Juliet McMains. “Rebellious Wallflowers and Queer Tangueras: The Rise of Female Leaders in Buenos Aires’ Tango Scene”

Juliet McMains. “Rebellious Wallflowers and Queer Tangueras: The Rise of Female Leaders in Buenos Aires’ Tango Scene”. Dance Research 36:2 Winter 2018.

A review by Ray Batchelor

Why has it become commonplace to see same-sex women couples dancing in Buenos Aires? And women leading? If these include both “rebellious wallflowers” – that is, women leading in the context of “straight tango” [Juliet McMains’ term] – and “queer tangueras”, the women who lead in queer tango, what do these two groups have in common? How do they differ? What is the relationship between them? To what extent has this increase been a product of particular social, political and – inevitably, when considering Argentina – economic contexts? To what extent are similar phenomena found in other contexts? Or as McMains herself asks: “Why at this particular juncture in tango history are so many women embracing each other on tango dance floors?” A professor of dance and dance research at the University of Washington, Seattle, McMains is on something of a roll, as this is just one of three recently published, tango-related studies to appear. Her paper, “Queer Tango Space: Minority Stress, Sexual Potentiality and Gender Utopias” was reviewed here earlier [https://queertangobook.org/queer-tango-space-minority-stress-sexual-potentiality-and-gender-utopias/] and she has contributed a chapter about the ‘Campeonato Mundial’ to the ‘Oxford Handbook of Dance and Competition’ published last year. While she is experienced at high levels in a variety of dance forms according to her website a passion for tango has since 2006 “led her to travel multiple times to Argentina, where she has conducted research, studied tango, eaten too many empanadas, and danced until 5am for months at a stretch.”

Research visits to Buenos Aires like these in 2012 and 2014 inform this enquiry during which McMains pursued what – to tango outsiders – might seem like a punishing schedule of some thirty group classes, where she presented herself as a leader and partnered women, and four milongas or prácticas each day. “[T]ango addiction is a serious affliction” she writes, reassuring her readers that despite its research function, hers is the ‘normal’ schedule for the serious tango tourist in the city. Add to this, forty-eight formal interviews with women who dance regularly with other women, and one can see at once that, among other things, this is another, substantial addition to the academic literature of queer tango.

McMains attributes the rise of women same-sex couples and of women leaders in Buenos Aires to four things: the effects of tango as commercial tourism; the after effects of the tango nuevo phenomenon; altered legal and social frameworks as they relate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; and finally (in a process as yet incomplete) the “synergy between queer tango dancers and heterosexual women who are frustrated by the limits of tango’s gender matrix”. Inevitably, she acknowledges the well-known, if only partially understood historical practice of men dancing together, including the ubiquitous and suspiciously convenient mythology of men ‘only practising’, as a prelude to dancing with women. She notes that the extensive photographic record of male couples in tango poses found in the Queer Tango Image Archive is only partially matched by images of women. She reminds us that this “tantalizing collection of vintage artwork” featuring women dancing with each other is made up of images coming from outside Argentina, adding that in the historical record, non-pictorial sources about women couples remain absent or oblique. Indeed, moving closer to the present, she points to asides by Jeffrey Tobin about a long-established, late 20th century norm in Argentina of hostility towards women leading, and of their being ‘punished’ by not being selected by male dancers if they did.

Throughout its history, the tango in Argentina has been a product of interactions with other countries and other cultures. Most famously, its status there in the first decades of the twentieth century was transformed by its enthusiastic reception in fashionable Europe and most especially in the Paris which many porteños looked towards as the model for Buenos Aires. More recently, queer tango’s roots as a self-conscious political practice are chiefly, though not exclusively, European. In 2005, in formalising queer tango’s theoretical framework, Argentinian academic and activist Mariana Docampo deliberately – and controversially to some – aligned it with anglophone, academic Queer Theory, mostly North American in origin. This truth is forever memorialised in the very words, ‘queer tango’ even if the precise word order varies according to Hispanic or anglophone usage.

The developments in women’s dancing in Buenos Aries considered here provide a further, vivid example of such interaction. Changes in the exchange rates caused by the 1998-2002 economic crisis were favourable to tourists, which meant that millions more of them came, including more foreign women tango dancers. The result was a productive synergy: returning to homes in Europe or North America and finding few leaders of sufficient skill, many of these women took up leading themselves. On their (inevitable) return pilgrimages to Buenos Aires, they continued to lead. Greater indulgence was extended to these foreigners on the tango dance floor than to their Argentinian counterparts: “They don’t understand”. Perhaps they didn’t, but they spent money, and their leading was there on the dance floor for everyone, including Argentinian women, to see. McMains identifies the delicious paradox that while tango tourists fuelled the endless fetishisation of the “authentic”, archaeological, Golden Age dance – the supposedly “real tango” commodity which attracted them there in the first place – some of the women among them simultaneously accelerated changes to, and undermined aspects of “traditional” tango by dancing alternatives as to how women, all women, can or ought to behave.

How tango is realised is in part a function of surrounding contexts. McMains’ focus is on Buenos Aires, but her tourist interviewees from around the world and her own dancing in her hometown of Seattle, and travels to other tango dancing locations such as Amsterdam, mean that a variety of contexts and their effects on dance practices feature here. So, for example, using the cabeceo (the unspoken use of glances to make/accept/decline invitations to dance) can be tricky in Buenos Aires when inviting another woman to dance, as it may be interpreted as introducing ambiguity about the recipient’s sexual orientation. Most women leaders confine themselves to dancing with women friends already known to them. Only in liberal Amsterdam has McMains successfully cabeceoed another woman, and even there, the other woman took the cue from McMains’ flat shoes. Meanwhile in Seattle, a fiercely “traditional” milonga accepted Kristin Hayden who presented herself not as a “femme” woman in a skirt and heels who might seem to threaten historical conventions, but in a recognisable nod towards them, dresses in the manner of a stylish, Golden Age, sharp-suited man. It is notable that tango “traditions”, however synthetic they may be, are often more rigorously enforced in prosperous contexts remote from the actual “source” to which they are said to defer. Women leading in Buenos Aires arose in part as a consequence of immediate, economic necessities less acutely felt in other contexts.

The white heat of tango nuevo, both as a new music and style of dancing, was cooling during the timeframe covered by her research, but McMains pinpoints some of its beneficial after-effects: the “normalising” of women couples by, among other things, their figuring in the promotional nuevo music videos of Tanghetto and Gotan Project; the way some women innovated and taught independently of men; the introduction of casual dress alternatives to Golden Age formality, and so on. One of her respondents was quite clear: “…I think the modern woman is much more dominant than the women of my mother’s era” implying these changes on the dancefloor were direct expressions of changes in wider society of women’s roles and self-image.

So, what of queer tango in the same period? Once again, the economic and specifically touristic context is key, as well as other aspects of Argentina’s relations with the rest of the world. The LGBTQ tourists’ pink peso was a powerful factor, in part enabling Buenos Aires to support gay tango – most famously, the celebrated La Marshall of Augusto Balizano – and queer tango venues of which Mariana Docampo’s Tango Queer was similarly celebrated. Gradually, resistance to same-sex couples at mainstream milongas was, in part, eroded as a consequence of their undoubted commercial value in the tango tourist economy. Yet, the relationships between mainstream and queer tangos may not always seem beneficial to the latter, and the picture of apparent queer, touristic health has proved fleeting. McMains is obliged to reflect on the recent troubles facing La Marshall and Tango Queer, both of which have closed, the former, intermittently re-surfacing. Setting aside the general economic inflation which both organisers cited as the primary reason for this development, McMains muses: “I can’t help wondering if they have become casualties of their own success. As more and more same-sex couples, nurtured and supported by the queer milonga circuit, have felt comfortable dancing together in mainstream milongas, the demand for queer milongas has declined”, adding “Although some queer advocates would argue that elimination of the need for queer specific milongas due to mainstreaming of same-sex tango is a mark of queer tango’s ultimate success, I fear the closure of these queer spaces may have come too soon.” In this last observation, I am sure she is correct. The success of Edgardo Fernández Sesma’s free queer milonga, Despolete opened in response to the loss of other queer tango venues, suggests that once these economic barriers are removed, the demand is still there.

If I were to take issue with anything in this excellent paper, it would be that in her understandable desire to defend a broad equivalence of experiences, McMains seems reluctant fully to acknowledge and accept the differences in how people dance. These often hinge on the “erotic potential” of any coupling. I take this useful term from her thoughtful explorations of the erotic dimensions of women dancing queer tango included in her earlier paper on queer space. “Potential” here refers to the erotic charge acknowledged as part of the dance but experienced without it having the consequences which might be inferred by the ignorant or be found off the dance floor. It exists for the duration of the dance. It is agreeable. It ends when the dance ends. She writes here that she detects a “deep-seated cultural conviction” among women in mainstream Buenos Aires that all women would prefer to dance with a man, if one were available. Women leaders are accordingly reticent about offering themselves to other women when the balance of men and women means dancing with a man is a realistic expectation. By implication, McMains laments, these women often see other women as second-best leaders. Perhaps. But, even if the dance skills, sensitivity and musicality are directly equivalent, this preference is understandable, and beyond reproach. The most likely explanation is the obvious one: that for most heterosexual women, dancing with a heterosexual man delivers a different, perhaps more immediate erotic charge than dancing with a heterosexual woman, however enjoyable that might be. I defer considering other permutations for another occasion.

For parallel reasons, I suggest acceptance of queer couples at mainstream milongas will never wholly supplant demand for queer milongas. At queer milongas, most women mostly dance with other women, and most men mostly dance with other men. I suggest that, in very general terms, this is accounted for by the differences in intensity of this “erotic potential” between lesbians and gay men as they dance with those like themselves, compared with dancing with those unlike themselves. A fuller exploration would acknowledge the much wider variety of sexual identities often present (and present at mainstream milongas too), but the general truth would hold: for queer dancers, more partners with high erotic potential are likely to be found at queer milongas, while however agreeable it is (for whatever reasons) to dance with a wide range of people of different genders and orientations, at any mainstream milonga the number of dance partners capable of delivering this erotic charge will be reduced. Dancing with those who do not fit conventional patterns of “erotic potential” are of real value and may sometimes be erotic. To acknowledge this is something short of implying that on average, whatever their absolute value, to the individual dancing they are direct equivalents or interchangeable. They are not. I think we can and should be comfortable with this variety of practices arising from women exercising preferences.

McMains describes a rich variety of women who lead. Kristin Hayden in her sharp suit is one, but her practice is rare. Without detracting from the very real achievements of either, McMains draws a careful distinction between “femme” leaders – whose challenge to men is that they present and dress conventionally in tango terms as women when they lead – and others who elect to depart from those norms of femininity, and so seem to challenge heteronormative conventions in other ways before taking a step. She gives a telling account of the career trajectory of the wonderful Soledad Nani. Having over several years faced and triumphed over hostility, Nani is now universally respected and celebrated as a great dancer. McMains pithily asserts that Nani “fought prejudice with excellence”.

After a thorough, and thoroughly engaging, nuanced account, McMains closes by suggesting that both the mainstream rebellious wallflowers and the queer tangueras would benefit if they were to work more closely together in “creatively intervening into male-oriented systems of power to rewrite the rules”. Indeed, they might, and they may. But they are more likely to form effective alliances if they not only fully acknowledge everything they have in common, but also celebrate everything which, gloriously, makes them different.