Queer Tango Space – Minority Stress, Sexual Potentiality, and Gender Utopias

Queer Tango Space – Minority Stress, Sexual Potentiality, and Gender Utopias
Juliet McMains
TDR: The Drama Review 62:2 (T238) Summer 2018. pp 59-77
A review by Ray Batchelor

The irony was not lost on me. Just as I was drafting this review of Juliet McMains’ account of the ways in which queer tango spaces probably operate – an account bookended by the author’s formative experiences at the milonga Tango Queer in Buenos Aires – word reached me from Mercedes Liska that on 22nd May, Tango Queer had finally closed its doors and that this particular queer tango space is no more. The local reasons are well-known and were repeated to me in the Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris by Soledad Nani as we chatted about the closure before the second night of the 2018 La Vie en Rose queer tango event: Argentina is going through yet another really bad financial crisis; rents in Buenos Aires are going up and up; and, as ordinary people’s finances are dragged down, money to spend on “extras” such as tango can no longer be found, and the venues close.

The presence or absence of queer tango spaces is central to McMains’ arguments. Indeed, like anyone writing about queer tango, McMains is obliged to hazard a definition of what it actually is. She notes the disagreements, about some saying it resides in who dances it, or which couple combinations mark it out, or how the dance is danced, but then adds that in her definition,

“…even more important than who is dancing or how they are dancing, queer tango depends on a where. Queer tango is enabled through the designation and naming of a queer space that creates possibilities for alternate social interactions, relationships, and experiences to come into being, even if only temporarily, for the duration of a single milonga, festival, or class.”

With a Ph.D. in Dance History and Theory from the University of California and a B.A. in Women’s Studies from Harvard University, McMains’ background – which also includes no end of actual dancing – would seem to qualify her admirably to be the author of this study of queer tango space, and so it proves. Like many who study tango, including queer tango, McMains’ work centres on queer tango experiences in Buenos Aires. Yet queer tango is an international phenomenon and the narrowness of this focus is usefully widened somewhat by the fact that some of her interviewees were tourists who referred to queer tango elsewhere in the world, while she herself regularly cites dancing in her home town of Seattle. Indeed, a central body of the data she draws on are her own experiences of dancing queer tango as “a straight woman, mostly” – and the “mostly” proves pivotal in this context. As McMains asserts that men-men couples equal woman-woman couples in Buenos Aires, but that elsewhere in the world it is the women who predominate, she elects to consider the experiences of women only. She does this in order to make the paper manageable within the confines of the genre. Indeed, such are the workings of the academic press, she is to be congratulated on seeing this valuable research through to publication – it is joy to see it – but with the inevitable corollary that now, in 2018, it describes the circumstances of between four and six years ago. As the disappearance of the milonga Tango Queer demonstrates, queer tango continues to evolve in significant and sometimes unpredictable ways. Even so, in this paper, McMains authoritatively gets to grips with some of the core issues. It is likely to remain a valuable point of reference for anyone with something to say about queer tango, including me.

What then, does she argue? The clues are directly given in the subtitle: Minority Stress, for example, is a term taken from psychology and refers to the experiences of a minority, any minority – racial, ethnic sexual, or other – where that minority is routinely subject to acts of aggression, harassment or isolation, even if these are acts sometimes quite small. McMains gives an account of the sorts of experiences which had made some of her interviewees uncomfortable in straight milongas – being stared at, hostile comments – or when taking classes as leaders, being skipped over by other women classmates rather than danced with when the call to “change partners” went out. Nor does it end there. Queer women reported the unwelcome sensation of apparently making straight people “uncomfortable” in such circumstances, most especially in their reactions to the close physical contact – “breast to breast” – which most good tango demands.

“Even though it shouldn’t be the job of queers to protect straights from facing their own latent homosexual desires or whatever else makes them squirm around gay people, many assume this burden. Thus, comfort for many queer women means freedom from the stress caused by managing the comfort of straight people.”

More than that, the affirmation in just being “in a room full of queer people” is empowering, giving those present a sense of freedom and solidarity, spaces where it is they who are “ordinary”. McMains is at pains to point out how, at the time of writing, Buenos Aires was peculiarly fortunate in the number of queer tango spaces it could support, compared to big cities in Europe and North America where a queer milonga might happen perhaps once a month, if at all. For many resident in such places, international queer tango festivals and marathons offer a route into immersion in such queer tango environments, not to mention that on a more day to day basis, albeit virtually, there is the vibrant international queer tango community sustained by Facebook and other social media.

Sexual Potential? The sexual dimensions, problematic for women queer tango dancers in mainstream tango spaces become sources for celebration once they are transferred to queer tango spaces. “Tango is about sex” she writes. One of the key strengths of McMains’ position on this issue is the precision of her equivocation following this apparently stark assertion. One of the key objectives of Melissa Fitch in her 2015 book, “Global Tangos: Travels in the Transnational Imaginary” was to unhook tango from invariably being thought of in erotic terms, preferring instead to celebrate its deep – often asexual – intimacy. Fitch included an excellent chapter on tango’s therapeutic value, a context where sex might be thought unwelcome. Yet for McMains, tango is about sex, but…

“…[n]ot exclusively. Tango is about intimacy, sadness, community, and commerce, among other things. But sexual tension within the dance, even when neither partner intends to act on it, is commonly recognized as a defining feature of tango. I am not suggesting that tango dancing necessarily or even frequently leads to sexual activity, but that the potentiality of sexual excitement is a key aspect of tango culture.”

And she cites women’s tango fashions and the manner in which women’s bodies are presented as evidence for this wider tango truth. She also quotes the experiences of her women queer tango interviewees to back up the assertion with regard to the erotic in queer tango. “Sexual potentiality” is a well-chosen expression, combining as it does both confirmation of the erotic being brought by dancers to the dance floor with how it may usefully and legitimately prosper by being withheld off it. Her own dancing experiences (remember “mostly”?) combined with the testimonies of interviewees who self-identify as lesbian allow her to include in this discussion the aspect of what it is that dancers in a tango couple – any tango couple, in theory – allow themselves to bring to the dance. Tango is a deeply physical, intimate dance. The more each dancer allows themselves to “make their sexual energy available”, the more tango’s sexual dimensions can be negotiated, or indeed, enjoyed. The queerness is of especial value here (the “mostly”, again) because in queer tango, dancers are free to know of sexualities beyond the confines that labels which might otherwise be applied to them such as “straight woman” or “gay man” might seem to impose.

What then of the “Gender Utopias”? McMains notes the disjuncture between the actual numbers dancing queer tango each week even in Buenos Aires, and the attention that it receives from academia and the media. She attributes this to what it seems to represent, and in this, she is surely right. BBC Radio 3 programme-makers were eager for the programme’s presenter, Professor Emma Smith from Oxford University, to interview members of Queer Tango London and dance with us in preparing a feature, Binary and Beyond about gender and the arts. The subsequent blurb for the programme supports McMains’ assertion:

“Might a Greek mythological character such as Tiresias, a novel such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, or an altogether 21st century activity such as Queer Tango help us see the human body as a site of “eumorphia” rather than dysmorphia? … on the dance floor, Emma…sees how the arts might help each of us transcend our gendered bodies and travel “Beyond Binary”, if only in the imagination.”[1]

As I finished re-reading McMains’ paper for the second time, some issues troubled me. Was her definition of queer tango useful, foregrounding as it does, the role of dedicated queer tango spaces when those spaces may be under threat? Is my dancing with other (queer) men at straight venues NOT queer tango? After some hesitation, and on balance, I think I’ll buy it. After all, queer tango IS distinguished by an overt political agenda. How much more likely is it that that agenda will be addressed and acted on if the space is regulated by the queer tango people running it? And that regulation can be vanishing fleeting! As part of the La Vie en Rose festival’s famous City Walk in 2018, we all danced the classic queer tango couple combinations in the fountains outside the Louvre (it was 35 degrees and we wanted to cool off). Tourists eagerly photographed us, or videoed us on their smart phones, or stepped into the water and tried it out for themselves. They all – hundreds of them – went away with imagery and memories which would oblige them to talk to their friends, family or work colleagues about women dancing with women, women leading men and men dancing with men. A two-minute video posted the next day on the La Vie en Rose Facebook page (a virtual queer tango space) went viral, having more than 3000 hits in the first 24hours.

For 20 minutes, we took control, and the fountains outside the Louvre in Paris were queer tango spaces.

The urge towards having queer tango spaces can remain strong, even in the face of adversity. Milonga Queer may have closed, but Soledad Nani told me, since it closed, a friend with space in his house was opening it once a week from eight until 1.00 am for dancing, with people bringing their own drinks. Milonga Tango Queer closing is probably not evidence that the desire for dedicated queer tango spaces has declined.

McMains paper is excellent, but covers only part of the territory. The experiences of men dancing queer tango lie beyond its scope, as does any detailed account of the dancing of queer tango in spaces outside Buenos Aires – a major, and often neglected dimension of the phenomenon I am thinking, as I start to pack my dance shoes to go home to London, knowing I will re-pack them for the festival in Berlin in a few days’ time. And what about the non-tangoing spouses of dancers savouring sexual potentiality? As noted, she was unable to include developments in queer tango since 2014. But that said, I unhesitatingly commend her paper to you. I can only give a brief sketch of it, so I recommend that you read it in full.

Readers of the full text will find it well-written, well-argued, and wonderfully nuanced, not to mention enjoyable and stimulating.

You can access it here:

1 BBC Radio 3, “Binary & Beyond Episode 2: Backwards in High Heels” 8th July 2018 can be downloaded here: or listened to here: