007). In the Archive, we
speculate on these smartly dressed figures in fig. 7:
…perhaps this group have been out to a milonga and afterwards, with some leftover
wine and a bandoneon, continued to dance, or to practice in the street. These five
younger men (including, possibly, a sixth behind the camera) might be with their six,
more senior, male, tango mentors. Perhaps they are known to them from one of the all-
male prácticas referred to in the literature…Once a camera is produced, a half-hearted
attempt is made by four of them to pose ‘correctly’ in couples by way of a record of
this bibulous, light-hearted, late night instruction.
We can speculate, but we cannot know. With an historical gender imbalance in
Argentina in the early 20th century of seven men to one woman, it seems plausible, but is it
the whole truth or just a convenient one?
Jeffrey Tobin in “Tango and the Scandal of Homosocial Desire” (1998) cites a piece
of show tango in the 1987 film, Tango Bar reminiscent of many such scenes in tango shows:
to illustrate ‘tango history’, two men dance with each other but signal that the figures they
represent practiced in their pursuit of women by hamming up their unease at dancing with
each other, conspiratorially reassuring audiences of their own and their historical
Reason Two: Dancing tango is fun
In lives which were tough and poor, dancing tango with each other could be cheap
enjoyment, provided someone had a guitar, violin, flute or later, a Bandoneon. Soldiers often
enjoyed it where women were not available. This example in fig. 3 is typical: “Circa 1890 –
1905, Montevideo. Reservists or soldiers dancing tango on one side of the Fortress of the
Cerro de Montevideo”; or here in 1932 in fig. 9, the newly-conscripted, not yet famous racing
driver, Juan Fangio, posing with fellow conscripts.
fig 9. Juan Fangio, dancing tango while on military service in Argentina, 1932
I suggest male, same-sex tango dancing should be set into the wider context of men
couple dancing other dances across Europe and – once they emigrated – in the Americas.
Once again, in fig. 10 the military are to the fore: “Scènes de la vie à bord, late 19th, early
20th cent?” is typical.
fig 10. Scènes de la vie à bord, late 19th, early 20th cent?
Like many others, this image figures on a post card. If it were thought offensive, it
would not be a commercial proposition.
A rare Pathé newsreel film of naval shows same-sex couple dancing from about
fig 11. Still from silent film of sailors dancing with each other, Rio de Janiero,1922
I have nothing so early of tango being danced but I argue for seeing parallels. To us,
this imagery is immediately arresting: same sex, uniformed Royal Naval officers and
rankings calmly forming a majority of dancing couples in a throng which includes a handful
of couples more conventionally constituted. None of the men following are pretending to be
women. Beyond a few expressive gestures associated with the dances performed (early
Foxtrot…with Castle Walk thrown in and the Duck Waddle according to Sasza Zargowski6)
none of them is camping it up. The men are men. It is all remarkably genteel, a gentility only
slightly undermined by their dancing underneath the warship’s monstrous gun barrels. That
aside, it is the sheer ‘normality’ which tests our credulity. Its equivalent today would be
unthinkable except as some exercise in ‘LGBT inclusiveness’.
Reason Three: Social cohesion
These are not just couples – although the modern pre-occupation seems to be with
couples and what their relationships might be. No, these are groups of men. As Mike
Gonzales and Marianella Yanes assert, the lives of these largely male, poor working
populations were tough AND they were incredibly diverse: as well as the migrants from Italy,
Spain, Germany, Poland and Russia, there were the men driven off the land as the pampas
were enclosed; there were those left behind after the famous “War of The Triple Alliance”
against Paraguay; and the former African slaves from Brazil. Diversity could work against
cohesion. They write:
The immigrants met, or clashed in the unlit streets close to the river. They shared neither
a language nor a history at first, yet eventually in these crowded alleys they, their
cultures, their languages and their rhythms would merge as they learned to dance – and
survive – together. (Gonzales and Yanes 2013, 23)
In fact, the men in these photographs are NOT dancing. They are posing as if dancing.
[see figs. 3, 4, 7, and 8] And they smile, suggesting they are posing with some pride, happy to
be photographed with their fellows in tango poses to record of a picnic by the river because
as rail workers, they were on strike, or as a break from being market traders at Abasto, or on
some football team outing. Again, the sheer normality, the good humor without camp now
Reason Four: Gay men dancing together
Homosocial or homosexual?
fig 12. Jorge Luis Borges 1928 sketch from memory of a Compadrito
Jorge Luis Borges is not the only authority to describe the extravagant dress of the
compardritos of the 1890s – large floppy hat, tightly laced trousers, high heeled black boots,
big neck scarf, a pink or garnet shirt, fingers covered in rings (fig. 12 from Borges 1929
quoted by Zalko 2004, 29-30) – which may have been no more or less significant than the
dandyism of teddy boys or pearly kings, but meticulous scholarship based on medical and
criminological records by Jorge Salessi (1997) and Magli Saikin (2004) proves that, in its
earliest years, lesbians and homosexual men danced tango together for their own pleasure.
Among those on the margins of society, the poor, criminals, pimps and prostitutes, they were
more or less free to dance with whomsoever they chose, having little social status to lose.
(Saikin 2004, 110)
With regard to men, do the photographs back this up? Who knows?
fig 13. Arturo de Navas dancing with another man, Buenos Aires, 1903
This imagery [fig. 13] from the magazine Caras y Caretas [Faces and Masks] from
7th February 1903 was the first imagery of tango ever published and it shows the singer,
composer, actor and dancer, Arturo de Navas dancing with another man. He never married.
He was a friend of Carlos Gardel, who never married – but this is idle gossip without
concrete evidence one way or another.
This much is relatively certain however: the elite in Argentina switched from viewing
this rough dance as a threat to the growth of a modern, European- style state once their
wealthy sons, had taken tango from the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires and made it
fashionable in Europe, especially in Paris. Tango as an emblem of national identity was made
less rough as it entered the salons, and one way or another, it needed a respectable past.7
Lesbians, of course, became invisible. Men still danced with each other, yet bizarrely, on 2
May 1916, while the slaughter on the battlefields of Europe was at its height, the Mayor of
Buenos Aires passed an edict forbidding them from doing so. (Zalko 2004, 87) Yet as these
images show, the practice persisted over the first half of the 20th century and beyond, even
though, over time, the erotic historical dimensions of ‘men-dancing-with-men’ was
obliterated leaving the benign, demographically necessitated myth of “they were only
practicing” by way of explanation.
Besides I want to suggest that, from a contemporary, queer tango perspective, this
twentieth-century framing of the question might benefit from a 21st century queer make-over.
With The Queer Tango Image Archive in mind as a resting place for these images, I am also
reminded of Walter Benjamin’s framing in the Arcades Project, his unfinished masterpiece,
of images as “dialectics at a standstill” or “dialectical images”, which, according to Howard
Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Benjamin’s translators, is his key term for, as in this case,
historical objects waiting for collectors to take them up…
…into the collector's own particular time and place, thereby throwing a pointed light
on what has been. Welcomed into a present moment that seems to be waiting just for
it – “actualized,” as Benjamin likes to say – the moment from the past comes alive as
never before…The historical object is reborn as such into a present day capable of
receiving it, of suddenly "recognizing" it. This is the famous "now of recognizability"
(Jetzt der Erkennbarkeit), which has the character of a lightning flash. (Benjamin
Reasons Five and Six: Intimacy without, and intimacy with the erotic
In these closing passages, I do no more than run several flags up several flagpoles.
Queer theory celebrates, exploits and joyously dismantles gender as socially and culturally
constructed. Doing so may not have just issued us today with licenses to re-construct it, it
may also inadvertently have provided us with tool the better to understand sexuality in the
I suggest nagging contemporary unease at this imagery only makes sense when
viewed as a descendant of the homosexual moral panic which overtook the west after the
second world war. Arguably, that was the turning point at which ‘innocent’ same sex dancing
became difficult, if not impossible to believe in. Yet, if we can overcome this perpetual,
vulgar sexualization of practically every human relationship, we may make space for two
further reasons for these men to dance: firstly, access to deep physical intimacy. Ernesto
Sábato asserted as much in 1963 when he wrote:
It was not [sex] that the lonely man of Buenos Aires worried about…it was precisely
the contrary: nostalgia for love and communion, the longing for a woman, and not the
presence of an instrument of his lust. (Sábato 1963 quoted in Savigliano 1995)
Far from home, from family, loved ones - and yes, from women – these men may
have craved as almost all human beings do, to be held, to embrace and to be embraced and in
its widest sense, physically to be loved. Within this ‘safe’ framework of tango, perhaps this
was possible, and the homosocial desire in the early 20th century had not yet fully morphed
into the ‘Scandal’ which so terrified Tobin’s later respondents.
Scandal? So, what if this dancing was not always scrupulously free from the erotic,
what then? Queer theory promises an escape from over neat, constraining binary
categorizations of our sexualities and the consequences which must relentlessly flow from
them, substituting instead a looser model altogether more fluid. Might that have
corresponded more closely to the historical, lived experiences of the men we are looking at?
To this day, social tango encounters can deliver agreeable, limited erotic charges WITHOUT
consequences for lives lived off the dance-floor (Batchelor 2016). In the 21st century, you do
not have to be gay to be queer. Accordingly, contemporary queer tango need not require these
historical men to be ‘gay’. Perhaps only now can we free them of this unlooked-for
obligation to us, their apparent successors. Paradoxically, perhaps the ambiguity of the
imagery seems, if anything, more closely attuned to a contemporary ‘queer’ sensibility.
I say, “perhaps” because probably we can probably never know.
Ray Batchelor. 2014. “Uncovering the Histories and Pre- Histories of Queer Tango:
contextualizing and documenting an innovative form of social dancing.” Congress on
Research in Dance 2014 Conference Proceedings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ray Batchelor. 2016. “Tango, Connection, Intimacy and the Erotic: a Queer Tango
Perspective” paper presented at The Queer Tango Salon: Connecting Bodies of Knowledge.
Paris, September 16-17.
Osvaldo Bazán. 2004. Historia de la homosexualidad en la Argentina De la Conquista de
América al siglo XXI. Buenos Aires: Marea.
Walter Benjamin. 2002. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin
McClaughlin. Cambridge, Mass.: First Harvard University Press.
Ricardo Garćia Blayez. n. d.. “Reflections about the origins of tango.” Todo Tango.
Kath Browne, Jason Lim, and Gavin Brown 2007. Geographies of Sexualities: Theory,
Practices, and Politics. London: Ashgate.
Kathy Davis. 2015. Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World. New
York: New York University Press.
Catherine Denniston. 2007. The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Dance.
Robert Farris Thompson. 2006. Tango: the Art History of Love. New York: Vintage Books
Melissa A. Fitch. 2105. Global Tangos: Travels in the Transnational Imaginary. Arizona:
Bucknell University Press.
Michel Foucault. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London,
Mike Gonzalez, and Marianella Yanes 2013 Tango: Sex and the Rhythm of the City. London:
Judith Halberstam. 2003 “Reflections on Queer Studies and Pedagogy.” Journal of
Homosexuality. 45: 361- 364.
Birthe Havmøller, Ray Batchelor, and Olaya Aramo, eds. 2015. The Queer Tango Book:
Ideas, Images and Inspiration in the 21st Century, eBook. The Queer Tango Project.
Hugo Lamas, and Enrique Norberto Binda. 2008. El Tango en la sociedad porteña 1880 –
1920. Stuttgart: Abrazos Books.
The Queer Tango Image Archive. http://image.queertangoproject.org/
Jorge Salessi. 1997. Translated by Celeste Fraser Delgardo. “Medics, Crooks, and Tango
Queens: The National Appropriation of a Gay Tango.” in Celeste Fraser Delgado, and José
Esteban Muñoz, eds. Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America. Durham and
London: Duke University Press.
Magali Saikin. 2004. Tango und Gender: Identitäten und Geschlechtsrollen im
Argentinischen Tango. Stuttgart: Abrazos Books.
Marta E. Savigliano. 1995. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Oxford: Westview
Marta E. Savigliano. 2010 “Notes on Tango (as) Queer (Commodity).” Anthropological
Notebooks 16 (3): 135–143.
Jeffrey Tobin. 1998. “Tango and the Scandal of Homosocial Desire.” in William
Washabaugh, ed. The Passion of Music and Dance: Body, Gender and Sexuality. Oxford:
Jeffrey Tobin. 2009 “Models of Machismo: the Troublesome Masculinity of Argentine Male
Tango Dancers.” in Gabriele Klein, ed. Tango in Translation: Tanz zwischen Medien,
Kulturen, Kunst und Politik Bielefeld: transcript Verlag [sic]: 139-170.
Nardo Zalko. 2004. Paris-Buenos Aires: un siècle de tango. Paris: Édition de Félin.
2016, Ray Batchelor
Ray Batchelor is from Bucks New University near London. He dances and teaches queer tango
to managers, D/deaf people and footballers. He runs The Queer Tango Image Archive, an
historic imagery collection and co-edited The Queer Tango Book (2015). In Paris in 2016, he
ran The Queer Tango Salon: Connecting Bodies of Knowledge.
1 Also in 2015, the Queer Tango Project emerged out of the Queer Tango Book Project which
had been founded by Birthe Havmøller in 2013. The Project consists of a website, a blog and
lively Queer Tango Conversation on Facebook, and The Queer Tango Image Archive.
2 The Queer Tango Image Archive is less than a year old (as of January 2017). Although both
Collazo and I are academics, queer tango is not the preserve of academia, and we elected not
to frame the Archive in formal, theoretical terms. We are, of course, delighted when those who
access the material do just that. At the 2016 symposium, The Queer Tango Salon: Connecting
Bodies of Knowledge in Paris, where queer tango activists, teachers and academics were
brought together to debate and dance queer tango, academics Chiara Iorino, Manuela Ritondale
and Mauro Coletto applied art historical techniques to some of the images their paper,
“Representation of Performative Identities: images of Queer Tango” which used the Archive.
To date, including this one, another three papers have arisen from it.
3 Of the images of same gender couples, 31 are of women and 41 show men. Taking the fact
of artwork or their being postcards as evidence, 23 the 31 images of women couples are
commercial, while only 13 of the 41 images of male couples are.
4 All these images can be found at The Queer Tango Image Archive using these captions in the
“Search” function http://image.queertangoproject.org/
5 The Queer Tango Image Archive, “Silent Film of Sailors Dancing with each Other, Rio de
Janiero, 1922”, http://image.queertangobook.org/silent-film-of-sailors-dancing-with-each-
6 Facebook correspondence with the author.
7 Incidentally, this neat, plausible account is itself challenged as myth by Ricardo Garćia Blaya