“Islam, homosexuality and tango are not incompatible”

Global Tangos - book coverGlobal Tangos: Travels in the Transnational Imaginary
Melissa A. Fitch
Bucknell University Press
2015

Reviewed by Ray Batchelor

“Islam, homosexuality and tango are not incompatible,” Iz told the reporter doing a story on Gay Pride Day in Istanbul in 2011. Iz, who declined to give her last name, was dancing tango. The inclusion of her voice, that of a Turkish, Muslim lesbian, headscarfed (by choice), a politically aware and politically active tanguera in Fitch’s study is symptomatic of Global Tangos: Travels in the Transnational Imaginary. As the title suggests, her work explores the global phenomenon that 21st century tango – or more correctly, ‘tangos’ – has become, presenting evidence from around the world. As an academic specialising in Spanish and Portuguese, she is more directly at ease with texts which might be closed to other, more Anglophone authors. She is completely in command of the theoretical dimensions of her subject and writes well, which together help make her book both sophisticated, but approachable. Fitch is alert to the things popular culture can tell us about attitudes towards tango and in her bibliography, Judith Butler (gender) and Marta Savigliano (neo-colonialism) rub shoulders with Jack Kerouac and the “Tango Barbie and Ken Giftset (2002)”, not to mention a separate section for the countless films and TV programmes which inform this study. Fitch loves these and the reader is treated to any number of engaging cinematic passages which bring the (absent) screen to life. Fitch not only explores tango’s geographical and cultural distribution, but its conceptual boundaries as well. She does so in five chapters: having in the first deftly debunked any number of familiar “Foundational Clichés” about tango, in the second she follows with an excellent development of the concept of Savigliano’s “Neocolonial Gaze” and tango tourism. It is, in part, a well argued, if merciless critique of some self-publicising tango authorities, each one eager to construct ‘authenticities’ which chiefly serve to validate their personal, sometimes woefully ignorant, points of view. Then, like Kathy Davis’s Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World which also appeared in 2015 (reviewed here: http://queertangobook.org/dancing-tango-by-kathy-davis/), this rounded picture includes a chapter on Queer Tango. It is followed by the best account of the practical uses of tango in the context of therapy and healing I have read. Her closing chapter is a fascinating exploration of tango activism. It is here, interestingly, that Iz makes her, to some, startling assertion, rather than in chapter three, “Tango Queer Rebellions”.

If you care about something and have opinions, you have to guard against criticising what others write for not being what you might have written yourself. I read Global Tangos at 35,000 feet, leaving Mexico City where I had danced, and on my way home to London, where I would dance some more. ‘Global Tangos’, indeed, and with her regular reminders of the roles of money and with it, class and privilege have in accessing them, I became more keenly aware than normal that my tango good fortune is not universally shared. Having enjoyed the first two chapters, I set to reading “Tango Queer Rebellions” with high hopes. When I had finished it, I felt disappointed and I was surprised that I was disappointed having thought so highly of those opening chapters. Perplexed, I picked up the book again, and read on. The chapters which followed completely restored my faith in Fitch and in the book. Perhaps it was me? Perhaps because I identify closely with Queer Tango, I was being hypercritical? And yet, I admired the chapter on the therapeutic uses of tango which came afterwards and I have a close personal identification with that through my work teaching Queer Tango to deaf people and to footballers.

It is salutary to note in this, the therapeutic context, that Fitch and Davis are at odds about the erotic in tango. For Davis the erotic, however deeply buried is at the heart of ‘real’ tango and, echoing Savigliano, Davis asserts that by overturning gender stereotypes, Queer Tango loses some of its erotic charge and is rendered somewhat duller than its mainstream equivalent. Fitch adopts the opposite stance, happy to acknowledge that one of the joys of tango – mainstream tango – is the promise of genuine physical intimacy or “connection,” free from the complications of an overt, erotic charge. If she is correct, then Davis’s observations about Queer Tango may be partly accurate, yet point to the opposite conclusion: that Queer Tango actually differs little from its mainstream equivalent. Yet another view would acknowledge that no one account can cover all possibilities, that it may be a matter of degree (how much of the dance is erotic) and distribution (how often is it erotic).

Of course, I had to re-read “Tango Queer Rebellions”. Twice.

One of the perennial problems facing anyone thinking and writing about dance of any kind is that – unlike someone critiquing, say, the queer, romantic novel – the obvious ‘text’ to be analysed is the dancing itself. Dancing is time-based and inherently fugitive. Arguably, it comes first, with descriptions, the writings of others and representations of the dancing in imagery, moving or still, providing secondary evidence. For work at this level, further texts supply theoretical frameworks, again, arguably, to help set the actual dancing into context and interrogate it for meaning. But if you are to write about dancing with authority, how are you to know it? Obviously, you dance. This provides direct, if subjective and personal evidence, evidence which some argue is problematic. In Dancing Tango, Davis argues successfully, in my view, for the admission of such evidence. Another closely aligned source of subjective evidence might be being present while others dance or dancing with them. Observations and conversations can all add to the data. The diligent might take notes. Fitch has been dancing tango for twenty years and as her sparing use of autobiographical evidence in the anecdotal vignettes closing each chapter show, she dances, dances with others, watches, listens and takes notes.

Like the rest of her book, the chapter, “Tango Queer Rebellions” is underpinned by good scholarship and includes a handful of apposite films. It sets out to do four things: to give an account the well-known emergence of queer theory in academia; to revisit the tango tourism explored in the preceding chapter from a queer tango perspective; to establish the dependence of Queer Tango on social media and the internet; and finally, by extension, to set out how Queer Tango operates at the extremes of the transnationalism and globalisation considered elsewhere in the book. If I write that “Tango Queer Rebellions” is the weakest of Fitch’s chapters, I want it be understood that ‘weak’ in this context, where all else is of such high quality, is still pretty impressive. On second and third readings, I really admired the careful scholarship which sets out much of the ‘pre-history’ of Queer Tango, so often represented as appearing as if from [almost] nowhere in Hamburg in 2000: the emergence of Tango Mujer, the gay tango in New York, in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, with its glimmers of an overt political dimension. The pioneering work of Daniel Trenner and Rebecca Shulman in the 1990s is of interest in this context and deserves to be better known. Going further back in time, the oft celebrated and seldom understood same gender dancing of the late 19th, early and mid twentieth centuries, so familiar from old photographs in the case of men, and examined by Jorge Salessi and Magali Saikin among others. (Saikin is not in the bibliography, oddly, although an army of other credible authorities on this subject are.) Their dancing was often transgressive, but with no political dimension at all. Readers would be hard pressed to a find better account of the sheer scale of Queer Tango tourism and the passages on gay tango porn – I had no idea! – came as a surprise and show once again that Fitch is fearless in drawing on evidence others might neglect.

A sequence of detailed analyses of TV programs and films is also included, and I think this is where my disappointment begins. The analyses are thoughtful and full of insight and yet they take up nearly two thirds of this chapter. Naively, I had expected it to consider Queer Tango dancing, rather than media representations of it, some of which are quite oblique. I remain genuinely surprised that Astrid Weiske, Berlin and the International Queer Tango Festival in that city do not figure here and I cannot explain why they don’t. Perhaps the plural ‘Tangos’ of Fitch’s title alerts us to a dimension which may help. The reach of global tangos is vast. Views on global tangos are formed, partly, according to one’s own experiences of them and Fitch’s are like those of many – like mine, indeed – wide-ranging, yet, inevitably, incomplete. Hers self-evidently inform with advantage the aspects, people and places she chooses to include. Perhaps these ‘gaps’ in this account of Queer Tango are in part a function of ‘gaps’ in her experiences? Perhaps another author, with other gaps, might make other omissions? I can only guess.

Fitch acknowledges herself that her subject area, global tangos [including Queer Tango, by implication], is fast moving, and that no sooner is the ink dry on today’s insights, they risk becoming redundant. This morning, on 26th January 2016, I thought of Iz, the Muslim, Turkish lesbian dancing tango in her headscarf in the streets of Istanbul on Gay Pride Day in 2011. I thought of her thinking what she thought and saying what she said. I did so because I was listening to Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most famous novelist speaking on the radio as I shaved. Fitch reminds us that in 2010, Turkey’s Minister for Women had asserted that homosexuality was “a biological disorder…and should be treated,” while in 2008, notoriously, a Turkish father is alleged to have travelled 600 miles to have his own son murdered for being gay, being proud of being gay and so bringing shame on his family. The authorities did little to find out the truth. This morning, Pamuk was lamenting the extent to which Turkey is lurching towards repression with an authoritarian clamp down on free speech. Difference is frowned upon. Tango – including Queer Tango – has a fine, 21st century tradition of protest and political activism. I hope Iz and those like her, or like me, remain safe in Turkey. Like her, I believe the striking double negative: “Islam, homosexuality and tango are not incompatible.” Perhaps more than ever, dancing tango might eventually help turn an aspiration into a truth.

Global Tangos is a superb book. I admire it greatly, and I recommend it, although I take issue with Fitch’s publisher’s failure to provide it with an index. A study of this potentially enduring stature should have had one. Global Tangos embodies scholarship at a high level. Fitch exacts truths from her rich, well-chosen body of evidence by the judicious application of theory, insight and intelligence. Global Tangos cannot be seen as anything other than a welcome addition to existing tango literature. Its contribution to the understanding of Queer Tango is significant and also welcome, even if its value is less clear–cut.

Ray Batchelor
London
26 January 2016