A New Trend: Open Role Tango Events in Mainstream Tango

By Birthe Havmoeller

Birthe & Marie LouiseI am not referring to dancing and interventions by queer tango dancers in mainstream tango. They have been there for years; dancers like myself steady dancing the ‘other’ role every week for years, as woman leaders and male followers, coupled or un-coupled.

The new trend which I see emerging in Europe now is the practice of dancing both roles by the regular social dancers – i.e. by tango dancers whom I know to be or assume to be straight people. They dance ‘open role tango’ at new special events for open role dancers such as the travelling Totally in Tango weekends (founded by Belgian social dancer Ludo Decreus, 2016) or the annual oRó de Bonn – Open Role Tango Marathon in Bonn, Germany (which was launched in 2017). I have been to several queer tango events and now I am looking forward to going to my first open role tango event, the Totally in Tango weekend in Randers, Denmark. This will be an interesting experience.

Since I started my life with queer tango 2009 I have seen a few professional mainstream tango couples who have started changing roles, when they dance their teachers’ dance at different mainstream, international tango festivals, both in person and on Youtube. They probably would not have done this 15 years ago, so cheers to the queer tango movement for inspirering teachers to be the emerging dual role tango role models so much needed in mainstream tango!

Recently at a local Danish milonga a tanguera talked about her experiences at an event where she had been brave enough to take up the challenge presented to her by tangueros who insisted on dancing “the woman” only. She ‘led’ one of the new casual male tango followers, realising that if she wanted to dance “her role” she would have to dance with a woman (leader) at this milonga where all the men wanted to only follow. Her male dance partner was a tall man, and he turned out to be a true challenge to lead as he was a beginner and a heavy dancer. I know that this is probably an extreme story, a true worst-case scenario for a tanguera, and that not all ‘open role’ tango events are like this, with male dancers insisting on dancing the ‘other’ role only… all night long. However, it makes me wonder if the majority of the (straight) male dancers at the new ‘open role’ tango events ever have devoted more than a few hours/evenings to the project of leaning the skills it takes to dance as a ‘follower’? If they have not done a prober job of practicing their follower skills the ‘open role’ milongas may turn into more of a practica than a milonga.

As a lesbian tanguera, dual role dancer and woman leader I find it very complicated to dance with intermediate male tango dancers. They are often domineering which ever role they dance. I don’t mind dancing with newbie male followers as long as we are dancing at a practica where we may talk about the experience and share our tango wisdom. At a milonga I prefer to dance with an experienced tanguera. It is so much more fun for me to feel the soft embrace of a woman and be at the receiving end of her musical responses to the music and my lead!

Open role tango’s philosophy is like modern tango salon, in that it follows the norms and informal rules of traditional tango: the milonga codes and the heteronormative division of labour where the leader leads and follower follows with or without ‘reversed’ roles for both dancers in the couple, depending on if only one or both dancers dance the ‘other’ role.

The Queer Tango movement has taken up the challenge of switching the dancers’ right to ‘lead’ on and off in tango by dancing ‘intercambio’, changing roles all the time while dancing, by giving the follower the right to initiate the change or roles. I have observed that this way of dancing upsets the dynamics in the embrace of the traditional tango salon couple as well as with the open role dancers so much that I have started talking about ‘Queer Tango’ (‘intercambio’) as a new dance style in Argentinean tango. A queer way of dancing which takes the dancer away from the “original” binary tango salon, with or without reversed roles, to a dance style in which the experienced follower may decide to ‘backlead’ for a few seconds now and where both partners may initiate a ‘change of roles’ whenever s/he feels like ‘queering’ their dance with a seamless change of roles. The ‘Queer Tango’ embrace must be soft and in harmony with the other dancer, but besides this there is only one more rule in ‘Queer Tango’: that the roles are ‘fluid’.

An insistance on dancing only one role or “your role” is a binary, heteronormative concept. The majority of dancers in the queer tango communities dance ‘open role tango’, enjoying the liberty of deciding which role they want to dance as they walk onto the dancefloor and having the freedom to decide who they want to dance with regardless of the other individual’s gender, non-gender or potential sexual preferences. This means that the Queer Tango movement is living with the conundrum of promoting ‘Queer Tango’ i.e. ‘intercambio’ and same gender dancing, (along with offering milongas as ‘safe spaces’ for LGBTQ dual role dancers, woman leaders and male followers regardless of their sexual preferences), while the majority of the dancers at queer tango events do not have the skills to dance the dance style of ‘Queer Tango’ or may never want to take their tango this far away from the mainstream (open role) tango salon. They share a feeling of pride by ‘queering’ the milongas (mainstream or queer) by being there as out and proud dancers on the dancefloor. In my opinion the participants of a queer tango event are potentially queer people but you need not be queer or LGBT to dance the dance style of Queer Tango.

In the new international community of dancers getting together to dance at the Totally in Tango weekends I hope to find flexible, openminded if not like-minded dancers. Some of them may like the challenge of dancing as mixed couples where they are both at the same level (beginner/intermediary), while others may enjoy dancing with an experienced dance partner of their own gender while they are learning the ‘other’ role. – At some point in our tango lives we all have to figure out how to handle the same gender aspect in ‘open role tango’ and the social taboos related to same gender couple dancing of mainstream tango. It does take time to be ready to “come out” as a dual role dancer who likes to dance with other dancers of your own gender. It may take longer for men than for women, as the female practice of same gender dancing has always been seen upon with acceptance, making the woman leaders less of a social ‘problem’ in mainstream tango than the male couples.

The difference between the ‘open role’ (just) tango salon and the emerging ‘Queer Tango’ dance style, may cause some confusion among people in the greater Tango World, but eventually we’ll hopefully come to terms with the new term, and the new open role dancers/dual role dancers may also figure what the queer tango movement has to offer with its festivals and numerous other events.

As long as we are all focused on the casual sensual (and somewhat erotic attraction) of danced encounters with friends and strangers as the force driving our tango practice of dancing both roles forward, I see both communities thriving side by side. They both have their unique mission and individual target groups. It is never about either or but about dancing in both ways in as many tango communities as possible. In the future many tango organisers will come to love the dual role/open role dancers as they’ll help create a role balance, so much needed in a tango world with more women than men. Rejecting tangueras because they don’t have a male dance partner in order to create a gendered man-woman balance at a tango event is an old concept which eventually will be replaced by a new philosophy, embracing everybody who wants to dance.

And what if the two communities blur, say if… queer dancers in great numbers start going to the new open role tango events or if straight dancers go to queer tango events? Will a shift in the identity-balance of the participants of the individual events change the culture and atmosphere of the events for the better or for the worse?

We are all dancing ‘open role’ or ‘queer’ to satisfy our curiosity and wish for lovely sensual dance experiences and to loosen up or to totally break with the old tango norms of the greater tango world. As a dual role dancer, I claim my right to dance on any tango dancefloor. I do not match the image of the woman of the heteronormative tangueros’ dreams; I don’t pass as a traditional tanguera… perhaps because of my flat shoes… or a lack of the “right” pheromones. I may or may not dance ‘queer’ or ‘tango milonguero’. It depends on the skills of my casual dance partner. I am curious when mainstream organisers create new tango events which are open to me as a woman leader in a tango world where other organisers’ knee jerk reaction is to reject me.

If a queer milonga organiser sees his/her event being invaded by traditional dancers who do not dance ‘queer’ or ‘open role’ and make the organiser’s favourite target group of queer dancers stay away from the milonga (which I have heard happened in Spain), then the queer organiser may choose to close the milonga and re-open it somewhere else with a new and more ‘queer’ LGBT mission statement about the queer tango milonga being a ‘safe space’ for LGBTQ dancers.