Conference PaperPDF Available

Dancing to Change the World: Is the Dancing of Queer Tango Good Politics?

Authors:
  • The Queer Tango Project

Abstract and Figures

How politically effective is queer tango today? The privileged dancers who migrate each year to Paris, Rome, Berlin or Buenos Aires for queer tango festivals and marathons thoroughly enjoy themselves, but does this amiable social dancing actually change anything? In two decades of increasing international movement, has this once radical dance practice forgotten its late twentieth century feminist and gay liberation roots, dwindling into a branch of tourism? I suggest not. Dancing bodies are political bodies. Dana Mills (2017) suggests there are two types of political dance: “weak”, where the dancing reiterates political ideas already expressed in words; and “strong”, which “assumes that dance has a communicative power independent of other symbolic systems.” Queer tango is more than festivals and it includes the weak, the strong and the words. Indeed, all three interact. Historically, queer tango dancing bodies notionally expressed ideas taken from the literature of queer theory. Now, they often move among and dance with mainstream tango dancing bodies, changing the mainstream by dancing queer tango’s implicit critique of it in the mainstream. Edgardo Fernández Sesma’s flash mobs in Buenos Aires tie placards to their backs with words on them - the names of homophobic nations – thus turning friendly social dancing into political performance. Queer tango includes language-based, political discourses: informal discussions at the edges of dance floors; international online bantering facilitated by social media; and a growing body of non-academic and academic writings. Yet, as one of Juliet McMains’ (2018) interviewees reminds us, it may be joyous simply to dance in a “a room full of queers” as one does at a queer tango festival, but such dancing is also an affirmative, political act, the power of which should never be under-estimated.
Content may be subject to copyright.
1
This paper was originally delivered at the PoP MOVES Conference, “Memory,
Migration & Movement” in Paris on 8th December 2018.
Dancing to Change the World:
Is the Dancing of Queer Tango Good Politics?
Abstract: How politically effective is queer tango today? The privileged
dancers who migrate each year to Paris, Rome, Berlin or Buenos Aires for queer
tango festivals and marathons thoroughly enjoy themselves, but does this
amiable social dancing actually change anything? In two decades of increasing
international movement, has this once radical dance practice forgotten its late
twentieth century feminist and gay liberation roots, dwindling into a branch of
tourism? I suggest not. Dancing bodies are political bodies. Dana Mills (2017)
suggests there are two types of political dance: “weak”, where the dancing
reiterates political ideas already expressed in words; and “strong”, which
“assumes that dance has a communicative power independent of other symbolic
systems.” Queer tango is more than festivals and it includes the weak, the strong
and the words. Indeed, all three interact. Historically, queer tango dancing
bodies notionally expressed ideas taken from the literature of queer theory.
Now, they often move among and dance with mainstream tango dancing bodies,
changing the mainstream by dancing queer tango’s implicit critique of it in the
mainstream. Edgardo Fernández Sesma’s flash mobs in Buenos Aires tie
placards to their backs with words on them - the names of homophobic nations
thus turning friendly social dancing into political performance. Queer tango
includes language-based, political discourses: informal discussions at the edges
of dance floors; international online bantering facilitated by social media; and a
growing body of non-academic and academic writings. Yet, as one of Juliet
McMains’ (2018) interviewees reminds us, it may be joyous simply to dance in
a “a room full of queers” as one does at a queer tango festival, but such dancing
is also an affirmative, political act, the power of which should never be under-
estimated.
2
Introduction
Memory, migration and movement.
I am a queer tango dancer. I live in London. Each year, l migrate around the
world in order to dance queer tango. Last week, I returned from Buenos Aires
and Montevideo. Each hosted queer tango festivals. This year I have danced
queer tango in London at Queer Tango London, in mainstream London tango
venues, and at international queer tango events in Rome, Oldenburg, Paris and
Berlin (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Dancers at the Berlin Queer Tango Festival
I returned from Buenos Aires inspired afresh by the work of queer tango
activist, Edgardo Fernández Sesma. But for a full life, I might have made it to
Riga, or Munich or Hamburg. At such events I re-engage with friendly, dancing
bodies from around the world. And it brings me joy.
Joy has a value, surely, but queer tango emerged out of a suite of late 20th
century social and political concerns about gender and about sexuality, explored
through feminism, and what was then called “gay liberation”. Queer tango has
expanded as ideas of the “queer” have matured, but has it kept up? Today, I am
asking - aside from making us happy, is the dancing of queer tango good that
is to say, effective politics?
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The Political origins of queer tango.
Fig. 2. Brigitta Winkler with Angelika Fischer in the 1980s; Augusto
Balizano and unidentified dancer
There are two, almost, but not quite distinct histories of queer tango: that of
women; and that of men. In general, it has been women who have been more
active in thinking through the political and social dimensions, while the men
have tended simply to organise and dance with our customary sense of
entitlement. Recent research (Batchelor, Havmøller 2017) highlights the many
different 20th century times and places of queer tango’s origins, with no one
qualifying as “the birthplace”. Mariano Docampo may be credited with the
formal link to queer theory, but queer tango that is, what is danced, the
theoretical foundations, the aspirations and the terminology used took time to
cohere into a single entity, if indeed they ever did. There is still disagreement as
to what queer tango is and how it should be defined (Docampo 2015;
Havmølller 2017; Batchelor 2015; McMains 2018).
Yet from the memories Ute Walter, Marga Nagel, Sabine Rohde, Brigitta
Winkler, Rebecca Shulman, and Mariana Docampo, and of the men, Daniel
Trenner, Augusto Balizano (Fig. 2) and Egardo Fernández Sesma among others,
suggest the joy to which I am drawn has always been there. But queer tango,
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unlike mainstream tango, has an overt, social and political agenda. This marks it
out. Sabine Rohde recalls dancing in the 1980s:
We were political[ly] aware. We all had long, after-Milonga late night
discussions about what we are doing with this "macho dance". Why us?
(Rohde 2017)
Queer tango’s protagonists originally carved out “safe spaces” in a world seen
as hostile, in which same sex couples would not be an anachronism, and where
who dances which role, is not predetermined by gender. Above all, queer tango
develops the tango’s luxurious, erotic potentiality, such that it welcomes
alternatives to the heterosexual, man-woman model hitherto universally
identified as the essential foundation of this famously [hetero]sexy dance.
Queer tango opens up and as it turns out, historically, re-opens the tango
embrace to the homoerotic and legitimises it. And as concepts of the “queer”
have developed, the embrace legitimises a rich variety of liberating, alternative,
and sometimes non-linguistic models of gender and sexual identity. Now, no-
one need be restricted by labels such as “lesbian”, or “gay man”. And just as
these alternatives emerged out of developments in the wider world onto the
queer tango dance-floor, so their queer tango embodiments were and are
thought by those dancing to have social and political value beyond it. Queer
tango draws from and feeds back into that wider world.
Queer tango prompts people to feel, think and act differently, and the extent to
which it does is, surely, a fair criterion by which the dancing’s political impact
may be assessed. Whatever else it is, queer tango is political social dancing
dancing to change the world.
How might dancing queer tango achieve political effects?
Much has been written about the relationships between dance and politics
Clare Croft’s anthology, Queer Dance is but one example which might be
thought pertinent but despite caveats to the contrary here and elsewhere, most
critiques consider dance as performance and audience. Erin Manning’s Politics
of Touch is a welcome and valuable exception. The author uses the social
dancing of tango to develop her concepts. Yet Manning’s is a work of political
philosophy where “politics” is a somewhat abstract entity. My own interests are
simpler and more immediate: at a dangerous time in the politics of much of the
world, a politics disfigured by nationalist, masculine posturing, what evidence is
there that queer tango is making any political difference? And I am referring to
social dancing and to those who witness it.
Dana Mills (2017) is useful here. In Dance and Politics she draws
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…the distinction between the weak reading of political dance – the
representation through moving bodies of ideas previously articulated in
words and the strong reading of political dance the creation of a
phenomenologically independent world which includes its own system of
inscription and world of reception.
Queer tango includes both. Few examples are purely the one or the other.
At its simplest, politics is “the process of making decisions that apply to
members of a group” (Wikipedia 2018). Conventionally, there are a range of
mediums by which politics is conducted, ranging from the manner in which
lives are lived, the language to which Mills refers, and by implication, imagery
that is, representations of lives lived, real or imagined or, moving back
towards the physical street protest, violence, terrorism, revolution, or war.
I suggest that to contribute to political processes, dancers’ dancing must –
intentionally, or unintentionally alter how people feel, think, and eventually
act. Queer tango dancing weak or strong can be judged politically effective
to the extent that it furthers the objectives of, or develops the themes touched on
by queer tango. Rather than attempting to consider all of these, I will explore
just two a little: queer tango as a contribution to debates about gender, sexuality
and identity; and queer tango as a model of inclusivity.
Part of the problem with defining queer tango is that it has many different
manifestations. Accordingly, here, I consider three of the main ones: local queer
tango groups; international events; and “applied queer tango” – that is, queer
tango deliberately used for political purposes.
Local queer tango groups such as Collectif Queer Tangolibero are examples
of what was, in the early 21st century, the standard unit of queer tango. Activists
created them across Europe, in Buenos Aires and in Montevideo, in Istanbul, in
North America, east and west coasts, and middle, not forgetting Canada by no
means an exhaustive list. The relationship with the local environment is crucial.
Some countries are so repressive, queer tango groups would be a practical
impossibility. In Putin’s socially conservative, homophobic Russia, and in
Istanbul in a country lurching towards social and sexual repression, activists
sustained such groups, in part, as tangible ripostes.
Queer Tango London is (ironically, given recent events) more typical of the
European experience. From 2008 onwards, Tim Flynn followed the late 20th
century “safe space” model, a place where LGBTQ+ people and their friends
might dance with whomsoever they chose. Hostility beyond the safe space was
a given, but untested. Sometimes there are no queer tango groups because the
6
context is SO liberal. Queer tango dancers in southern Sweden, for example, tell
me they have no need formally to organise, because they can dance queer tango
comfortably at mainstream venues. The same is now true of mainstream
milongas in London, where Queer Tango London functions mostly as a safe
space launchpad for queer dancers who become proficient, before becoming
part of that “normal” landscape. The local model is far from exhausted, as a
story in The Washington Post about a new group earlier this week made plain.
The political effects of local groups are chiefly affirmative. As Tanya, one of
Juliet McMains’ respondents put it: “There is no way to explain what it’s like to
be in a room full of queer people, for us. Just to not feel different all the time.”
(McMains 2018). And this dancing is “strong” in the Dana Mills sense for the
most part, an affirmation of ideas residing not in words, but in bodies.
International queer tango events
Local groups knew they were part of something international.
Some organised their own international events. Dancers in Hamburg initiated
the first of these in 2001. In 2011, the first International Queer Tango Festival
in Berlin under Astrid Weiske was held and immediately became something of
a benchmark. Festivals have been joined by “marathons”, where the emphasis
is wholly on participants’ dancing, and both have proliferated. Taken together,
in 2015 there were 13. In 2018 there were 34.
1
But what has been their political impact?
Like local groups, one important political function is the affirmation of sexual
and gender identities, but with this vital international dimension. If Faysal
Tekoğlu embraces me or is embraced by me or others on the dancefloor in
Berlin, he returns to an increasingly repressive social environment in Recep
Erdoğan’s Turkey, knowing others think and behave as he does, and he knows it
as a physical reality.
In 2016, many dancers from socially liberal countries, myself included, came to
the Salida queer tango Festival in St Petersburg. Each venue address would be
released secretly for fear that the heavies would find it and smash the place up.
When some straight dancers at a mainstream venue to which we had been
invited by the proprietor first snickered, and then noisily stormed out of the
room, we witnessed first-hand the hostility to which our queer tango
confederates there were subject. To his credit, the proprietor immediately came
over to us, and danced with each of us in turn.
1
Figures taken from The Queer Tango Project website http://queertangobook.org/queer-
tango-resources/calendar/ accessed 09 12 2018
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Applied queer tango
In her book, Global Tangos, Melissa Fitch (2015) devotes a chapter to the
therapeutic value of tango. Queer tango can similarly, if differently, be of value,
if danced with specific political or social objectives in mind. I have tried it a few
times myself. I used it in workshops with managers to get them to feel, think
and behave differently regarding leadership, followership and gender in their
day to day work (Burge, Batchelor and Cox, 2013). This is “soft” political
dancing in Mills’ terms, in that all these ideas have been expressed in words,
though I doubt my participants had read them, but “strong” in the sense that
women leading men and not apologising and men allowing themselves
physically to be led and not take over is experienced and understood in a
physical sense, and initially at least, is independent of language. In D/deaf CAN
Dance! with Melanie Parris, a profoundly deaf work colleague, I ran a research
project teaching queer tango to D/deaf people, to find out what benefits might
accrue if they danced with hearing dancers, or with each other (Parris,
Batchelor, 2016). With the talented football coach, Jack Badu and the support of
Stonewall, the UK LGBTQ+ campaigning charity, in the Football Tango
Project, we get players to dance with each other (that is, to feel) and then think,
and then discuss homophobia and the politics of sex, sexuality and gender in
football.
8
Fig 3. Jack Badu, football coach and charity activist (left) practising a
tango-based football “drill” (exercise) in the Football Tango Project.
But my hero in terms of applied queer tango is the indefatigable, Buenos Aires-
based, Edgardo Fernández Sesma, an activist on a queer tango inclusivity
mission. I will not attempt to mention all his activities here but confine myself
to one or two which, following my latest trip to Buenos Aires are fresh in my
mind. Having taught and danced with them a couple of years ago, I was invited
by a group of “adultos mayores” (or “adultes mayores” to use Fernández
Sesma’s term devised occasionally to rid himself of the Spanish default
masculine) to their five-year birthday celebration. This was no ordinary
pensioners’ party. It was a model of queer tango inclusivity. Five years earlier,
as a queer tango response to the scandal of pensioners being mistreated or
abandoned by their families and by the services intended to support them,
Fernández Sesma established this group for adultes mayores to meet, to dance
(most have danced all their lives) to socialise, and to campaign against the
9
mistreatment and abandoning of pensioners like themselves. With coffee, cakes,
and the odd glass of wine it proved a great success.
Fig. 4. Queer
[Tango]
inclusivity.
Activist,
Edgardo
Fernández
Sesma with a
volunteer and
“adultas
mayores”
[Edgardo’s
grammar!].
The socialising is really important, but the group does not confine itself to that
alone. Fernández Sesma IS a queer tanguero. The adultes mayores are NOT a
“conventional” LGBTQ+ constituency, but they too risk marginalisation and
queer inclusivity, rightly, reaches out to them. They have been happy to help
with the now famous flash mobs which Fernández Sesma organises against
homophobia around the world.
Fig. 5. Queer Tango Flash Mob in Buenos Aires
Dancers appear [unannounced,] dancing in the streets with banners tied to their
backs of countries where LGBTQ+ people are persecuted, tortured or murdered.
As further evidence of inclusivity, this party closed with performances by
Lucrecia Pereya Mazzara who has Downs Syndrome and Edgardo, and by
Brenda Holz and Horacio Tolosa. Brenda is in a wheelchair. And Brenda was
not just a show stopper, but a regular at social dancing.
Others may practise “Applied Queer Tango”, but they have yet to come to my
attention.
Conclusion
Is dancing queer tango political? It is. Is it effective? It can be.
Queer tango is a branch of politics, not a substitute for it (though I much prefer
it to masculine, nationalist posturing). No French President will abandon
environmental taxes because we dance queer tango. Sometimes we also need to
discuss, to vote, to march, or apparently pull on hi-visibility yellow jackets.
But queer tango makes material contributions to the character and strengths of
societies, and against a background of the deterioration in political life, this
should be valued.
Fig. 6. Dancers at a Queer Tango London práctica, 2018.
On a small scale, I dance at Queer Tango London and help support any number
of people in their identities, just as their dancing supports me in mine. I dance
with Gawaine Preston from Queer Tango London at mainstream milongas
which helps maintain a new normality which includes us, and others like us. I
go to international festivals and help sustain a trans-national community where
our dancing re-affirms sexual and gender identities and re-asserts their value.
All these realisations of human relations have value beyond the dance floor.
I began by implying that international queer tango events might have dwindled
into a branch of tourism.
Fig. 6. Dancers
in the fountains
outside the
Louvre as part
of a “City
Walk” at the La
Vie en Rose
queer tango
event, Paris,
2018.
Copyright,
Camille Collin.
I leave you with a superb example of political queer tango. La Vie en Rose is
the wonderful and thoughtful international queer event which happens each
year here, in Paris: The City walk is a progress around Paris, where tango music
is played and dancers dance. At one level, we see more of Paris. But at another,
Paris sees more of us. We dance. We are good! Smart phones are whipped out.
Photos are taken. Videos are made. And they get taken away and shared, and
discussed and shared... Queer tango politics which IS effective, and of course
a joy!
Brilliant.
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Julie Burge, Ray Batchelor and Lionel Cox. 2013 “‘Shall I lead Now?' An
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Ruskai Melina, Gloria J. Burgess, Lena Lid-Falkman, Antonio Marturano
(eds). The Embodiment of Leadership. Jossy-Bass. San Francisco
Mercedes Liska. Argentine Queer Tango. 2017. Lexington Books. Lanham.
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Potentiality and Gender Utopias”. TDR: The Drama Review 62:2 (T238)
Dana Mills. 2017. Dance and Politics: Moving beyond Boundaries. Manchester
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Melanie Parris, Ray Batchelor. 2016. “Dancing the Tango, Hearing Loss and
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Sabine Rohde. 2017. Facebook. The Queer Tango Conversation.
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16370283/ accessed 09 12 2018
... I have a theory that danced queer tango politics, if it is to affect observers, really only "works" if the dancing is good. I set out my own preliminary thoughts on how queer tango achieves political effects in a paper "Dancing to Change the World: is the Dancing of Queer Tango Good Politics?" in Paris in 2018 (Batchelor 2018). I recognised the value of queer tango's affirmative effects on those dancing. ...
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Full-text available
London Do queer tango dancers dance to effect political change? I don't think we do. In the moment, as we dance, like all tango dancers, we are probably in pursuit of the thrill, the transcendence which tango-all tango-has the potential to deliver, those ineffable sensations which we know of, acknowledge to one another, but struggle to describe to others. So, I want to ask how the fact of that personal pursuit of the transcendent sits alongside our oft-repeated assertion that, unlike mainstream tango dancers, we in queer tango pursue an overtly political agenda intended to change the wider world. It can be argued that queer tango is political to its very core. After all, didn't it emerge out of the late twentieth century feminist and "gay liberation" movements? Both fought for alternative sexual and gender identities and the right authentically to lead the lives they implied. Lesbians, straight women and gay men (the straight men were not then much in evidence) dancing tango together eventually coalesced into 21 st century "queer tango". Our political agendas developed. In the wider world, more nuanced gender or sex related ways of being were emerging-the varieties of trans identities, for example-not to mention those who sought to escape all the constraints of labels. Over time, dancers sympathetic to these concepts made their way onto queer tango dancefloors. Edgardo Fernández Sesma in Buenos Aires widened that political agenda still further, beyond groups primarily discriminated against for reasons of sexual identity or gender, towards the old, those living with disabilities and
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10 Dogme Rules for the Dance Style of Queer Tango
  • Birthe Havmøller
Birthe Havmøller. 2016. "10 Dogme Rules for the Dance Style of Queer Tango". The Queer Tango Project. http://queertangobook.org/10-dogmerules-for-queer-tango/ accessed 09 12 2018
Shall I lead Now?' An exploration of the value of Queer Tango in reflecting on leadership
  • Julie Burge
  • Ray Batchelor
  • Lionel Cox
Julie Burge, Ray Batchelor and Lionel Cox. 2013 "'Shall I lead Now?' An exploration of the value of Queer Tango in reflecting on leadership". Lois Ruskai Melina, Gloria J. Burgess, Lena Lid-Falkman, Antonio Marturano (eds). The Embodiment of Leadership. Jossy-Bass. San Francisco Mercedes Liska. Argentine Queer Tango. 2017. Lexington Books. Lanham.
Argentine Queer Tango
  • Mercedes Liska
Mercedes Liska. Argentine Queer Tango. 2017. Lexington Books. Lanham.
Dancing the Tango, Hearing Loss and Ageing
  • Melanie Parris
  • Ray Batchelor
Melanie Parris, Ray Batchelor. 2016. "Dancing the Tango, Hearing Loss and Ageing", in Barbara Humberstone, Maria Konstantaki (eds.), Ageing, Physical Activity, Recreation and Wellbeing, Cambridge Scholar Press, Cambridge, Sabine Rohde. 2017. Facebook. The Queer Tango Conversation. https://www.facebook.com/groups/855948337777313/permalink/14033519 16370283/ accessed 09 12 2018
The Origins of Queer Tango as Practices and Conceptions: Competing or Complementary Narratives?". Unpublished. The Queer Tango Salon: Dancers who Think & Thinkers who Dance
  • Ray Batchelor
  • Birthe Havmøller
Ray Batchelor, Birthe Havmøller. 2017. "The Origins of Queer Tango as Practices and Conceptions: Competing or Complementary Narratives?". Unpublished. The Queer Tango Salon: Dancers who Think & Thinkers who Dance [conference]. London.
The Queer Tango Book: Ideas, Images and Inspiration in the 21 st Century, eBook. The Queer Tango Project
  • Mariana Docampo
Mariana Docampo. "Tango Queer" 2015. In Birthe Havmøller, Ray Batchelor, and Olaya Aramo, eds. 2015. The Queer Tango Book: Ideas, Images and Inspiration in the 21 st Century, eBook. The Queer Tango Project. 13-18. www.queertangobook.org