Text: Sophie, Oakland, California
Are there ways for queer women and gender non-conforming people to feel more welcome in straight tango classes?
IDEAS FOR CREATING A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR QUEER TANGO DANCERS IN STRAIGHT TANGO CLASSES
I’ve been dancing tango for about 2.5 years now and love it. I’m what you may call, masculine of center on the female spectrum and am queer. I identify as a woman, but often get mistaken as a man as I have masculine features, short hair and I am tall. I’ve been told to leave the women’s bathroom more than once in my adult life and get called “sir” a lot, particularly when I travel outside of the Bay Area. In the highly gendered world of tango, dancers like me are an anomaly, even in the queer tango scene. I try to dance both roles but I prefer to lead.
There are others like me who have been dancing for much longer, and I’m sure they have really valuable things to add to this conversation. I wanted to give my perspective on the group tango class spaces that I have felt safe to dance in and welcome and the kind of environment where I am able to enjoy dancing.
I have taken different classes, both straight and queer in the San Francisco Bay Area and Buenos Aires. I’ve had some truly extraordinary teachers. I’ve also had some experiences in group classes, particularly in the straight tango scenes which have left me feeling frustrated and at times, outright angry. Tango can be triggering, and being a queer person entering into a straight space in this context can be extremely anxiety provoking. For me, flashbacks of bullying and being ostracized for being different lay just under the surface whenever I enter a tango class filled with straight people I do not know. It’s important that teachers understand this. Many queer people don’t feel safe in straight social environments for a reason. It’s because many of us have been traumatized at some point in our lives in a group setting. Small micro aggressions can feel like a big deal after awhile. I’ve found that certain situations are entirely avoidable if the teachers simply follow some basic ground rules.
If you are a teacher and you teach mostly straight people tango, understand that this space is not automatically safe for a queer person to enter into. Many of us have been traumatized in our lives by groups of people around how we look, how we walk, who we are with, and who we are. We have been told since we were children that we did not belong to the group, that we weren’t welcome.
Tango is an intimate dance and touching another person can bring up a lot of things. It’s important, if you want to welcome queer people to your class, that you understand it’s more than just being LGBTQ friendly in your personal beliefs. Structure needs to be created so that queer people are not left to feel isolated and “different” in a predominantly heterosexual environment. Here are my own observations about the structures that work for me in terms of creating a safe space in a tango class where I feel welcome to dance.
1. If you are a teacher, and the class is leader or follower heavy, make sure to define roles at the beginning of class. Determine if there are too many leaders or followers. Ask for the men or leaders to be willing to switch roles at the beginning of class. This takes the pressure off of women or gender non conforming people who wish to lead to “fill the gaps”. This prevents dancers from being left without a partner, or that awkward moment where the same dancer is continuously having to dance with the teacher because no one will dance with them. Also, don’t assume that the women will follow if there are more leaders. And don’t assume that the followers won’t lead because they are women. Find out at the beginning of the class by asking and setting up an even number of people to dance together. This is super important.
2. Create a safe space free of mansplaining leaders. Women can give unwarranted advice too, but let’s face it, straight men are the worst when it comes to directing how followers “should be” dancing. Create some ground rules at the beginning of class for basic dancing etiquette. If a dancer doesn’t ask for feedback, it’s not appropriate to give it. In fact, it’s outright rude.
3. Beware of the “find a partner” spiral of death. Whenever I’m in a class and the teacher says to “find a partner”, I break out in a sweat and terror takes over. It’s better when a teacher says “followers” or “leaders” move to the next person on your left so that no one is left to feel like the last one picked for the team.
4. If something goes wrong in class and someone wants to “sit out” the rest of the class, let them. They may have their reasons and they probably don’t want to be the center of attention by having the teacher focus on them.
5. Make it clear that everyone dances with each other in a class. Is it a class with a lot of couples who only want to dance with themselves? This is good for the other people in the class to know so they can sit it out if they need to. Define this at the beginning of class so no one is made to feel like an outcast half way in.
I know that teachers can’t really control the behaviors of other dancers in a class, but I have noticed that structure really does help and a teacher really can set the tone. After initially posting this, some of you brought up the very serious issue around predatory male leaders in straight classes. Personally I think teachers need to be more aware of this dynamic and create an environment where this kind of behavior is not tolerated. I think inappropriate communication be it physical or verbal should be grounds for asking someone to leave a class or milonga. I don’t have exact answers except calling out such men and evicting them from those spaces. Personally, I would like to see that happen and that there be more of a commitment in creating a safe and enjoyable dancing space for women. I would also like to see a commitment from other dancers in supporting women in these situations. Tango etiquette needs to be taught and reinforced. The rules are there set by previous generations. There is wisdom in this. If someone crosses boundaries and hurts another, consequences need to happen. I hope this posting helps teachers create a more inclusive environment for queer tango dancers so that we can all improve our dance in a fun and welcoming environment.
Thanks for reading.
Sophie, Oakland, California.