Articles, The Queer Tango Project

High Heels, Dancing and Politics: Queer Tango takes a view

High Heels, Dancing and Politics: Queer Tango takes a view
Ray Batchelor (UK), May 2016.

Every now and again, one of us posts something on The Queer Tango Conversation[1] which – as we hope it will – prompts others to comment. What follows is an anthology of the responses prompted by a post I made on 5 May 2016. I hope contributors will forgive me for re-ordering their comments according to the themes they addressed, rather than reproducing them in strict, chronological order.

So, the original post:

I think it was the men in high heels which caused the most hostile reaction.

I have just returned from the excellent “Salida” international Queer Tango festival in St Petersburg – thank you, Otar Bagaturiya, Mikhail Kapitskiy, Yana Khalilova, and Natalia Merkulova! The evening before the festival proper, at the invitation of the proprietor, it was agreed we would meet at a mainstream Milonga. Eager, I arrived early. Knowing no one, I cabaceoed a lady from Volgagrad and we danced agreeably and conventionally enough among the conventionally constituted man-woman couples, man leading, woman following. My first tango in Russia.

Gradually, more of us arrived. I danced with other men, leading, following and some intercambio; with some women, the same variations. Women leading men often shocks the unwary.

It became apparent not everyone was comfortable. There were looks. There were ill-concealed snickers, but I think it was the sight of men dancing (and dancing beautifully, may I say) in high heels which elicited the strongest antagonistic reactions. Eventually a group of those who, however misguidedly, had taken offence, left. But alongside that minority was a majority, who were silent and apparently indifferent; and another minority who were friendly, including our host who made a point dancing with us.

Conclusions? All in all it was an enjoyable evening but a salutary one for someone accustomed to London’s easier attitudes towards Queer Tango as part of mainstream tango life. St Petersburg is not London. Noted. I am sorry some felt they had the right to snicker at us and felt that they had to leave. In the longer term, I don’t know what effect our dancing had on them or on the silent majority. I hope we made them think. The fact that we were there, were dancing, and dancing well must, at the very least have obliged them to talk about us and form an opinion. To that extent, our dancing was a political act. And I am really pleased there were friendly people, too, who seemed to want a world of which we were a part. This, too is a political act on their part. Such acts repeated over time change the world.

And maybe men in high heels is among the last taboos?

I was so impressed with their dancing – and what it was like to dance with them – I have decided I will try high heels again when i get the chance, having only tottered in them the last time. It might make for interesting dancing. And politically, maybe my choice of footwear might help push back one of the remaining barriers to Queer Tango queering the specious purity of the mainstream? A richer mix will make it stronger. Queer Tango is spreading beyond the safety of the queer, to become a joy routinely savoured in the wider world. In some places, this process has only recently begun.

I added: “As I remarked in respoense to comment by Birhe Havmoeller, I am only suggesting men in high heels is a proper part of the Queer Tango mix, just as NOT obliging women to wear them, if, like you, they choose not to. Variety [or “heterogeneity” to use the posh word] is strength; purity is [often] weakness…”

How hostile are milongas to same-gender dancers elsewhere in the world?

Minna Wetlesen said:

It´s not only a St.Petersburg phenomena. After the previous FFT a group of queer dancers went to Unni´s milonga and danced the whole evening. Qiute a few people (men) got really provoked, and even smashed their fist in a table and left the milonga shouting that they did´nt want this to happen in a milonga

By contrast, UK-based Felicity Graham said, “Very interesting to hear this. I like to see it. It strikes me as a fun, gentle, creative thing. People who snigger, shout and bang their fists are destructive, violent types. The milonga organiser has to decide which type they want to keep.” Adding:

I loved dancing in Buenos Aires but things are very different there in some milongas. Not worse, necessarily, for me. Just different . I did – rarely – dance in switched roles and with women but I was careful where and when and I danced a single track, once, mid-milonga in a traditional milonga with a new girl who was very badly treated by a man – to make a point. And both of us got dances straight after. But the milongas are well established there, expectations are clear and in some places I think there is an incomprehension that same sex couples might want to dance in regular milongas or that they might be welcomed there. It’s a subtle thing. Some places/hosts allow it, or tolerate it but you can feel it would not be, for the majority of the clientele there, the acceptable thing to do. And where I sense a majority do not want something, it makes sense for me to go elsewhere.

Adriana Pegorer also witnessed hostility:

At a queer tango event I watched some Argentine male teachers laugh openly at and exclude from the group a colleague who decided to wear high heels for that nite. As I watched this situation unfold, I was inclined to invite this man in high heels to dance, but I thought I’d wait and see how the dynamic would develop. Turned out, this man in high heels and trousers approached his colleagues, was met with -rather open- contempt, gradually moved out of the group. I seem to remember he later danced as a follower but cannot remember if he kept his high heels on…. if he did i would have probably noted… I actually suspect he left the milonga….

As Nita Hon remarked, “it has come a long way and yet…still a further way to go.”

What happens to men who wear high heels, as dancers, as members of the milonga?

Felicity Graham suggested:

The reason, is that guys do not move like women and I am curious how much this is to do with heels. Not that much I suspect. I think many (esp non queer) guys find trust/ letting go control quite hard I am curious how heels will affect that. I think heels requires significantly more trust…

Birthe Havmoeller invited Jannick Sørensen, to comment:

I’ve danced in heels the last 3 or 4 years, and is the owner of several pairs, but the beginning was mostly driven by curiosity. After having bought my first pair I started to think of it as using the ‘proper tools’ for dance as a follower (I’ve been leading for last +20 years). I feel it makes the leg more articulated and possibly elegant. When leading in high heels, one needs to be more precise since there is little balance to counter with if the follower or I is out of axis.

Jannick Sørensen made some telling points about his reasons for wearing heels:

I never wear heels as a statement, since I consider tango dancing a private activity, not an act of communication. If feel that ‘the atmosphere’ at a milonga is not suitable for heels, I don’t wear them. I’ll also like to dance in flat shoes – so to me it is mostly a private sensational experience, and a great aid to become present in the chest as a follower. But heels are also something that requires a lot of work of you – strong muscles and a lot of training. When I started to dance in heels, I decided I would only continue if I also could make it look beautiful, to honor the beauty of the shoes… it’s really good training for the leader to lead in heels.

Jannick Sørensen is alert to the feelings of others, especially women:

If I arrive at a milonga where there are a lot of people – typically women – that only dance the follower’s role, I normally do not put heels, at least not from the beginning, as I know I have a choice between the two roles but they don’t.

How should a man in high heels work the cabaceo?

Gillian Blacklock noted with concern:

Tango dancers have more rules and form than any other type of dancing. Organising a dance via eye contact is normal for most dances. The whole straight tango scene have taken it to extremes. The cabaceo seems to be based on an idea that you ignore people /don’t smile at all costs at them if you don’t want to dance with them. Apparently it stops people walking across the floor then being shamed / disappointed when someone doesn’t accept their dance invitation. How social is that? Once you have learned the rules of elitism it must be hard to then find people changing roles and changing the rules.

To which Birthe Havmoeller replied,

…please note there is a difference between saying ‘No thanks’ by looking away (or looking directly at the dancer, smiling and blinking automatically with both eyes cutting what ever connection there might have been for half a second) and shunning people by ignoring them. We do not need to change this ‘rule’ just learn to use it properly.

Jannick Sørensen also had a view – and experience to draw on:

That was also one thing I learned while starting to wear heels. Suddenly I had to notice and practice the cabaceo. I still think it is nice if people talk with me before we dance, as one can feel a bit like being tested with the cabaceo, as if the commitment to invite was not a full and open commitment. But although socially shy, the cabaceo works more efficient – by increasing the ease of asking and the ease of sneaking out of an invitation. Now I know it from both sides. However, still I get surprised when I’m invited via the Cabaceo.

Birthe Havmoeller reminded us about the companion to the cabaceo,

…the ‘mirada’ which is the followers’ gaze at their favourite leaders. The followers’ active gaze is their way of telling the leaders that they would like to dance. So by keeping an eye out for a leader’s cabeceo or gazing at a leader until he/she notices and responds to your ‘mirada’ by accepting your invitation or conveying a nonverbal not thanks to you, is how ‘talk long distance’ (nonverbally) using the follower’s mirada.

So what?

Edgardo Fernández Sesma agreed with my suggestions that heterogeneity in Queer Tango is desirable “precious words” and that dancing such as this gradually effects social and political change. “I agree completely that small political acts like that, help to make things better.” So much so, he offered to translate the original post into Spanish to share with his students the better to persuade them of the merits of these arguments.

Of course, I agreed immediately to his generous offer.

Reactions to this post illustrate exactly what Birthe Havmoeller, Olaya Aramo and I hoped The Queer Tango Conversation, part of The Queer Tango project would do: stimulate debate about Queer tango in order to inform how it is danced! Perhaps this posting made today 23 May 2016, will now prompt a new catalogue of comments and critiques in Spanish:

ME ATREVí a traducir este interesante relato de Ray Batchelor, sobre la inauguración del “Festival Internacional de Tango Queer de San Petersburgo” este mes (en la foto que es del Festival, bailan Ray y Miguel Kanai):

Yo creo que fueron los hombres en tacos altos quienes causaron la reacción más hostil.

Acabo de regresar de la excelente “Salida” Queer Tango Festival Internacional de San Petersburgo – Gracias Otar Bagaturiya, Mikhail Kapitskiy, Yana Khalilova, y Natalia Merkulova! La noche antes de la fiesta del festival, por invitación de su titular, se acordó nos encontrábamos en una tradicional Milonga. Impaciente, yo llegué temprano. Sin conocer a nadie, yo cabaceé a una señora de Volgogrado y bailamos agradablemente y convencionalmente entre las parejas hombre-mujer convencionalmente constituidas, hombres dirigiendo, mujeres siguiendo. Mi primer tango en Rusia.

Poco a poco, llegamos más de nosotros. Bailé con otros hombres, conduciendo, siendo conducido e intercambiando roles; con algunas mujeres, con las mismas variaciones. Mujeres que llevan los hombres a menudo impacta el mirar.

Se puso de manifiesto que no todo el mundo estaba cómodo allí. Hubo miradas. Hubo risitas mal disimuladas, pero creo que fue la vista de los hombres bailando (y bailar muy bien, debo decir) en tacones altos, que provocaban las reacciones antagónicas más fuertes. Había un grupo de los que, erróneamente habían tomado la ofensiva, a la izquierda. Pero junto a esa minoría eran mayoría, quienes estaban en silencio y aparentemente indiferentes; y había otra minoría que era amable, incluyendo a nuestro anfitrión, que hizo un baile puntual con nosotros.

¿Conclusiones? En suma, fue una noche agradable pero llamativa para alguien acostumbrado a actitudes más fáciles en Londres hacia el Queer Tango como parte de la corriente principal de la vida de tango. San Petersburgo no es Londres. Lo notamos. Lamento que algunos sintieron que tenían el derecho de burlarse de nosotros y sintieron que tenían que irse por nuestro baile. A más largo plazo, no sé qué efecto tendrá nuestro baile en ellos o en la mayoría silenciosa. Espero que les hiciera reflexionar. El hecho de que estuviésemos allí, bailando, al menos los habrá obligado a hablar de nosotros y formar una opinión. En ese sentido, nuestro baile era un acto político. Y estoy realmente satisfecho: había gente amable también, que parecían querer un mundo del que formamos parte. Esto, también es un acto político de su parte. Tales actos repetidos con el tiempo cambian el mundo.

¿Tal vez los hombres en tacos altos sea uno de los últimos tabúes?

Yo estaba tan impresionado con su baile – y lo que fue como bailar con ellos – que he decidido que voy a tratar bailar en zapatos de tacos altos de nuevo cuando tenga otra oportunidad, habiendo solamente tambaleado sobre ellos la última vez. Podría sert un baile interesante. Y políticamente, tal vez mi elección de calzado podría ayudar a empujar de nuevo uno de los últimos obstáculos para el Queer Tango hacia la pureza engañosa de la corriente principal? Una mezcla más rica hará que sea más fuerte. El Queer Tango se está extendiendo más allá de la seguridad de lo queer, para convertirse en una alegría saboreada rutinariamente en el resto del mundo. En algunos lugares, este proceso recién empieza” [2]

1 The Queer Tango Conversation is a facebook group launched by The Queer Tango Project.
2 Source: