Dancing Tango by Kathy Davis – A New Book!
New York University Press
Reviewed by Ray Batchelor.
Queer Tango is at the heart of Kathy Davis’s timely, and impressive study. Like many who write about tango, Davis dances. This enables her to offer personal perspectives both from Buenos Aires, to which she has been a frequent visitor, as well from as her home city of Amsterdam. Unlike many critics focused more exclusively on Buenos Aires, in this welcome respect, her experiences correspond more closely to those of millions of other 21st century tango dancers around the ‘globalizing’ world, including my own. Her study is based on responses from informants – women, men, queer, straight – from both of these contexts. Davis is well-versed in the literature, so Marta Savigliano’s pronouncements on tango as a post-colonial phenomenon and Eduardo Archetti’s on tango masculinities rub shoulders with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in looking more widely at gender as construct and performance. In reviewing existing critiques, Davis tactfully praises where she agrees, takes issue where she does not, or poses the questions which, in her view others have not yet asked. If Davis’s approach is scholarly, it is also wonderfully fresh. Here is learning as it should be: worn lightly and used with intelligence to illuminate.
If your main interest is in Queer Tango, though, I urge you not to skip straight to ‘Queering Tango’ her penultimate chapter. Queer Tango is routinely cast as a riposte or alternative to the shortcomings of the mainstream. Davis’s nuanced account of that mainstream in ‘late modernity’ is an essential precursor to her analysis of its recently arrived queer counterpart. Besides, it is well worth reading in its own right. So, for example, she compares and contrasts the salons of Amsterdam and Buenos Aires carefully untangling myths and beliefs which shape practices in both. In the best exposition of tango and authenticity I have yet read, she compares the convictions of ‘authentic’ dancers – close hold, ‘milonguero style’ – and those with nuevo tendencies: ‘both traditionalists and modernists employ notions of authenticity which have little real connection with tango’s actual history’. She sets out the dance’s essential characteristics of ‘dialogue’ of the ‘passion’ of the title and above all, ‘connection’ with precision and insight. Tango dancers, queer and straight alike will wince in recognition at her descriptions of moving from absolute beginner, to the drug like later stages of the tango addiction. I was surprised none of her correspondents directly referred to close personal relationships foundering as a consequence of tango.
Davis argues that the erotic undercurrents of mainstream tango arise, in part because of the promise of deep intimacy, of ‘passion’ without the ‘penalties’ that commonly come with it: commitment, a relationship, children, perhaps. And further that tango offers an opportunity in a more rational, egalitarian world in which most (especially in the Netherlands) genuinely prize gender equality, for the surreptitious, irrational, backward-looking enjoyment of the older gender inequalities. And she draws a limited parallel with sadomasochistic play, in which activities otherwise forbidden and undesirable are performed by mutual consent for the satisfaction of the participants. This is convincing, even if it is only a part of the explanation of how it ‘works’.
Where does that leave Queer Tango? One might imagine that in queer communities, where historically at least, political struggles have focused on the right to practice this or that sexual act, eroticism might be to the fore. Echoing some of Savigliano’s reservations, Davis argues that, on the contrary, Queer Tango, compared with the mainstream risks being less highly-charged, not more, that ‘political correctness’ tango may come at a heavy price. Having been deeply moved in 2002 or 2003 seeing Augusto Balizano and Miguel Moyano perform exquisitely at a mainstream milonga in Buenos Aires and noting how accepting those present were, it was only years later that Davis went to La Marshall, Balizano’s gay milonga. It was she notes, informal, enjoyable, but with many tourists and a much wider range of abilities than might be seen elsewhere. She notes too the gender asymmetry confirmed by her women respondents. Mariano Docampo originally set out through women-only classes to encourage more women to lead. Yet the classes did not prosper, leading Docampo, a professor of literature, to set up ‘tango queer’ in St Telmo, which built on the more inclusive tenets of queer theory.
Davis’s experiences of Queer Tango – and she allows that as a heterosexual woman, she may have been missing things – was that it was less erotically charged, more ‘safe. Having correctly identified the reversal of roles between and within dances as Queer Tango’s most distinctive feature, she asks if this undermines the very differences which in her view are at the heart of tango and account for its attraction? Is she correct to suggest that in Queer Tango, role reversal has supplanted connection (and with it, passion) as the dance’s chief objective? A disgruntled lesbian who, with her partner, was quite clear that one wanted to lead and the other follow, exasperated at the requirement to swap role in Queer Tango classes, choose instead to dance in the mainstream. Queer Tango, so the argument goes, by losing the gender differences has become less highly charged, paradoxically less erotic, less passionate and – by implication – less interesting.
Davis’s understanding of Queer Tango does not correspond to my own. Firstly, some of the characteristics she identifies may be transient, not inherent. It is true, at some Queer Tango events the standard of dancing is lower than at their mainstream counterparts, but this may partly be a function of the relative newness of the phenomenon, especially as she is reporting on circumstances a few years ago. The prevalence of open hold, which she attributes in to the demands of intercambio might instead be taken as a side-effect of those many beginners for whom close hold seems more difficult. The standard of dancing at – say – The Berlin International Queer Tango Festivals compares more or less favourably with the best. Davis would have it that Queer Tango is more commonly aligned to nuevo tendencies, drawn by this further ‘transgression’ against tradition – but in this I think she may be mistaken, or perhaps becoming mistaken. Nuevo is no longer new and seems to be fading, while Queer Tango – danced in more or less ‘traditional’ styles – is booming. If some Queer Tango teachers oblige people to learn both roles, others, beyond a few exercises only invite dancers to choose. At Queer Tango London run by Tim Flynn, we have dancers who have assiduously stuck to one role only for many years.
My main issue is with the suggestion that Queer Tango, in eradicating differences, becomes less passionate and less erotic. My reservation springs, in part from a different understanding I have of how mainstream tango works. Eradicating difference? I am obliged to ask myself, having danced both roles for years whether I have been naive in seeing them as NOT hierarchical, but more or less equal, and indeed, conventionally, but not inherently gendered? Have I mistaken conviction for reality? I don’t think so. To say that both roles are available to all is to renegotiate, but not eradicate gender. Irrespective of role or gender or orientation, dancing with a man is not like dancing with a woman. Differences – and exciting differences – persist. In both believing and experiencing this, I am not alone.
Finally, three things are missing from Davis’ account of Queer Tango – and in fairness, given the demands of publishing and publishers and the dynamic state Queer Tango is in, they may have come to the fore after she closed her laptop: in a viscerally exciting way, teachers such as Mariano Garces are exploring how tango may be danced without followers or leaders; activists such as Edgardo Fernández Sesma use Queer Tango in trying to achieve social objectives which include but extend beyond the immediate LGBT agenda. And it is this outward-looking characteristic which is gradually becoming inherent and distinctive. Queer Tango dancers around the world, having acquired their Queer Tango skills and sensibilities at Queer Tango prácticas and milongas, go into or go back into the tango mainstream to practice them, dancing with whomsoever, and dancing very well. As Queer Tango passes the mid point of its second decade, it is this tango expression of the wider phenomenon of LGBT people living their lives in the world rather than separated from it, which is most worthy of note.
Davis’s closing paragraph of ‘Queering Tango’ provide some of the caveats to her central arguments: Queer Tango need not be ‘lame’ as Savigliano has suggested and it goes way beyond simply trying to ‘undo gender’. Queer dance partners can ’embrace dangerous differences, take risks and play with the forbidden. This is what passion in tango is about – whether straight or queer, traditional or modern – and it is this passion that, ultimately, makes tango always and everywhere just a little queer.’
I agree with Shani, one of Davis’s respondents who likes to lead ‘We [in Queer Tango] don’t need to revolutionise tango.’ In one of her most telling, if under-developed observations, Davis reports that many respondents compared the intimacy which connection makes possible to being rocked like a child, a reference which she notes ‘evokes a deeply-felt and gender-transcendent longing…to reinstate a lost sense of oneness with another’ (emphasis added). I sense that it is in the fastidious, even forensic examination of the relationships between the erotic, the erotically charged, passion, connection and above all, intimacy that holds the key to understanding the power of all tango, even if writing about it is hard and truths difficult to pin down.
Davis has written a superb, complex, stimulating book. She obliges all of us to think.