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The Political Pleasures of Queer Tango: Transcendence and the Erotic as Legitimate Agents of Change

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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
The Political Pleasures of Queer Tango: Transcendence and the Erotic as
Legitimate Agents of Change
Ray Batchelor
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 21st 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
those facing racism or oppression for other reasons. It was a model which we
in London admired, and were starting to use in our own context, just as Covid-
19 broke out in early 2020.
With this widening of the queer tango political agenda, what of the dancing
bodies? If that transcendent thrill sometimes includes erotic dimensions, how
is its pursuit on the dance floor benefiting those discriminated against for
reasons which seem to have little or nothing to do with gender and the erotic?
To square this circle, two of the more or less “blank spaces” in our queer tango
discourses need to be, if not filled, then more deeply reflected on: firstly, what
place does the pursuit of that transcendent thrill have in our dancing to effect
change? Does it help? If so, how? And secondly, to what extent does that thrill
have, or need to have, an erotic dimension? Where it does, is that useful in
some contexts and not others? And where it doesn’t, one might ask exactly the
same question. It is my belief that the real answers to these points are not the
ones outsiders might imagine and – because we ourselves speak of them so
rarely – they may not even be the ones we might initially identify. We need to
give ourselves more time to think carefully about what it is like to dance queer
tango and about what our doing so may, perhaps inadvertently, achieve.
Queer Tango Politics in Action – a Recent Example
As Covid abates and restrictions are lifted, so deliberate queer tango politics
and accidental mainstream tango politics – that is, politics effected and
realised through actual dancing rather than discussions or representations –
are happening again. So, for example: London, 25th September 2021. A free,
outdoor tango event in the piazza in front of Westminster Catholic Cathedral in
London. The organiser, a free tango entrepreneur and DJ, Warren Edwardes,
sought and was granted permissions from the Cathedral authorities and from
Westminster City Council who billed the event as part of “Inside Out…a new
brand of festival that brings art, entertainment, and culture outdoors to the
streets of Westminster.” (Westminster City Council 2021) …because,
compared with indoors, outdoors is more Covid-safe. Warren had earlier
extended a particular invitation to dancers from Queer Tango London. On the
day, there were just four of us: Sue Marlow, an excellent dancer and queer
tango regular who leads and follows with ease and has done so for years, and
three men (including me) who are similarly flexible in our dancing of both
roles. As is usual in such circumstances, we all danced with each other,
swapping roles and dancing intercambio, as well as with others.
All the dancing, including our queer contribution, was observed by passers-by
including some nuns. We were photographed. We were videoed. When I asked
her, a press photographer who was present reassured me that she had caught
a great many shots of the queer dancing and that these would feature in the
collection she would post later that afternoon on a photo agency website. All
of them, she said, would eventually come to Warren himself to use on social
media. Typical for events of this kind, the range of dancers present in terms of
abilities, ages and agilities varied greatly. It included the indefatigable Eric, 12
weeks short of 90, dancing away, his arm in a sling (or supposed to be in the
sling) after a heart attack (pacemaker fitted) and a fall. I was re-acquainted
with a number of women in their 60s, 70s and 80s who, unlike most men,
sometimes struggle to get dances. They are all accomplished dancers, and we
have an understanding that we will dance. It was while dancing with one of
these ladies that I spotted two young men on the edge of the dancing area,
who I took to be a gay couple, good-naturedly trying to dance tango with each
other with no idea at all how it is done. I went over to them and “sold” them
the post-Covid reopening milonga and beginners’ class of Queer Tango London
on Friday October 15th at the Bishopsgate Institute, a queer-friendly cultural
institution. They put the details on their phones and said they would come. A
man I have often seen on the London tango scene being led by his wife, came
over to me and asked if I would lead him. I agreed at once and said I had
hesitated to ask before as I did not want to make assumptions. He asked me to
make assumptions from now on. He said he would like the experience of being
led by a variety of people. Later, a woman and a man with their two-and-a-
half-year-old son stood at the edge, apparently to watch. I recognised them. In
the past, I had danced with the little boy’s father at Queer Tango London and
at other London tango events and had been honoured to be invited to his
wedding. I walked over and was introduced to their son. He fixed me with that
unblinking, analytical stare small children have. We shook hands. I asked his
father if he would like to dance? He would! So we danced while his wife
encouraged the little boy to watch “Daddy and Ray”. Afterwards, as I danced
with others, their son made noises which seemed to include my name each
time I passed by. His mother told me that he wanted to dance with me. So,
when the opportunity arose, I gathered him up into my arms so that his face
was level with mine and those of all the other dancers, and gave him a musical
tour of the dancefloor, talking to him all the time about what was happening
and praising his effortless ‘dancing’. He seemed to enjoy it and afterwards, was
keen to ‘dance’ with others.
The hours slipped by agreeably and a thoroughly good time was had by all,
including me.
Coincidentally, later that same day in the evening on the UK TV show Strictly
Come Dancing (the original of Dancing with the Stars) the first male couple
ever to compete on it danced their first dance, a tango – a ballroom tango, but
a tango nonetheless – AND they danced intercambio (BBC 2021). Why would
they not? One was a complete novice without preconceptions about roles, and
the other a professional who could dance both. Perhaps this attractive (and
massively overdue) innovation in who dances with whom, combined with a
post-Covid desperation for joy and distraction, helped push the programme’s
ratings up:
Strictly, which screened its first live Saturday night show last night [on
25th September], enjoyed an audience of 8.7 million, compared to 7.5
million who tuned in for the equivalent show last year (Her 2021).
They danced well. 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. I noted especially its
consequences where the dancing occurred in oppressive environments such as
Putin’s Russia, or where those whose identities were affirmed by dancing at
international events had come from places of oppression such as Erdoğan’s
Turkey. I considered the consequences of “applied queer tango” where the
dancing is conceived of as overtly addressing some social issue, such as
Edgardo Fernández Sesma’s work with vulnerable elderly people in Buenos
Aires, or my own project using queer tango to address homophobia in football.
Finally, I considered the political effects of queer tango witnessed by the wider
world when, for example, in the “City Walks” in Paris as part of the La Vie en
Rose queer tango festivals, queer tango takes to the streets. In summary,
political effects can arise from how the dancing affects: those who dance;
those observing the dancing; and those to whom the dancing is reported or
There are three aspects which I mentioned then and would like to develop
now: the joy of dancing queer tango – relevant here, because the
transcendence I want to consider is perhaps the extreme form of that joy;
connected with that, the political value of the dance’s intermittent erotic
dimensions; and finally, if the default channels of political debate are language
and representation, the advantages of a politics pursued through dance and
dancing, both independently of and alongside these.
Problems with Language
I may live long enough to witness the collapse of the now familiar terminology
used to label us (or chosen by us to label ourselves) characterised by various
accretions of capital letters, each indicating a word, a label: LGBT, LGBTQ,
LGBTIQ, etc.. In the 70s and 80s, we who spoke English fought for terms such
as “gay” to replace “queer” (then thought by us to be exclusively abusive),
innocently imagining such linguistic reform might simply mark recognition of
the social and political progress we thought we were making. It did so,
imperfectly in its time, but it did not last. Echoing a convention taught me in all
seriousness in the 1960s in English Language classes at school, that in some
contexts, everyone knew that the word “he”, stood for “he AND she” (???),
“gay”, it was noticed, tended actually to refer to gay men. A male couple was
the default image for “Gay Liberation”, rendering women and lesbians invisible
(yet again), and ignoring anyone whose sense of themselves did not neatly fit
into any of those categories. Usage narrowed accordingly. “Gay man” is now
part of a largely unremarkable, if not uncontested mainstream vocabulary.
Though some of my generation flinch at its reintroduction, I LOVE the word
“queer” – for all its ambiguities, for the things it implies and leaves unsaid, and
I love the idea of taking back a term of abuse, and defusing it by converting it
into a weapon for justice. A few years ago, I was explaining to an elderly gay
friend, John Dalby (Bishopsgate n. d.), whose career in British musical theatre
had begun in the late 1940s, what “Queer Tango” was. He said: “I am so glad
it’s QUEER tango! When I was young, we were ALL queer! We called ourselves
queer and there was no shame in it. I HATE GAY!” – and he pulled a face.
A desire to develop language which signals recognition of the complexities,
ambiguities and contradictions surrounding gender identities and their
expression is laudable. Matthew Solomon gives a calm and persuasive account
of some of the issues involved in “Terminology surrounding gender identity
and expression” (Solomon 2021). Even so, from the point of view of those
engaged in queer politics – which as queer tango dancers and activists, we are
– the language and the cultural foundations on which it rests present other
Queer tango seeks to be inclusive and international in scope. Queer politics
could be thought of as global, in that it is sometimes tacitly assumed to speak
of a set of universal human rights and obligations to which all LGBTQ people
around the world are entitled. Logically, cultural obstacles to the enjoyment of
those rights should be seen as just that, obstacles to be overcome until
everyone shares the freedoms enjoyed in liberal (western) societies. The 2021
American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan triggered the startlingly rapid fall
of the Afghan government and the return of the Taliban, whose violent
oppression of both women and LGBTQ people was notorious when last they
were in power. As Matthew Lavietes and Rachel Savage reported in a Reuters
post on 22nd August 2021:
It was never easy being gay or transgender in Afghanistan. Now it could
be deadly, according to LGBT+ Afghans, whose fear of violence under
the Taliban is driving a frantic bid to escape. (Lavietes, Savage 2021)
We at Queer Tango London decided to make our ‘return milonga’ on 15th
October 2021 a fund-raiser for the Rainbow Railroad, a charity actively helping
LGBTQ refugees escape from Afghanistan. In this context, surely, politics only
works because there is a shared language identifying who is thought to be “like
us”, and deserving of our support. In the present circumstances of Afghanistan,
perhaps, but what about in Pakistan, or India, or Bangladesh? Can the same
language be shared there?
South Asia has a plethora of terms for people who identify neither as
male nor female. Apart from hijra (which is the best known) and khwaja
sara (which is mostly used in Pakistan), they include aravani, kinnar,
kothi and shiv-shakthi. Many advocacy groups and NGOs favour
“transgender”, while governments prefer “third gender”. Estimates of
the number of non-binary people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan run
from 500,000 to several million. (The Economist 2021)
“Transgender” connects such people to us, their western equivalents, and in
doing so, releases western funding intended to support them – what harm
could there be in that? More than one might imagine. To take the hijra for
example: most are judged male at birth but feel themselves to be female and
are attracted to men. Historically, their elevated and privileged social status in
18th century India was gradually eroded by the British, who called them
“eunuchs” (a term normally reserved for castrated men) and made it illegal for
them to “dance in public, dress in women’s clothes or reside with children”
(The Economist 2021). The hijras have a history and cultural identity of their
…critics find modern gender discourse troublesome. They object to the
idea that “hijra” and “transgender” are synonymous, and worry that the
foreign import risks lowering hijras’ status. (The Economist 2021)
As Srabonti Srabon, a Bangladeshi hijra explains:
Hijra is an identity unto itself: they come from poor families where they
are not understood or accepted, she says. Leaving, or being kicked out,
is a vital part of this identity. So is being initiated into a tightly knit clan
of hijras and learning its traditions and rituals under the tutelage of a
guru. “This culture is 2,000 years old. Trans is a fairly recent
phenomenon,” says Ms Srabon. “They cannot be clubbed together.
(The Economist 2021)
So, actions in crisis situations aside, pretences to the universality of the
language of western gender discourse probably ought not to be taken for
granted, if not replaced by a more tentative and respectful dialogue.
The language used to identify people who have (or assert that they have)
different sexual or gender identities will forever be “work in progress”. Partly
this will inevitably be a function of each generation reviewing the work of the
last. “LGBT” and its well-intentioned permutations will one day be reformed
out of existence, perhaps for reasons of clumsiness, perhaps because the list of
labels is incomplete, or their meanings have become fugitive; or perhaps
because terminology dependent on acronyms, once generated, invariably
leaches its original, intended precision. No one – or almost no one – when they
hear the acronym “BBC” said out loud hears a voice in their heads saying,
“British Broadcasting Corporation”. Why would they? At present, “LGBTIQ+”
may signal knowledge of the very latest, newly identified categories and an
appreciation of the nuanced sensibilities attendant on them. More broadly, its
use may advertise attitudes of inclusivity which we might all welcome, yet as
new terms inevitably emerge to meet new needs, I believe these familiar ones
will be set alongside others consigned to the Gender and Sexuality Department
of the Language Museum.
Problems with Illiberal Debate
Behind this tumult of changes in language lie shifting conceptions of how
questions of sexuality and gender should be thought of, and of how the rights
of the constituencies that make up the supposed entity of LGBT and its
derivatives should be defined and fought for. In particular, the “T” or “Trans”
has proved the most explosive. Conventionally defined as Stonewall (the UK
campaigning group for LGBTQ rights) puts it: “people whose gender is not the
same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth”
(Stonewall 2021), this apparently simple definition conceals problematic
complexity. As a group, “trans” is far from homogenous, as it includes not only
those who “transition” from female to male or male to female, with or without
surgery, but also transvestites (whose gender identity is expressed though
changes in clothing) as well as a whole list of others, a list which seems in
practical terms to be open ended. Some branches of radical feminism have
expressed hostility towards some of the positions adopted by trans
protagonists, giving rise to the so-called TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical
Feminism) Wars. They have burst out of the academy. In the popular
imagination of the UK, they have been dramatised by the storm of protest
which greeted veteran feminist, Germaine Greer’s assertion in 2015 that
“transgender women are not women” (BBC 2015) and later, in a similar vein,
the author, J. K. Rowling’s 2020 tweets on the same subject:
Rowling later posted a short essay defending her views (Rowling 2020). In
trying to account for the tenor of these ill-tempered debates, writer and media
critic Lili Loofbourow argues that Twitter itself and the internet are, in part,
This climate is angry. This climate won’t be reasoned with. But what I
think is largely responsible for this phenomenon they’re observing—
without understanding—is Twitter. And the internet at large. And how
years of arguing on social platforms, mixed with the incentives that they
supply, has distorted not just the way most of us talk about things but
also the way we manage ideological dissent. In short: Political discourse
has been warped less because of “cancel culture” or “illiberalism” than
by the way social media platforms have been poisoned, like wells, that
poison us in turn. (Loofbourow 2020)
…a case which is plausible, but hard to prove. One of the effects of the manner
in which these debates have been conducted is to disorient those whose
navigation of this ideological territory had historically been achieved by
referring to the left and the right in politics, as well as the liberal and the
authoritarian – as a recent (September 2021) Economist leader article, “The
threat from the illiberal left” acknowledged (Economist 2021). In a paper
addressing these issues, sociologists Ruth Pearce, Sonja Erikainen and Ben
Vincent write:
Intense debates over trans issues, feminism, anti-trans ideologies, and
the very language employed by various agents in these debates are not
just terminological disputes or about how sex and gender should be
conceptualised. They are also debates about information, and how
people relate to it in a time of information overload; they are debates
about truth, and how people relate to truth in a ‘post-truth era’. The
trans/feminist conflicts we refer to as the ‘TERF wars’ reflect the current
conditions of our time in which public discourse is dominated by political
polarisation, deepened by the proliferation of misinformation and
distrust in ‘experts’ whose knowledge may not speak to individuals’
cultural common sense. (Pearce, Erikainen, Vincent 2020)
However sincere the convictions of the protagonists in this debate, the
perception that opposing views cannot coexist, and that contrary views will be
met with vocal, vituperative violence, impairs the chances that debate will
develop durable, sophisticated, well-reasoned positions. Anecdotal evidence
points to well-meaning individuals practising any amount of self-censorship on
the subject. Fear rules. It is not discussed.
Queer tango and the erotic
Sex has a bad reputation.
I am considering sex before the transcendent on the basis that, of the two, it
might be thought a concept more easily grasped and defined. This is not
necessarily the case. On the one hand, the almost comic eroticism depicted in
show tango, of the kind made famous around the world by TV programmes like
Strictly and its ilk, testify to a popular notion that tango is inextricably and
probably always about sex. As Marta Savigliano argued in Tango and the
Economy of Passion in 1995 (Savigliano 1995), sex sells and always has.
However, on the social dancefloor there is disagreement about how it figures
and, more to the point, how it ought to figure. Kathy Davis, who has danced
extensively in Buenos Aires and Europe remarks:
I would argue that the eroticized displays of tango passion…that are part
and parcel of most staged tango performances tend to be more the
exception than the rule in tango salons. In fact, they are more likely to
occur when dancers are inexperienced and anxious to make a good
impression, or when professionals try to impress (and recruit) potential
pupils. What can be seen more often is considerably less dramatic and
more intimate and, indeed, looks very much like what Cara (2009) calls
home tango – that is, tango danced “from the heart”. (Davis 2015)
Davis’s judgement is based on what can be seen. Melissa Fitch, in her chapter
“Touch, Healing and Zen” (Fitch 2015), considers the many therapeutic uses for
tango beyond the conventional dancefloor which have been developed to
support, among others, the visually impaired, those with Parkinson’s disease or
those with terminal illnesses and in receipt of palliative care. In noting the role
of video clips of dancing on social media in such contexts, she writes:
These new renderings of tango present it in a far different light than that
of the neocolonial Hollywood optic of the “exotic” Argentina. In other
words: there is no sex, no danger, and no deception. (Fitch 2015)
Meanwhile, by contrast, back on the social dancefloor, Juliet McMains asserts:
Tango is about sex. Not exclusively. Tango is about intimacy, sadness,
community, and commerce, among other things. But sexual tension
within the dance, even when neither partner intends to act on it, is
commonly recognized as a defining feature of tango. I am not suggesting
that tango dancing necessarily or even frequently leads to sexual
activity, but that the potentiality of sexual excitement is a key aspect of
tango culture. (McMains 2018)
McMains’ concept of “erotic potentiality” is useful here as something which, as
she argues, exists and is real, but need not and probably will not be acted on.
Are these views mutually incompatible? Possibly not. The presence or absence
of an erotic charge in tango when it is danced, rather than represented, is the
subjective experience of each tango dancer. Generally less overt and subtler
than those which accompany or are preludes to actual sexual encounters,
different dancers’ classifications and descriptions of broadly similar
phenomena will vary, according to the model of the activity they have in mind
and the vocabulary they think appropriate. That which some may think
legitimately realises an erotic charge, others feel compelled to identify as
“intimate”, “connected”, “sensuous”, or by using some other, more neutral
term. Where is the erotic charge in Fitch’s therapeutic tangos? I expect most
might hope it absent. Where is it in my dancing with women, or indeed,
women who are my senior?
In revisiting an unpublished paper I presented at The Queer Tango Salon in
Paris in 2016, I was relieved to find that I had said:
The queer tango dancers I have spoken to, like their equivalents on the
traditional scene, allow that the only absolute pre-requisite for a deeply
satisfying dance is not the erotic, but deep connection with high levels of
respectful, but uninhibited, physical intimacy leading to increased social
and emotional engagement which they value. The loss of ego helps.
(Batchelor 2016)
…which at its most intense, I might now describe as “the transcendent”.
However, I added:
The erotic may figure and be welcome. It is to be celebrated, not least
for its radical political dimensions. But the erotic is not a pre-requisite
for a satisfying dance and so not a reliable guide to value.
Because of a history of the power dimensions of sexual relations being open to
abuse – and tango has not been immune to such practices – I believe there is a
tendency to deny that it exists in contexts where it might normally not be
thought appropriate. One definition of “queer” is that it is “anti-normal”. Once
again, language and labels are among the villains. I might dance agreeably with
Sybil, a respectable straight woman in her late 70s, and she with me, an
equally respectable gay man in his 60s. If a crackle of erotic electricity sparks
between us, all this demonstrates is that for the duration of our dancing, we
are both fully alive. Socially, the encounter is made possible, in part, because
we do not describe it. And, as the Westminster Cathedral Piazza encounters
demonstrated, these days there is variety in the possible couplings at
increasingly heterogenous mainstream milongas. The inherent inclusivity of
queer tango dancing – even if it is not our preserve – increases the variety of
linguistically “illogical” couplings still further with, sometimes, unpredictable
results. Where anyone can dance with anyone, and the LGBTIQ+ galaxy gets to
choose partners, the permutations, and with them, the possibilities, ought to
be enormous. They are – yet it is a fact that if one casts an eye round the
dancefloor of most queer tango events, most women have chosen to dance
with other women, and most men with men. Queer tango’s theoretical,
radically inclusive political agenda, when realised on the queer tango
dancefloor, is tempered by an inevitable and legitimate pursuit of pleasure,
which is as it should be. The presence of the erotic ought to be celebrated –
heaven knows, it has been fought for – but as noted, is not, of itself, a marker
of the quality of the dance. That is determined, with or without the erotic, by
the presence or absence of the transcendent.
Queer tango and the transcendent
Once again, we are in murky linguistic waters. Who is to say if this or that
dance was “transcendent”? Only the dancers themselves. There are few
external signifiers which observers might register. The main evidence I have
that it exists is my subjective experience which I am reporting to you. Add to
that, my reports of my dance partners’ reactions to our dancing when it occurs
(as often as not, the shared, unspoken enjoyment of the moments
immediately following), much anecdotal evidence that many in tango
experience this (“one of those dances”), and countless textual references. It
exists, but the language used varies. Davis devotes a thoughtful, nuanced
chapter based firmly on a body of research interviews with dancers to what
she calls “Tango Passion”, a nod, perhaps, to Savigliano’s terminology.
“Connection” features in much tango discourse, as does another term, which I
loathe, “tangasm”. I dislike it because in trying to make an intangible
embodied experience intelligible to those who do not dance tango, it trades on
worn out tango clichés and takes the orgasm as a model. It shouldn’t.
Transcendence in tango is a state of being – with or without the erotic – not a
journey to a climax. How crass.
Sometimes, transcendence is developed with one partner over time, such that
it is more likely to occur than not each time one dances with them. On that
Saturday at Westminster, as usual, my intercambio dances with Sue Marlow
delivered great – and I might say, transcendent – joy to us both. We have
danced together for some years now and we when we do, and our dancing is
at its best, we realise the one, single dance between us, and swap roles in
some slightly magical way which feels so natural, one could mistake it for
shared instinct. We invariably confirm to one another after such dances that
“it” has happened AGAIN! One transcendently joyous tanda ought to be quite
enough at such an event, but I was fortunate in having another, this time
dancing with a man I also dance with frequently, and know well. Erotic? My
lips are sealed.
The advantages of dancing our politics
The language of gender and sexuality is unstable. Many of the
conceptualisations on which that language rests remain contested. There is
little sign that they will be satisfactorily resolved any time soon. In such
circumstances, the practice of queer politics through dance – independent of
language, if not of conceptualisations – may provide alternative ways of
approaching these issues. I argue that in these circumstances, it has much to
recommend it.
Consider the dancer as a political actor. As my brief sketch of the dancing
outside Westminster Cathedral reminds us, queer tango is perpetually “in
dialogue” with wider tango communities and with the wider world. The
practice of queer tango has always been seen, in part, as a reaction to and
commentary on both. The dancing of it is making contributions to both and in
doing so, altering them.
Whatever the dancing’s political side-effects among those who observe or to
whom it is reported, the actual dancer’s political thinking is more likely to be a
prelude to the dancing or a way of reflecting on it afterwards. So, for example,
I engage in my thoroughly enjoyable dances with older women as a matter of
principle, but in the full expectation of realising satisfying dances with them.
While we dance, that original, political impulse is quite forgotten. (I note, one
does not have to be a queer tango dancer to think this desirable behaviour,
but perhaps we are fractionally more alert to thinking of this as a response to a
political, feminist issue, rather than just a social one.) Similarly, as the example
at Westminster Cathedral bears out, I always dance with straight men who ask
to dance with me, and occasionally I extend invitations to them. Once again,
whatever political principles were involved in these impulses, my Westminster
Cathedral dance partner was accomplished, and it was a great pleasure to
dance with him. I sometimes dance with men who have been “brave” enough
to ask me, where their skill as followers is limited. I am deliberately (politically)
encouraging them and with that objective in mind, I settle for a less
conventionally satisfying dance, but I enjoy it, nonetheless. Apart from just
wanting to dance with me, some men may sometimes be in the business of
exhibiting their queer-friendly credentials. And why not? They, too, can be
queer tango political actors and we should encourage them. In a different
register, I love leading Tim Baggaley, a wonderfully open tango dancer,
straight, with a terrific dress sense and only one arm. Our dancing is an
inventive delight for both of us. I am not immune from momentary thoughts of
how properly “queer tango” our dancing is – inclusivity? Yes! – nor of its
effects on those who watch, but our joint, immediate and over-riding
undertaking is to have a great dance.
Indeed, Tim is the first witness to my dancing, as I am to his. Our witnessing is
physical and intimate, rather than visual. Thereafter the visual multiplies the
witnessed experience: fellow dancers or others at the venue may have seen
the dancing; others not present may hear of it, or read of it, or see
photographs or video clips. If the dance alters how the dancer, the dancer’s
partner, or any of the other people referred to here think, feel, or act, or if it
changes their conceptions of tango, or they can see that that dancing might
offer a model for the organisation of wider society – if any, or some, or all of
these pertain, then that dancing has had political consequences.
But note: in social dancing, when they are present, transcendence and the
erotic are usually invisible. There is nothing to be seen. If there is nothing to be
seen, there is nothing to be witnessed, though there are those to whom such
experiences might be reported. Consequently, in considering how these might
inform or effect the politics of queer tango, our focus necessarily narrows
exclusively onto the queer tango dancing couple.
The type, power, and long-term political effects of a queer tango dancer
dancing will be shaped by the effects of countless contextual factors, fixed or
developing, prior to taking the first step. Each of them contributes to meaning:
the social and political climate in which the dancing occurs; the choice of
venue; how it is organised (a queer space, or not?); the dancer’s preparation of
the body for presentation as a dance partner by showering, shaving, applying
lipstick, perfume or after-shave; the choice of clothing and of course shoes –
high heels? flats? bare feet? – and what the dancer thinks such choices say
about them; and what others think the choices say about the dancer;
sometimes, the music which it is decided to dance to; the dancer’s state of
mind at that moment and their “attitude” – both physical and mental; and
finally the acceptance of, or successful proffering of an invitation to dance,
thus securing a dance partner with which to take that first step.
Only then, do we dance.
Was it a success?
How should one judge? From a queer tango perspective, perversely, I set aside
any political aspirations for a moment. I maintain that we rarely take to the
tango dancefloor, queer or not, with the prime objective of effecting political
change. We usually seek out our partners (like any tango dancers) and dance
queer tango in search of those feelings of satisfaction, of pleasure (erotic
sometimes, but mostly not) and of joy – including, occasionally, transcendent
As María Rosa Olivera-Williams reminds us:
As Carolyn Merritt puts it, this transcendence into the depths
of tango becomes, ‘a sort of silent confessional in movement’ (p. 124), a
highly desirable experience in a global culture that blurs identities and
subjectivities … (Olivera-Williams 2013)
It is perhaps respect for the sanctity of the “confessional in movement” which
usually inhibits dancers from referring to it. I hope my transgression here does
not offend.
What are the political consequences of the erotic and the transcendent in
queer tango? The presence of them links queer tango directly to the whole of
tango. Setting aside the subjectivity of the evidence, if acknowledged, this
equivalence is a vindication of its inherent worth.
Historically, queer tango celebrated and embodied erotic relationships
forbidden or concealed in the mainstream and has done so with just as much
erotic vigour as their heterosexual equivalents. As McMains asserts:
…queer tango is just as passionate and erotic as straight tango.
Especially in Buenos Aires where tango and sex tourism are so closely
conflated, I witnessed and experienced sexual tension, flirtation, and
hookups in both straight and queer tango contexts. (McMains 2018)
Over time, the variety of these relationship combinations might have been
thought to increase as a function of an increase in the possible – or even
desirable – combinations of newly emergent identities. However, as these
identity combinations exist on the dancefloor independently of the
terminology of conventional political discourses, a creative blurring occurs. Nor
is this confined to queer spaces. As social attitudes change and the
conventional politics of gender and sexuality move on, so, too, the effects of
some 20 to 25 years of queer tango are felt. More so than at any time in the
past, queer dancing increasingly features at mainstream milongas, where it is
both witnessed by and shared with those who traditionally would have been
there anyway. Once one has allowed that, mostly, straight women dance with
straight men, and that, mostly, in queer tango, women tend to dance with
other women, as do men with men, there is, even so, enough creative mingling
going on to prompt new ways of thinking about all our identities, queer and
straight. Most importantly, dancing queer tango invites us to question the
implied precision and exclusivity of this, now conventional terminology. If
these looser, more creative relationships can be developed on the dancefloor,
then perhaps they have a value as models of engagement beyond it. These
latest developments in the queer tango politics of the erotic embody the “anti-
normal” in its best sense.
The effects of the transcendent are similar, but less easily mapped. To begin
with, we struggle with the terminology used to describe it. Almost all tango
brings joy, but the point at which joy tips over into some shared ecstatic state,
while it can be subjectively experienced, is not easily defined. Yet, I argue, it
exists. There is no reason to think it more or less common than in the whole of
tango, and anything which adds to the sum total of joy in the world has to be
welcomed - but what of its political value? This equivalence with the rest of
tango implies equivalence in the value of the dance relationships out of which
transcendence emerges and, by implication, in the value of the dancers. That is
worth knowing in the most liberal of societies, but it is of paramount
importance if those dancing, dance in, or come from societies where such
equivalence is more generally impugned. And while queer tango arose out of
some erotic impulses once deemed irregular, despite the misleading
implications of terms like “tangasm”, transcendent tango may or may not have
an erotic dimension, and the erotic dimension can be detected by dancers at
all levels of ability. Transcendent is the best that can be had. Once
experienced, dancers are more likely to return to the dancefloor and be open
to it re-occurring. This, too, is a political strength. As we emerge from Covid
Lockdown, the numbers of those dancing may increase. The inclusivity of
queer tango means recognising that the very best can be danced by a wide
variety of combinations of dancers, and suggests a world where the
differences between us sometimes implied by language will have less power to
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Conference Paper
Full-text available
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.
The queer tango movement is an international alliance of tango practitioners who seek to denaturalize the link between gender and the division of labor in a tango partnership. The queer tango space provides participants, particularly female practioners, with relief from minority stress, access to LGBTQ sexual potentiality, and experiments in gender utopia.
Clarity of business terms is vital for any business involved in change programmes. Without clear, commonly understood definitions nothing can be on a sound footing.
Newsnight. Germaine Greer: Transgender women are 'not women
BBC. 23 Oct 2015. Newsnight. Germaine Greer: Transgender women are 'not women'.
Tango, Connection, Intimacy and the Erotic: a Queer Tango Perspective" The Queer Tango Salon
  • Ray Batchelor
Batchelor, Ray. 16-17 September 2016. "Tango, Connection, Intimacy and the Erotic: a Queer Tango Perspective" The Queer Tango Salon. Paris, France. Unpublished.
LGBT+ Afghans desperate to escape amid Taliban takeover
  • Matthew Lavietes
  • Rachel Savage
Lavietes, Matthew. Savage, Rachel. 20 August 2021. LGBT+ Afghans desperate to escape amid Taliban takeover. Times Live.
Illiberalism Isn't to Blame for the Death of Good-Faith Debate. Slate website
  • Lili Loofbourow
Loofbourow, Lili. 2020. Illiberalism Isn't to Blame for the Death of Good-Faith Debate. Slate website. July 12.