Who’s Leading? Gender Role Transformation in the Buenos Aires Community (excerpt)

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Many of you have asked that I make my thesis on tango available online.  Here are the first two chapters, slightly rewritten.



In a rich, first-world Argentina, with work full of happiness and solidarity, tango would die.  (Giardinelli 1998: 155, my translation)



I sat at my table at Niño Bien, watching the other tango dancers, and noticed a woman leading another woman, expertly dodging other couples and snaking her way around the packed dance floor.  What was she doing?!  Women didn’t lead at tango nightclubs in Buenos Aires!  True, I had seen a few women leading from time to time in bohemian night spots, where most people wore jeans, were under thirty, and sprawled on sofas at the edge of the dance floor smoking marijuana, but at a dressy, brightly lit, established dance hall full of older dancers?  This was not something that I had expected to see in Buenos Aires.  

After that night, I began to notice women leading at many of the clubs and classes that I attended.  Even the most talented women, who led better than most men dancing, rarely danced the lead role at the dance club.  Female leaders drew much attention and discussion from the other tango dancers.  Many people loudly condemned the practice of women leading.  Very few people found it unremarkable or completely acceptable, and most had much to say on the subject. 

As an female dance teacher from the United States who both leads and follows, I was already interested in exploring the roles of lead and follow and the gender politics attached to those roles before I arrived in Buenos Aires.  From my own experience and previous research in the United States on couple dancing, I assumed that women were leading either because they enjoyed leading, or because women’s rights had caught up with the male-dominated atmosphere of tango.

What I found in Buenos Aires did not fit my expectations.  I felt shocked to discover that many of the dancers I knew (including women who led) did not separate the dance from the gender roles traditionally associated with the roles.  Even liberal, young, feminist women said they would rather follow than lead, and suggested that women can’t lead as well as men.  How could I reconcile this information with the perception that these women led better than most men with whom I danced?  Why were people so set against women leading or other versions of role-switching?  If everyone felt so opposed to non-traditional role-switching, why would women learn to lead and dance the lead role at the dance club? 

Changes in the role of the lead, including women leading, have been noted in passing by several  researchers.  Tobin (1998) documents isolated incidents of lead-switching among heterosexual couples (women leading men). Taylor (1998) mentions a dance class where women led and men followed for part of one class. Trenner (1998) theorizes that lead-switching and same-sex dance couples in tango are a wave of the future that will overtake traditional pairings.  I have found no studies in Spanish that address this issue.

Only a small percent of women lead tango in public in Buenos Aires.  According to my observations and to the dancers I interviewed, 1-15% of women lead in classes.  The same is true at practice sessions.  Only 0-2% lead in nightclubs.  The percentage of women leading men specifically was usually quoted as between 0-1%, with most of the women and men being foreign.  The percentage of men following ranged from 0-0.5% for all three types of venues. 

Most people I interviewed had seen women dancing with women at nightclubs.  Very few had seen women leading men or men leading men.  A typical conversation on the topic of role-switching followed a predictable course: first, denial that the phenomenon occurred; then admission of infrequent occurrence, complete with an example; and lastly, criticism of the practice.  Sometimes an interviewee would tell me that women never led in a specific milonga, only to have me remind them of a time when we were both at that venue and women were leading.

According to most scholarly and popular literature, the main focus of tango is the performance of masculine and feminine identities and sexuality.  Taylor (1998) writes that “the tango refers to men and women, masculinity and femininity . . .” (Taylor 1998: xxi).  Salessi (1997) considers it an element of “the Argentine discourse on sexuality” (1997: 141).  Savigliano notes that gender and sexual identity as parts of Argentine identity are mediated via tango (1995: 5).  Salas (1995) links archetypes of Argentine masculinity to tango (Salas 1995: 70).  Role-switching, such as women leading, at tango venues questions what is performed in these situations. Are people sending subversive messages about their gender identity? Are there other issues that these people are foregrounding? Is this something that has always occurred? If so, what are the posited reasons for doing this? If this is a new phenomenon, is it due to the influx of Europeans and North Americans who seem to switch lead and follow roles more often than the Argentines, or is it due to a local cause?  Why is it happening now?

Both tango and gender roles in the larger society are in flux in Buenos Aires.  The past four to five years of economic crisis have brought about changes in the work force within Argentina, and engendered the need for more people to work outside Argentina in order to survive.  As tango is one of the few marketable commodities that can take a worker out of Argentina into the better-paying areas of Europe, Japan, and the United States, the number of people teaching and performing tango has expanded rapidly. 

From my fieldwork and interviews conducted during July-September of 1999, 2000 and 2001, I have found that women learn to lead tango because of the economic opportunities available outside of Argentina.  In order to compete for jobs, women must know how to lead well enough to be hired independent of a male teacher.  This seems to be the reason why, in the past five years or so, women have begun to lead in the Buenos Aires nightclubs.   Therefore, the negotiation of altered roles for men and women both in society and in tango, can be seen on the dance floors of Buenos Aires.

This study focuses on the contemporary practices of the Buenos Aires tango community with respect to lead and follow roles in tango, especially the breaking of traditional roles by having women lead, men follow, or same-sex couple dancing. It documents these behaviors at formal evening dances in nightclubs, informal practices, and dance classes in the Buenos Aires tango scene and analyzes the various value systems behind these behaviors. Focusing on gender and work, it also explores how social and economic change are reflected in current tango practices in Buenos Aires, and how changes in the dance practice alter its socioeconomic context.


Significance of Study


Several other researchers have dealt with gender identity and tango (in English, Archetti 1999; Salessi 1997; Savigliano 1995, 1998; Taylor 1998; and Tobin 1998). They have written about the history of tango and how the performance of gender identity has been a part of dancing tango throughout its development and history. Savigliano (1995) has explored the economics of tango as a commodity traded between Argentina and the world.  None of them have explored switching of gender roles in detail, or the factors leading to the current phenomenon of women leading, although Taylor (1998) and Tobin (1998) document the existence of this behavior.  Virtually nothing has been written about the resurgence of tango in the late 1980s and the last fifteen years of tango history.  My research includes an oral history of the development of “new tango” in the 1990s (a style combining social styles of tango with performance styles and having a strong pedagogical structure) and the growth of a new young group of tango dancers.  Many of the women who lead come from this school of tango.  Therefore, my work will complement and extend existing English-language work on Argentine tango.

My text aims to provide students and tango dancers with an understanding of the opinions of Buenos Aires residents about the spreading practice of switching lead and follow.  I hope that my presentation of this information encourages a discussion of lead/follow role switching and of same-sex couple dancing within tango. Because the people I met, danced with, and interviewed in Buenos Aires are part of this discussion, I have promised to make my findings accessible to them as well.  This will probably occur via the internet because some have left Buenos Aires.  Their current teaching jobs in Germany, France, Spain, Austria, and the United States bear witness to the widespread repercussions of the phenomenon I document here. 


Definition of terms


Some of the historical and introductory information comes from my interviews rather than from the literature.  Whenever I use an informant as my source, his or her pseudonym will appear in parentheses without a date or page.  All of the interviews were conducted from July-September 2000.  Published sources are cited with dates and page numbers.

In couple dancing, there are two roles: the lead and the follow roles.  The leader, traditionally the man, decides what steps to do, tells the follower what to do via body cues, navigates around the room, and usually moves forward in a counter-clockwise direction around the dance floor.  The follower, traditionally the woman, allows the leader to direct the couple around the room, performing the steps requested by the leader.

Tango is a couple dance in which the two people remain facing in a circular embrace during the entire dance.  It consists of walking steps, turning combinations, and footplay (contact between the feet and legs of the couple).  Although there are many styles of tango, the space is so limited in most dance clubs that usually people dance a body-to-body style with small steps, many short turns, rock steps, and pauses. This is called close-embrace, apilado, or milonguero style.  Other popular styles are salon, which is danced further apart;  nuevo tango, a form of tango that began to evolve in the mid-1990s; and combinations of these styles.

A porteño, something pertaining to a port area, is the term used for people from Buenos Aires.  Tango is a porteño dance, and forms part of the porteño identity more than the Argentine identity.  A porteño takes pride in being from Buenos Aires and in tango, whether or not he or she dances it.

A tanguero/a is someone who dances tango.  People of all ages attend milongas, but most tangueros are between the ages of twenty to thirty-five, and fifty to seventy.  As an entire generation grew up with rock music, and did not learn to dance tango, there is a dearth of middle-aged dancers. 

A milonguero is a term for someone who frequents the milongas (dance clubs).  This term is usually used for the older dancers who have danced for a long time.  The Oxford Spanish Dictionary defines milonguero as a “reveler” (Caravajal: 414).  The term appears to be a lower-class marker.  Several of my more genteel interviewees stressed that they were not milongueros, but that they did dance tango (Hector, Maria Elena). 

There are three public venues for dancing tango: the class, the práctica, and the milonga.  A class, either group or individual, is a relatively new venue for learning tango technique and steps.  Until the 1980s and 1990s, learning tango rarely included participating in classes (Amelia).  Men taught younger men to dance in informal practice sessions.  If an Argentine woman learned to dance, she learned to dance at home, taught by male relatives.   No formal method of teaching tango was developed until recently (Rosario).  By the end of the 1980s, Rodolfo Dinzel had developed a pedagogy for teaching tango, and Gustavo Naveira developed a pedagogy for Nuevo Tango (“new tango”) in the mid-1990s (Jose).  The class is the most socially informal of the venues for tango and is also the place where one sees the most women leading.  Although there are early afternoon classes, most classes occur between 7 PM and midnight, with more advanced classes occurring later to accommodate the schedules of those who attend advanced classes after teaching beginning classes.

The práctica, or practice, is a time to practice the tango material one already possesses, or to learn from one’s peers through practicing and watching.  Before the 1990s, most people learned informally, and came to prácticas to hone their skills before going to dance publicly at the milongas.  Each club had a práctica of its own:


Club Sin Rumbo, El Sunderland, El Club Comunicaciones, El Glorias Argentinos de Mataderos, they had a dance on Saturday, and Thursdays and Fridays, [a] práctica.  So, Thursday and Friday, you went to práctica and you practiced, do you see?  Fewer women, more men.  Why?  In order that the step would work Saturday [when you went] to the same club with your wife [or] with the chick that you had [agreed] to meet.  So, there were a lot of prácticas.  [Amelia]


Nowadays, some prácticas are still attached to a specific club, but the práctica has changed because of the growth of formal instruction.  Once attached to the milonga because it was held in the same venue and the same people attended both events, now the práctica is linked to the class or to the organizer.  For example, the Cochabamba prácticas attract the students of Mingo Pugliese on the days that he runs práctica, and the same venue attracts Gustavo Naveira’s students on the day he organizes the práctica.  Other prácticas are attached to a class, happening after the formal instructional component of the evening.  Still others happen right before an evening dance, in the same place.  This is a recent development:


Before it was not this way, before the milonga was the milonga, and it started at 10:30 or 11 PM.  There were prácticas which were early and you went to take class, and after the class, there was práctica . . . it was nicer before. . . .  And what you had learned in class, you stayed [and] the professor would stop teaching and put on music, then you would practice what they had taught you. . . . When you were feeling more secure, those people would go to the milonga, but usually they went in a group, and danced together. . . .  you quit work at eight and you went to the práctica, you warmed up a little, and you went to the milonga to continue dancing.  [Marta]


The open-ended nature of a práctica allows for space to experiment with material and also with roles, which makes it less structured than a class and more possible to try out controversial things in a public place.  Most prácticas occur somewhere between 7 PM and midnight.

The term milonga has several different meanings.  A milonga is a formal, evening or afternoon dance event.  Milonga can also be the physical room or building where tango is danced.  Milonga also refers to another Argentine dance out of which tango developed. I am concerned here mainly with the term as it applies to the dance event, although I will also use the other two meanings of the word.

A milonga is where one goes to dance after learning to do tango.  It is not a practice space, and traditionally no one went to dance who could not already dance well: 


[It’s] a different mentality. In the prácticas, one goes to [work on] one’s movements, to correct oneself . . . it’s like a garage, where one goes to get the car fixed . . . it’s like you’re going to oil the parts of your body . . . working on your body, your movement, and . . . in the milonga, [you go] to show yourself off.  That is, to go with the intention to dance with the most attractive girl . . . . They are two different things, it’s like [going to] the mechanic’s shop so that on the highway everything works well . . . [Martin]


Afternoon milongas can start as early as 2-3 PM, get crowded around 5 PM, and end between 7-9 PM.  Most milongas begin between 10-11 PM, get crowded by midnight, and end between 3-7 AM.

The milonga focuses on the social part of tango, rather than on acquiring technical ability: meeting people, demonstrating one’s prowess on the dance floor, and perhaps meeting someone new to date. 


Tango . . . is a way of life, not just music, there’s a whole psychology of the man, a psychology of the woman, there is a posture, there are many rules . . . it has its own discourse . . . In order to go into a milonga, it is necessary to know how to ask someone to dance, not just how to dance.  It is necessary to behave in a particular way, it asks that you play a role . . . [Norberto]


People choose which dance venues to frequent according to proximity in the city, where their friends go to dance, dance style, and atmosphere.  I found that I changed which milongas I frequented when I switched from living in San Telmo to staying in Villa Crespo, further from the center of town.  Often, a group makes plans to meet at a specific club, ensuring that familiar dance partners will be present.  Some people choose dance clubs according to the style of tango which is danced there.  Atmosphere also plays a part in choice of clubs.  There are certain clubs that are considered “in” and many people attend them simply to be a part of the “in” scene.  When a club falls out of favor (for no apparent reason sometimes), those people desert it for the new favorite. 

Salon Canning is considered the ideal milonga in Buenos Aires because it has the best dance floor.  Although many popular places to dance do not have nice floors, this is an important consideration in choosing a dance space.  Well-maintained wood floors are preferred (as in Canning), but many places have tile, marble, or wood floors in bad repair.  An ideal space is lit well enough for dancers to see the other side of the dance floor, in order to facilitate attracting dance partners.  The ideal dance space has enough tables so that most people can sit down, with space for people to roam in search of dance partners.  The ideal space has a walkway around the dance floor that does not interfere with dancing.

    At a milonga, the music is usually played in sets (tandas).  A tanda usually consists of three to five songs.  After each tanda, a short piece of music is played to announce the end of the tanda (cortina).  After several tandas of tango, a tanda of other music will be played.  In most milongas, vals and milonga tandas (the other two dances that are related to tango) are alternated with tango tandas.  Before the mid-1990s, traditional milongas played only tango-related dances (Miranda, Amelia).  Nowadays, a set of alternative dance music is often played once or twice during the evening: tropical (salsa, merengue, cumbia), rock ‘n roll (50s style swing), or folklorico (Argentine folk dances).  The music mix is determined by either the DJ or the organizer of the event, and I rarely saw anyone make requests for specific songs.  Due to the expensive nature of hiring a band, live music is rare.  The organizers at Paracultural offered a live band once a week, and Torcuato Tasso had live music once a week as well.

    For the most part, an invitation to dance is for a tanda.  To sit down after one or two songs is to deliver an insult to one’s partner, unless there is a physical reason for stopping.  Many of the more famous dancers will only dance a few songs before sitting down, clearly indicating to the hapless partner that his/her level of dance does not make it worth continuing.  Usually, dancing three songs minimum allows one to stop before the end of the tanda without insulting the other person.

    Until recently, the cabeceo was the only accepted form of inviting someone to dance.  This is an inclination or tilt of the head that follows making eye contact with a prospective dance partner.  The use of the cabeceo helped men save face: rather than walk up to a woman and ask her to dance, risking public refusal, a man could initiate contact from a distance, thereby guaranteeing that the woman would dance with them before any public risk occurred.


For decades, the man makes a tiny movement (cabeceo) this could have a macho origin, in order to avoid if you go to the table and the woman says, no, and you have to return, it’s tough. . . .  Looking into their eyes, I make a gesture, if . . . I go directly, I run the risk that she will say no. [Hector]


The practice of using the cabeceo to invite a woman to dance is gradually losing ground.  More men are coming to the woman’s table to invite her to dance.  Many foreigners do not know the cabeceo, and neither do many of the youth who have learned to dance in the past ten years. 

The cabeceo gave the woman the power to choose partners.  By avoiding the gaze of a particular man, she could signal lack of interest, thereby avoiding dancing with men she did not like.  She could also initiate an invitation by focusing her gaze on a particular man until he had to either invite her or snub her by turning away.  Now a woman must either agree to dance or publicly embarrass a man who comes up to her table to invite her to dance, putting more pressure on her to accept any man who asks.  However, it is now becoming acceptable for women to ask men to dance, according to some of my interviewees. 


When I started, tango was very macho, yes. . . .  you would never ask a man to dance.  Even if he were an intimate friend of yours, in the dance place, it was like, if the man didn’t invite you to dance, you couldn’t say let’s dance, and these days, in the past few years, three, four years, it’s very normal that I arrive and I say to a friend, “Let’s dance.”  It’s normal, it’s become general [practice]. . . .  Before, even if I was dying to dance, I couldn’t [ask]. . . [Marta]


I personally have not seen this happening often, and my attempts to invite men to dance often led to a refusal, or to a man dancing for one or two songs, but then avoiding me afterwards as a dance partner.

Traditionally, women sat with a chaperone until being asked to dance:


Women used to go dance with their mothers, you understand? . . . the chairs used to be placed around [the room] with the women with their mothers and/or their younger sisters and/or cousins and/or little brothers, and all the guys would be in the center . . . my aunt. . . used to go dancing . . . she danced with her uncle, with her cousin, and then, if someone invited her to dance, no more than two or three dances [with them].  I think that’s what the cortina comes from, it’s a tradition, and the changing of partners, it was required, you couldn’t dance all night with the same one.  You had to dance with everyone!  Then after a year, you could dance with one and then, I don’t know, a few months later, he would go to your house to ask for your hand from your mother.  [Serena]


By the 1980s, this had changed.  Both men and women sat at small tables around the circumference of the dance floor.  People came to the milonga in groups, but sat separately.  Men often sat together, but women sat alone or in couples.  The cabeceo governed this setup, especially for women.  Because men did not want to risk complications in the dance invitation, they often danced with women seated alone at tables.  When more than one woman sat at a table, there was always a possibility of an invitation being misinterpreted, and then either the wrong woman stood up, or both women, forcing the man to have to embarrass one of the women.


A woman went to the milonga alone. . . . Why?  Because the scene would occur where there were four women at a table, three women at a table.  And the men would ask them to dance, and when they arrived, two would get up . . . This situation is very difficult for the man who comes [to the table] and has to say to one “I’m not leading you” . . . and the other one has to stay [at the table].  It’s uncomfortable for the man.  Imagine for the woman who has to sit down. . . .  if there were three, they wouldn’t ask you to dance . . .  They would ask other women.  [Marta]


In the past five to ten years, this practice has again changed, as often five or six women share a table.  The change in the use of cabeceo may be based on this change, but none of my interviewees suggested a causal chain of events.  Now, a group of friends will often sit together and dance with each other.  Even if people arrive at the milonga alone, they often sit with friends, and usually dance with known dance partners (Martin). 

A couple who arrives together and sits alone signals that they do not want to dance with others.  Couples who come and sit together often rest between sets, but get up to dance together as the music starts.  If a woman is generally known to be in a relationship, many men will not invite her to dance even if her partner is not at the milonga. One man emphasized that men who ask another man’s girlfriend to dance show a lack of respect for that man:


Tango is more serious than other kinds of dance.  There’s more respect, a ton of things.  For example, if a chick is going out with another guy, and the other guy is not a friend of mine, I’m not going to grab her to dance. . . .  If we are friends, it’s another thing. . . .  I’m not going to dance all night with his girlfriend, but I’ll dance.  Because there is a friendship between us.  . . .  If you are going out with a guy and I don’t know the guy, he’s not my friend, I’m not going to grab you to dance.  Why should I?  To bother the guy?  [Victor]


One woman with an established partnership told me that  “no one invites me to dance, they don’t even look at me . . . I am a marked cow” (Serena).  Women who are less well-known (such as foreigners) often deal with this difficulty by sitting at separate tables from their partners, or even by attending different milongas.  All of these conventions have grown out of a hundred years of people dancing tango in public spaces, negotiating for dances, and enacting the gender roles associated with the leader and follower roles.






History of tango


Tango developed out of the dances of the working class African-Argentines, poor European immigrants, and, to some extent, criollo (people of mixed indigenous and Spanish blood) culture, in the late 1800s in Buenos Aires.  It developed out of a dance called the milonga, which combined the African-Argentine dance, the candombe, with European couple dances and with Afro-Caribbean dance forms. 

The candombe, developed in the Buenos Aires area in the 1800s.  After the international slave trade was banned in 1809, the separate African ethnic traditions maintained in Argentina gradually merged into a single dance form (Chasteen 2000: 45). By the mid-1800s, the candombe was firmly established in the black community in Buenos Aires.  It contained a movement called the ombligada, where the bellies of the two dancers met, but otherwise was done without touching.  The dance had solo, male/female pair, and group dance sections (Andrews 1980: 163-64).  The dance form was, like many African-rooted dances, “hip-driven” (Chasteen 2000: 46).  Candombe was done with quebradas, which meant that there was a break in the line of the body at the waist “to generate a sinuous, subtle, flowing motion, without bounding knees or flailing limbs” (Chasteen 2000: 46).  Candombe contributed its rhythms and torso and hip movement to the development of tango.

European dances contributed the dance embrace and instrumentation to tango.  European couple dances came to Argentina with the original Spanish colonizers as well as with the huge number of immigrants who arrived in the mid- to late- nineteenth century from southern and eastern Europe. Because laws privileged rich landowners, these new immigrants could not buy land easily.  Many settled in Buenos Aires, thus creating a distinct porteño subculture that differed from the creole and black mix in the provinces (Salessi 1997: 142).  The new immigrants were mostly men, having left their families back in the old country while they looked for work, which created a great imbalance in the number of men and women living in Buenos Aires (Collier 1995: 38).  These men lived in collective houses called conventillos in the poor sections of town.  The commonly accepted history is that tango was a male dance, developed by these lower-class men dancing together in the conventillos and on street corners. 

However, tango did not evolve solely in the streets among male immigrants.  It was danced by men and women, recent immigrants and established porteños.  Various ethnic groups met in the academias de baile, or dance halls, of the working class neighborhoods in Buenos Aires where people gathered to drink, gamble, and dance (Andrews 1980: 166).  In the 1860s and 1870s, with the importation of new European dances such as the waltz, schottische, and mazurka, a new dance form, the milonga, melded together African and European traditions (Andrews 1980: 195).  The Afro-Cuban habañera, which was the most popular dance at African-Argentine parties in the 1880s, also exerted a strong influence over the rhythm of the new dance (Chasteen 2000: 54). 

By 1883, the milonga was very popular dance among the working classes (Collier 1995: 45).  It introduced the European dance embrace (man and woman touching) into the mixture that already existed, but the rhythms and instruments of the milonga were still African (Andrews 1980: 166).  Depending upon the source, milonga is considered to be either a dance that the poor whites did to imitate and/or mock the candombe of the blacks, or a dance that the black Argentines did to mimic the whites (Andrews 1980: 166). Collier (1995) and Salas (1999) say that the compadritos (or suburban working-class white men) were the people who imitated the candombe and took it to their dance places as the milonga (Collier 1995: 44; Salas 1999:5). 

The tango began as a slower, smoother version of the milonga (Jakubs 1984: 138).  By the mid- to late-1890s, Argentine tango was considered a distinct dance, separate from the milonga and other dance forms (Chasteen 2000: 54; Collier 1995: 47).  It was mainly performed in poor areas of Buenos Aires, by working class people, and did not hold a widespread appeal elsewhere.

From 1890 to 1917, tango gained a larger audience in Buenos Aires gradually.  Popular entertainment aimed at working and middle classes incorporated tango songs and the dance into plays, the circus, etc.,  and thus spread tango to more people and made it more acceptable (Castro 1990: 7, 103-104).  Tango continued to be danced in poor neighborhoods on the tenement patios, but during the 1910s, tango music and dance began to be played at upscale nightclubs in the richer areas of town (Collier 1995: 55, 61).  Here, a rich young man (a niño bien) could develop a taste for tango music and learn to dance it by visiting the dance halls and the brothels of the working class areas.  The popularity of tango among upper-class men spread the dance from lower-class brothels to upper-class brothels (Collier 1995: 48). 

These same young men were sent to Europe on grand tours and brought tango with them, introducing it into the Parisian demimonde in the 1910s (Collier 1995: 61).  During the ensuing fad for tango, Europeans viewed the dance as a symbol of exotic, Latin sensuality.  They also linked it to Argentine national identity.  Upper-class Argentines were scandalized that a lower-class, improper dance was connected to their nationality: they did not want to be associated with tango. In 1913, an Argentine observer of the Parisian fashion for tango noted that “. . . the tango is nothing more than an exotic dance, vaguely sinful, that [Europeans] dance for its sensual, perverted and slightly barbaric context” (Cooper 1995: 97).  The Europeans simplified and codified tango’s steps, and adapted it to be more like European couple dances, so that it easier to dance, less provocative, but still exotic.

After tango won followers in Europe, it became more widely accepted among the middle and upper classes in Argentina (Castro 1990: 92).  By the 1920s, tango was popular among most social classes in Argentina (Azzi 1995: 115).   The middle- and upper-classes adopted the more Europeanized styling as “appropriate” to more elite dancers (“tango a la francesa”) (Cooper 1995: 97; Savigliano 1995: 149).  The corresponding association of tango with Europe, rather than with the Argentine underclasses, made it acceptable for the more moneyed classes of people in Buenos Aires to indulge in tango.  The support of upper-class male dancers in Argentina also allowed the middle class to adopt tango with less of a lower-class stigma attached to it (Vila 1991: 111).  One of the older, male tango dancers I interviewed in Buenos Aires pointed out that the introduction of big band orchestras with vocalists, often led by middle- or upper-class men, contributed to the acceptability of dancing tango among the middle and upper classes:


The origin of tango was marginal. . . .  In about the 1920s . . . the orchestra of Martin de Caro [appeared] . . . since [he] came from an upper-middle class family, and played tango very well, middle-class sectors of the population, who before had seen it as some marginal music . . . . began to dance tango.  This included my parents, who met each other dancing to Martin de Caro’s orchestra. [Hector]


Tango was not as readily available to women as to men during this era.  Many tango venues were not appropriate for a woman of good reputation to visit.  After prostitution was made illegal in 1919, tango moved into the cabaret and the teatro de revistas, which attracted a more middle-class audience (Castro 1990: 177; Guy 1991: 108).  In these venues, middle- and upper-class women put their reputation on the line if they danced: prostitutes still worked these places, and "women who showed up alone were certain to have suspicious morals" (Guy 1991: 150).  Thus, men often did not bring their female relatives along to dance in public.  This was still another example of how women's place was seen to be the home.  Dancing tango at home was safe, but dancing it in public was dangerous:  "Submissive and kept at home, they were no threat to men.  Women were evil or prone to seduction by false values if they left the house" (Guy 1991: 151).  According to Castro (1994), nightlife (and tango) remained a mostly male space throughout the 1930s despite new morality laws, restrictions on prostitution and the Depression (Castro 1994: 69-70).

When middle- and upper-class women did venture into the tango scene, they were careful to dance in a manner that reflected their class level.  Savigliano argues that tango did not transcend class and social boundaries until the women of the upper classes started dancing it after it came back from Europe as a proper, imported activity (Savigliano 1995: 138).  Middle- and upper-class ladies wanted to demarcate the borders of class within tango, and different styles were taught and practiced, maintaining class borders via body movement (Savigliano 1995: 149).  Because men were relatively free to dance all forms of tango with different classes of women, it was the women who embodied the different types of tango, correct behaviors, and class demarcations (Savigliano 1995: 164).  Between 1920 and today, these attitudes have faded.  During the 1930s and 1940s, the Golden Age of tango, many women danced tango.  However, even in 2000, one older woman I interviewed stressed her distaste for the “milonguero” style of dancing very close, and said she personally preferred the more proper salon, or open style (Maria Elena).

The late 1930s and the 1940s were the Golden Era of tango.  The upswing in the economy after the Depression drew more people to dance halls (Azzi 1995: 156).  World War II isolated Argentina from the rest of the world, which contributed to the growing popularity of the home-grown tango:  "The dance spread everywhere: in the neighborhoods, the carnival, the dance halls organized by the radio stations . . .” (Vila 1991: 123).  An elderly interviewee told me that “tango was danced in all the clubs . . . and when Carnival came around, the clubs would argue over orchestras [who would get to play where]”  (Hector).  So many people danced tango that each neighborhood in Buenos Aires developed its own particular dance style. 

Tango as a dance was impeded in its development by the changing population of Buenos Aires in the 1940s and 1950s, and also by the government’s adoption of folk music, rather than tango, as the nationally supported dance form.  In the 1940s and 1950s, large numbers of people moved from Argentina’s interior to Buenos Aires (Vila 1991: 107). For these migrants, tango was not an integral part of their identity as it was for the established porteños: they did folk dances.  As the provincial migrants were mostly mestizo (of mixed indigenous, European and sometimes Afro-Argentine blood), they were darker than the mostly European porteños, and they experienced discrimination in Buenos Aires.  They were called cabecitas negras (little black heads) by the city’s whiter residents, and tensions existed between the two groups.

Peron was elected president in 1945 after participating in a military coup which took place in 1943, and came to power partially due to the support of these cabecitas negras.  The rapport he built with them included his support of folk music as the national music of Argentina (Vila 1991: 124).  His values campaign included the valorization of the interior and the gaucho (the cowboy) above that of the porteño and city life (Castro 1990: 209, 219): "Argentina was . . . being restored to the values of Hispanic and Catholic culture" (Castro: 208).    


[Peron] called upon Argentina to seek cultural synthesis from criollismo [creolism e.g. nativism], from costumbrismo [native habits, customs, moral views, etc.], and from el folklore [folklore].  This synthesis could only be made in the interior where all of these elements existed and not in the city . . . [Castro 1990: 221]


Therefore, folk music and the dances of the interior were promoted as ideals of Argentine-ness.  In this light, tango was rejected as the primary symbol of Argentineness.  In supporting folk music and not tango, the government contributed to the slow decline of tango’s popularity (Vila 1991: 132).

From the 1950s to the 1980s tango continued to decline in popularity.  The government’s active elevation of non-tango dance forms and intermittent bans on gathering in large groups contributed to this decline.  During the decades of restrictive/military rule, when gathering in a group could create trouble with the political authorities, meeting to dance tango was a subversive activity (Amelia).  Few new people entered the tango scene, and many people who danced tango avoided club gatherings and night clubs in order to avoid the attention of the authorities.  Another factor that contributed to a decline in tango dancing was the availability of rock and other dance music from abroad.  An entire generation of Argentines grew up without learning to dance tango (Miranda and Firpo).  Thus, when the military dictatorship ended in 1983, there were very few people involved in tango, and only a handful were younger than the generation that grew up dancing in the 1940s and 1950s (Amelia). 

Tango renaissance: 1983-2000


Tango’s renaissance started in 1983.  A touring tango show, Tango Argentino, performed internationally and captured the imagination of many viewers.  The show opened in Paris, and later toured Europe, the United States, and Japan.  It featured a danced history of tango, complete with period costumes, a piece danced between men, and dramatic, sensual dancing between men and women (Martin 1995: 182, 183, 186-189).  Tango fever was re-ignited abroad and generated both interest and income abroad and at home. Work opportunities brought young Argentines to the dance form, and gradually the tango as a social dance gained new adherents. 

In addition to Tango Argentino and the economic possibilities of the touring tango shows, other factors contributed to the renaissance of tango in Buenos Aires in the 1990s.  One of these was the revival of interest in tango music among the young people in Buenos Aires, guided by famous Argentine rock stars, who honored their tango roots by inviting famous tango singers to perform with rock bands.


The rockers, the rock singers, included tango lyrics [in their songs] . . . and supertraditional tangueros, like El Polaco Goyaneche, sang with Charly Garcia . . . or that Albert Castillo sang with the Fabulous Cadillacs, a rock group. . . .  This helped a lot, in that men and women . . . that liked jazz and rock [said], Ah! look at how great tango is!  Let’s go [do it]!  [Amelia]


The people who attended these concerts began to pay attention to tango, which before had been seen as an old people’s dance and music.

Tango also appeared on the FM airwaves, drawing in a larger, younger audience.  In the early 1990s a group of rock musicians banded together and started a new radio station dedicated to tango.  According to one interviewee, this was “the most important spark” that ignited the new tango fad:


In the ‘90s, ’91, came FM Tango, which is the first FM tango station.  Up until then, tango was only on AM. . . . FM Tango was run by Gustavo Nolla, who was a pioneer of Argentine rock ‘n roll . . . all the people who formed a part of FM Tango . . . were people who came to it from rock ‘n roll. . . .  And they set it up like a rocker’s station.  Faster, harder-hitting, and lots of young people started to listen to it.  It was one of the most popular radio stations between ’90 and ’94, more or less. They did a lot of tango shows to which they invited the young tango people, musicians and dancers . . . and lots of young people came to see these.  I think this was the most important change in tango, in the public who consumed tango at that point.  [Miranda]


FM Tango sponsored festivals, performances and competitions that encouraged young people to try the dance as well as listen to the music.  By 1994, the new interest in tango had produced many new dancers.  From 1994 to 2000, the dancing population doubled or tripled (Rosario).

New dance spaces were created that invited new dancers to enter the tango world.  New clubs in middle- and upper-class areas of town provided a learning space for the new generation by offering group classes and an informal atmosphere to dance.  Because there was more tolerance for beginners on the large dance floor, people who would not dare dance at some of the older clubs could dance at these venues.  In addition, these clubs played other kinds of music as well as tango, which attracted a younger crowd: 


[the organizers of the] La Estrella/La Viruta milonga . . . are the ones who really made a milonga that everybody could go to.  Why?  Because tango is danced there following the tanguero codes of behavior and the atmosphere of the milonga, but there are people who go because they like to listen to tango and they don’t dance, or don’t dance much, but since there is salsa, rock ‘n roll, etc., they participate in the milonga.  And then they start to learn to dance tango. . . it started . . . maybe four years ago.  They were the ones who let go of the formality. . . .  one can go in jeans, one can go in any type of clothing . . . [Miranda]


Nuevo Tango


Having started tango after seeing stage-style tango, many young people who came to tango in the 1990s focused on a more dramatic, open style of dance than that which was originally done in the milongas.  The new style has many more figures, or steps, compared to the old style, in which one danced as one felt the music demanded (Victor).  The new style is much more acrobatic and demands more flexibility and body training than the old style.

    Nuevo tango is characterized by a focus on tango’s structure.  Taking traditional tango figures, Nuevo tango asks questions such as: “If the leader can do that, can you lead the follower to do it?” and “What does that figure look like backwards?” or “If I reverse this part, what happens?”  Through experimentation and close analysis of the form, Nuevo tango has transformed social tango and combined it with elements of stage tango to make a flashy, but improvised, form of tango.

Nuevo tango also represents a new, egalitarian form of tango in that the style is not limited to a specific class of people, nor to a specific neighborhood, as earlier forms were.  Both working class and middle-class dancers participate in the form.  It is not demarcated by gender.  Whereas women’s dance style proclaimed their class in the earlier years of tango, both men and women of all classes flock to the new style.

The ringleaders of the new tango movement were two young dancers, Gustavo Naveira and Fabian Salas, who gathered a group of four to ten young people around them in 1994 to investigate the possibilities within the system of tango.  Most of the non-tango dance world knows this style because Sally Potter’s film “The Tango Lesson” starred three of the main male dancers in the new movement: Naveira, Salas, and Pablo Veron.  That small nucleus of people expanded and now are among the most sought-after teachers in Buenos Aires and abroad.  Most of this group of “new tango” dancers teach (or live) abroad.  These dancers make almost all of their income by maintaining work visas in the United States or Europe; very little money is to be made in Buenos Aires, except by teaching foreigners.


Foreigners and tango: tango as commodity


. . . local and regional traditions can be ‘recycled’ and re-formed as they become cultural commodities in both the national and international marketplaces that are intended for consumption on both sides of the border.  [Kun 1997: 304]



    Tango originally spread out from Argentina in the 1910s, but foreigners did not begin to frequent Buenos Aires in order to dance tango until the 1990s.  The show Tango Argentino started touring in 1983 and, combined with the migration of Argentines to Europe during the dictatorship, created an atmosphere that promoted and fostered tango in Europe, the United States and Japan.  Many Argentines began to offer tango classes abroad, and international tango festivals were organized, creating economic opportunities for tango dancers and teachers (Miranda).  In addition, beginning about 1992, large numbers of foreigners began to visit Buenos Aires to study tango (Martin).  This resulted in the proliferation of classes, prácticas, and milongas that cater to tourists and a demand for the development of formal systems of tango pedagogy.

    The influx of foreigners into the ranks of tango dancers, teachers and performers has changed both the structure of the dance, and how the tango world functions in Buenos Aires.  The presence of foreigners means that the pecking order in milongas includes tourists as well as regulars, and some tourists (especially better female dancers) rank high (Savigliano 1998: 106-108).  Male dancers often choose a stranger to dance with them, compliment their dancing, offer corrections, and hand the woman their card after a set of dancing, offering dance lessons or a (paid) dance partner for the duration of their visit.  Dancing with foreigners is one of few ways to make contacts that may benefit the tango dancer in the short term (giving lessons) or result in an invitation to go abroad to teach.

Once abroad, there are opportunities to remain working abroad.  The current economic situation is so bad that young Argentines are lining up at embassy emigration and visa windows, trying to get papers that allow them into Spain, Italy, the United States: anywhere where there might be work.  For over 15% of the people I interviewed in Buenos Aires in 2000, dancing at milongas has led not only to jobs abroad, but marriage, green cards, and work visas that allow them to stay outside of Argentina legally.


Gender as a social construct


Even within the small subculture of tango in Buenos Aires, I found several different ways of looking at men and women, and how men and women should act correctly in order to perform ideal masculinity and femininity.  Often “sex” or “gender” is used as a term to demarcate a division between the bodies and/or behaviors of “men” and “women” in such a way as to create two (or more) categories of humans.  Although many people consider these categories to be biological givens, most anthropological researchers do not. 

According to Butler (1990), both sex and gender are terms that are culturally constituted through discourse (what we say and write about a topic) and practice (what we actually do and how we act).  She writes that “. . . gender must also designate the very apparatus whereby the sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1990: 7).  Gender is not a static, but a dynamic state, which is created by body practices and speech acts.  Therefore, a body is not a given “man” or “woman” nor “male” or “female,” but rather a cultural construct.  How can we define “woman”?  For example, if we define “woman” as a body able to reproduce, all people who are of post-menopausal or pre-pubertal age, are not women (Butler 1996: 113).  Even reproduction is a social institution, not a biological one.

The way we speak about the construction of gender is itself based in the linguistic system we use, which has (in both English and Spanish) a built-in binary slant.  This limits discourse and predisposes the speaker to divide people into only two gendered categories.  For example, “Is it a boy or a girl?” is the first question usually asked about a body, illustrating our tendency towards a set of binary categories which we use (Butler 1990: 111).  This example also shows the extreme importance placed on sexed or gendered difference in society which we impose from the moment of birth.  At birth, the doctor says “it’s a boy/girl” and thus


begins that long string of interpellations by which the girl is transitively girled: gender is ritualistically repeated, whereby the repetition occasions both the risk of failure and the congealed effect of sedimentation. [Butler 1997: 48]


In other words, by calling the baby a girl, and by treating that human as a girl, we make a culturally conditioned state of being a girl that the child learns to follow and thus becomes a girl.  The fact that this is repeated constantly creates the reality of that child being a girl.  This is a dynamic state of affairs: the “girl” must keep acting “like a girl,” and is continually called a “girl” in order to fit in culturally with a group of humans who expect certain girl behaviors from that child.  Although it is difficult to imagine the body before it is described in language—a blank slate, as it were (Butler 1990: 130)—the body’s identity is completely socially and linguistically constituted:


Language sustains the body . . . it is by being interpellated with the terms of language that a certain social existence of the body first becomes possible.  To understand this one must imagine an impossible scene, that of a body that has not yet been given social definition, . . . [so that] an address, a call, . . . constitutes [the body] fundamentally. [Butler 1997:5]


Therefore, the body with which one is born does not dictate the personality or behavior that person as a gendered being.  Rather, people expect specific behavior and react to the perceived male- or female-ness of the body. 

Repetition, not nature, creates social reality.  As acts are repeated (or spoken about, because speech is also an act) (Butler 1997: 10), they gain a social legitimacy that a single act does not have:  “Language gains the power to create ‘the socially real’ through the locutionary acts of speaking subjects” (Butler 1990: 115).  Through “repetition and recitation,” acts and speech about those acts becomes accepted as a set of social norms (Butler 1996: 112). Eventually, these social norms become accepted as “facts” of the natural world and are not viewed as socially constructed (Butler 1990: 115, 141).  Meaning is constructed through a continuing discourse, and gender, rather than being a given, is a process of repeated performances:


If gender is something that one becomes—but can never be—then gender is itself a kind of becoming or activity, and that gender ought not to be conceived of as a noun or a substantial thing or a static culture marker, but rather as an incessant and repeated action of some sort. [Butler 1990: 112]


If gender is not a physical entity, what is it?  I agree with Stølen’s (1996) view that “gender” is based on our beliefs and views of what men and women should be like, how they differ, and how they should interact:


Gender entails, on the one hand, men’s and women’s roles and relations, and, on the other, their values and ideas about maleness and femaleness. What men and women do and how they relate, together with the ideas and interpretations of gender differences, constitute a gender system. [Stølen 1996b: 18-19]



I also agree with Stølen that no one gender system dominates an entire culture.  Within a culture, there are competing belief systems, including those about gender (Stølen 1996a: 159-160).  This explains the fact that much information gathered about a culture’s views on gender, conflicts with other data collected.   Although there may be an accepted “official” discourse, the performance of gender roles provides alternative realities and beliefs that often do not agree with the official version (Butler 1997: 157).  Within any group, “discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin” compete with each other to construct  the norms of that society (Butler 1990: ix). 

Accepted rules of behavior can be enforced either through force or via an acceptance of these beliefs by the majority of the population.  According to Cowan, the two main ways for the society to control the individual are through domination or via hegemony (Cowan 1990: 12).  Hegemony is a non-violent method, where one way of seeing reality is dominant, accepted, and internalized to the extent that the oppressed choose to follow a system that oppresses them by consenting to follow the rules (Cowan 1990: 12).  Stølen defines hegemony, referring to the definition by Gramsci, as:


. . . meaning a social ascendancy achieved by consensus through institutions of the civil society such as the family, the Church, and the educational and legal systems, and thus, articulated at the level of the whole society . . . it refers to dominance based on common values or shared meaning rather than on the use of force.  [Stølen 1996b: 212]


Educational, religious and civic institutions help to inculcate the belief system that individuals adopt (Cowan 1990: 12).  Groups of people accept social norms and reenact them daily, often without being aware of the process either of choosing those rules, or of enforcing them:


In Language and Symbolic Power, Pierre Bourdieu cautions . . . [that] the recognition of the legitimacy of the official language has nothing in common with an explicitly professed, deliberate and revocable belief, or with an intentional act of accepting a ‘norm.’” [Bourdieu, as quoted in Butler 1997: 134]


Hegemony is a dynamic process, shaped by the people participating in the culture: "Hegemony . . . has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended and modified.  It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures . . ."  (Cowan 1990: 14).  Such a system is not monolithic: the very presence of individuals within the system means that each person will try to manipulate the status quo for their own benefit, “accept[ing], manipulat[ing], us[ing], or contest[ing] hegemonic (that is, dominant) ideas” (Cowan 1990: 13). The arts, including dance, can reinforce the hegemonic belief system by providing space in which those rules may be enacted through discourse or nonverbal means, or can challenge dominant views.

Heterosexuality provides an excellent example of a hegemonic embracing of a social norm to the extent that it is accepted as part of nature.  Butler writes that our views of accepted “male” and “female” behavior are based in part not on nature, but on culturally ancient practices, including the “regulation of sexuality” to appropriate “compulsory heterosexuality” (Butler 1990: 136).  Therefore, heterosexuality may be a norm, but it is not the “natural” order of things (Butler 1996: 114).  The discourse concerning sexual orientation helps to reify the accepted norms, and this continued discourse must happen in order for the social norm to continue. 


. . . acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause.  Such acts, gestures, and enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. . . .   If that reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly public and social discourse . . . [gender is] an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality.  [Butler 1990: 136]


As heterosexuality is a basic tenet underpinning Western culture and gendered ideals, a change in discourse about “male” and “female” interactions threatens the norm much more than if heterosexuality was indeed an inborn given for humans.  This makes changes in behaviors that are linked to “male” and “female” potentially dangerous, such as changing who leads in a traditionally male-female dance interaction.  In a couple dance that traditionally has had a man leading a woman, a woman leading challenges the accepted, hegemonic ideals about “male” and “female.”  Change, in action or discourse about that action, threatens the status quo because it can lead to changes in what is accepted culturally.

Most of the Argentines I interviewed have a worldview that includes a binary view of sex: “man” and “woman” are seen as naturally constituted categories for them, not cultural constructions.  A few interviewees discussed “el tercero sexo” (the third sex), by which they meant homosexuals.  In Argentina, most people accept that women and men are physically, fundamentally different, and that their masculine or feminine behavior stems from this biological base.  They also accept heterosexuality as a natural, given part of this male-female interaction.  Therefore, women enacting a role that is accepted as male, designed for a male body, are challenging the status quo about correct male and female behavior in Argentine and porteño society in a physical, visual, in-your-face manner.


The ideal woman in Argentina, 1880-2000


Argentina differs from most Latin American countries in that the majority of the urban population descends from Mediterranean families.  There is a lower concentration of indigenous people than in most of Latin America.  Consequently, the worldview of its inhabitants more closely mirrors that of the Mediterranean area than many other parts of Latin America. 


Migration to the New World . . . has not . . . led to a complete rupture with Mediterranean culture, and the European linkage is still strong. This becomes evident . . . especially with regard to conceptualizations of maleness and femaleness and the strong emphasis on female virginity, chastity and domesticity.  [Stølen 1996b:18]


In the late 1890s when tango developed, the family was the principal unit of society in Argentina.  Families were primarily self-sufficient and information was kept within the family.  A female belonged to her family, and her sexual purity reflected upon the honor of her family.  People who were not relatives rarely entered a house, apart from the formal salon (Scobie 1974: 206).  Therefore, a girl was under the eye of her family, safe from the outside world at all times.  They were carefully watched until their marriage, at which point they became property of their husbands (Yeager 1994: xii). 

The central roles of an adult woman were expected to be that of obedient wife, homemaker, and producer of children (Filc 1997: 72-73). 


. . . according to the 1871 civil code, the role of good women was to marry and bear future generations.  Mothers and children in turn were to obey the male patriarch who would select their occupations, thereby linking the family to class and, ultimately, through birth, to the nation.  [Guy 1991: 3]


Women provided the emotional center for the family. This view of a woman’s role as the family’s “heart” still predominates in Argentine society: “To maintain united families in a loving and secure atmosphere is still seen as the mother’s responsibility” (Filc 1997: 74).

The Catholic Church’s teachings provided a religious base and justification that supported a woman’s place as subordinate to men (Stølen 1996b: 21).  Just as God is in a position of power over people, men are in charge of the lesser members of the family, including women (Filc 1997: 71-2).  Since God created people, and, men can procreate, men are in the highest position in the human hierarchy (Stølen 1996b: 248-9).  Educational institutions reinforced the teachings of the Church, instructing that motherhood was a “biological destiny” and that marriage and parenting were what women were born to do (Lavrin 1995: 33).

The ideal woman did not work outside the home.  In order for a woman to fulfill her role as a wife and mother, she needed to be home-based.  Also, in order to protect her honor, she needed to be chaperoned or stay at home.  Therefore, a woman who worked, especially outside the home, was suspect.  One of the main fears that society (men) had about women working outside the home was the consequent lack of sexual control: “In a society where working women were the exception, female wage labor in public places was equated with sexual commerce” (Guy 1991: 46).  Argentines feared that women who worked with men who were not their relatives would succumb to sexual advances (Guy 1991: 69).  This fear of women’s freedom contributed to the perception that working women were a social danger. 

The immigration practices of the new European-Argentines reinforced both the idea of the pure, secluded ideal for women, and created a demand for the “bad” woman: the prostitute.  As few women in comparison to men immigrated, there was a perpetual shortage of female sexual partners.  European women (especially one’s relatives) were seen as pure, but other women were seen as “sexually voracious and available” (Stølen 1996b: 154).  European-Argentine men saw native, creole and African women as “vessel[s] for male pleasure,” so the rules of honor and shame did not apply (Castro:66).  All poor women were thought to be of easy virtue, as their need of money reduced their will to be “good” and respectable.  Therefore any working woman, out in public, was viewed with suspicion.

The economic reality of Buenos Aires did not mirror this ideal of women staying at home.  Even at the beginning of the 20th century, many women worked outside the home due to economic need.  Although there was a large contingent of women who did paid work at home, many women also had to go out in public and work with men to earn enough money to survive; they did not have constant watch kept over their activities (Lavrin 1995:74, 90).  They supported their families by working as “servants, sellers and artisans” as well as industrial workers after industrialization (Yeager 1994: xv; Guy 1994:115).  By 1909, 32.6% of women had an occupation, and women constituted about 24% of the industrial labor force (Lavrin 1995: 57; Deutsch 2001:225-226).  During the period between 1914 and 1930, approximately 20% of the labor force was female (Deutsch 1994: 129).  By 1939, over 33% of the blue- and white-collar jobs in the province of Buenos Aires were filled by women (Lavrin 1995: 59).  This points to a constant, large number of women who broke “correct” codes of behavior in order to survive.

The middle-class strove to separate themselves from the lower classes by keeping women out of public employment and the public eye (Lavrin 1995: 6).  However, several recessions between 1915 and 1930 forced middle-class women to work outside the home in greater numbers (Lavrin 1995: 90).  Questions about honor and women’s exposure to the public were exacerbated by the new situation (Lavrin 1995: 126-7):  “the figure of the working woman . . . evoked rancor and opposition among many men and women” (Lavrin 1995: 91).

Gender relations were thrown into flux by the end of World War I.  With more women working and new ideas about women’s freedom, views of masculinity and femininity came under increased discussion.  Women were said to have become more “assertive and demanding and thus less ‘feminine’”, of “forsaking their gracious feminine personality, and assuming hybrid masculine behavior [hombremiento]” (Castro 1994: 68; Lavrin 1995: 36).  Women who worked a traditionally male job were thought to undergo “a sexual inversion” (Lavrin 1995:36). 

In opposition to more women working and the “confusion” about a woman’s role, the conservative era from 1920-1940 continued to stress women’s role in the home (Deutsch 2001: 236; Lavrin 1995: 94).  The Church accepted women’s need to work outside the home if necessary, and supported women’s education, but not at the expense of men or the family (Deutsch 1994: 135-36): “The Church stressed women’s maternal roles within and outside the home: nurturers, educators, and helpmates within the family, women were also philanthropists, and guardians of purity in society at large” (Deutsch 2001: 225).  Even in the 1950s, the educational system also supported this view: textbooks of the 1950s present a similar image of the ideal girl and woman (Stølen 1996b: 260).  The mass media of the 1940s and 1950s showed housewives and mothers at home: “passive, dependant and submissive . . .” (Stølen 1996b: 263).

Although the 1960s were more liberal in terms of women’s rights, the 1970s heralded a return to conservative gender roles.  In 1974, after Juan Perón’s death, the government imposed “antifeminist” measures that limited women’s rights, such as prohibiting contraceptives and vetoing equal parental rights (Feijoó 1994: 110).  Women’s roles as the housewife, wife and mother were stressed as “the only legitimate goal for women”(Feijoó 1994: 111).  When the military junta took over in 1976, their repressive measures caused the standard of living for poorer classes to decrease, again forcing more women to work outside the home. Although more women needed to work to contribute to the survival of their families, they faced discrimination in the workforce as women (Feijoó 1994: 111).  Partly in reaction to this situation, women organized politically, and were an instrumental part of the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1983.  However, their political role was built on that of wife and mother, and served to reinforce traditional gender roles (Feijoó 1994: 113, 120-21). 

The end of the military dictatorship in 1983 ushered in another period of increased economic crisis.  High inflation rates drove both lower- and middle-class women into the workforce.  Poor women increased their numbers in the workforce by 11% between 1974 and 1987, and middle-class women increased their numbers in the workforce by 33% in the same time period (Feijoó 1994: 110).  Married women, who traditionally had worked outside the home less than other women, increased their numbers in the workforce from 1974 to 1987 by 53% for middle-class, and by 33% for lower-class women (Feijoó 1994: 124).

At the beginning of the 21st century, Argentina has many women from all classes who work in the professions (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) or own their own businesses (Foster 1998: 104).  Women are heavily involved in “the cultural industry” of theater, television, music, and dance, including tango (Foster 1998: 104).  Many women are starting to work in jobs traditionally thought of as male work.  This has not reduced the expectation that a woman also be a wife and mother:


Role encroachments regarding work seem to be more acceptable for women than for men.  A woman who carries out what is defined as men’s work may be characterized as skillful and hardworking, positively valued qualities, as long as she does not neglect her house and children.”  [Stølen 1996b: 199]


The high percentage of women working since the end of the 1980s has brought about changes in both the discussion of women’s roles and women’s work.  (Feijoó 1994: 124; Stølen 1996b: 19).  A new balance between the sexes is being sought (Giardinelli 1998: 112).  Today, Buenos Aires seems to have more of an awareness of male and female roles because women inhabit the public space more freely there than in the rest of Latin America (Foster 1998: 102).


One of the truly distinctive features of Buenos Aires is the considerable degree of freedom women have in identifying for themselves the right to occupy the city . . . for most of Latin America, a combination of traditional feminine modesty . . . and issues relating to personal security combine to maintain a gender differential with respect to cohabitation in every reach of urban life . . . [Foster 1998: 101]


I experienced and saw this freedom, especially in terms of being able to travel home alone at 4 or 5 in the morning after a milonga.  However, with the current economic crisis, crime is on the rise, and both men and women are becoming less prone to travel alone at night.

Who is the ideal or typical porteña of the 21st century?  The scholarly literature provides several contradictory views.  According to Foster (1998), Argentine women are famous for being assertive, compared to other Latin American women:


The Argentine woman is legendary for her strength of character.  While the perception of this strength may be expressed in negative terms, such that the Argentine woman is reputed to be too strong and aggressive, unfeminine, defiant, and confrontational, popular knowledge in Latin America accords her a unique status.  Not even the alleged sexual freedom of Brazilian women comes close to matching the mystique of the assertive Argentine woman.  This is, of course, a stereotype . . .  [Foster 1998: 104-5]


This stereotype contrasts strongly with the ideal stated in popular press.  According to Giardinelli, the ideal woman of the 1990s in Argentina is still “silent, passive, . . . decent, a mother, a goddess to be loved, capable of being suffering, modest, stoic, resigned, . . . “ (Giardinelli 1998: 101, my translation).  This is the character shown in commercials in the mass media, where the woman is still shown as a mild-mannered wife and mother (Stølen 1996b: 263): “Popular stereotypes are seen to be reconfirmed in the serials on television. which, good or bad, are these days the most popular master educator of Argentina and of the entire world” (Giardinelli 1998: 114).  The women interviewed by Stølen agreed that any woman who was assertive was not following the accepted codes of behavior:


Women should never take open initiatives to conquer a man.  They may certainly use “invisible” methods of showing their interest, but if these do not work, they should give up . . . “Women cannot choose, they can only be chosen, and, if they are not they have no chance’ as one [woman] put it.  At the same time, [the women interviewed by Stølen] stressed that they found it extremely disgusting if a woman took the initiative, as in asking a man to dance. . . .  Since early childhood they have learnt that it is the man who should approach women and that women who take the lead in this sense are defined as prostitutes.  [Stølen 1996b: 161]


Which of these images is “the” Argentine woman of 2000?  From my knowledge of my Argentine women friends, I would hazard a guess that all of these traits can be found in a modern-day porteña.  Almost all of my female friends in Buenos Aires are assertive, outspoken, strong women.  At the same time, I have seen most of them defer to their male partners or husbands in public but express other opinions at home.  Most of my female friends in Buenos Aires take great care with their appearance but at the same time are highly educated and rely on their intellect to attract the opposite sex.  Most of them do not have children but told me they plan to have children in their mid- to late-thirties, after their careers are established.  Many were caring and emotionally expressive.  They all demonstrated a lack of concern with male-female competition and told me that men and women were naturally different rather than equal.  Their performance of their femininity is a delicate balancing act that aims to fit in with others’ expectations of them while at the same time enables taking control of their lives and furthering their own interests.



The male ideal in Argentina, 1880-2000


Historically, men and women have not been seen as equal, but rather as complementary to one another in Argentina: “Men and women inherently possessed different duties, rights, and abilities, and to categorize the sexes as equal or unequal demeaned them both” (Deutsch 1994: 139).  Rosa Scheiner, a 1930s Argentine socialist, wrote that men and women had their own “respective biological and psychological characteristics” (Lavrin 1995: 37).  The differences between ideal male and female roles were seen as “natural” and of  “biological origin” (Stølen 1996a: 167, 174; Giardinelli 1998: 104).    

A man’s worth was measured by his public work and image.  If a woman’s role was to maintain the emotional well-being of the family, the man’s role was to provide for the physical welfare of his wife, children, and extended family if necessary.  A man’s concept of his masculinity was linked to being able to provide for his family: “a man who needs his wife’s economic help to make ends meet [was] not a ’real’ man” (Stølen 1996b: 197). 

Masculinity is a performance, rather than a given (Foster 1998: 67).  Masculinity is often defined in opposition to femininity.  A male is supposed to give an appearance of being strong and assertive.  A man is supposed to be active, while a women is supposed to be passive.  A good man is active, independent, and goes his own way.  Even as a child, males learn that to be docile and sweet means to be teased.  If a male child exhibits accepted “female” behavior instead of fighting and being aggressive, his parents worry that he might be homosexual (Stølen 1996b: 151-52). 


What is considered appropriate behavior for boys such as manifestations of tenacity and physical strength, is disapproved of in girls, who are expected to be sweet, soft, and neat.  If a boy exhibits what are defined as feminine qualities his parents become anxious about possible homosexual inclinations and start punishing him with jokes and mockery.  [Stølen 1996b: 151-152]


In addition to acting in ways that are seen as feminine, a man who carries out what is defined as female work “. . . is exposed to mockery.  He will be seen as . . . ‘dominated’ . . .”  (Stølen 1996b: 200). 

Several stock characters of Argentine literature, film, and theater contribute to the idea of the stereotype of the ideal Argentine man: the gaucho, the compadre, and the compadrito.    The gaucho or cowboy, was a figure much like that of the North American cowboy: silent, courageous, lonely, and self-contained, who demonstrated his masculinity by his willingness to fight, his fighting abilities, and through a display of invulnerability to feelings and sentiment.  His values were:  “generosity, lack of interest in material things, skill in the complicated art of horsemanship, the endurance of physical hardship and the acceptance of a hierarchical society . . .” (Archetti 1999: 39).  This was especially true vis-à-vis women:


The legendary gaucho, although he might venerate his mother, viewed other women primarily as objects of physical desire.  Sentiments or attachments represented unacceptable weaknesses or softness in a virile world. [Scobie 1974: 228]


Although not perfect, the gaucho represented the best of Spanish and Indian blood (virile, proud, independent) and thus was presented as an ideal Argentine (as opposed to lesser races intermixing due to immigration) in popular lectures in Buenos Aires in the 1910s (Archetti 1999: 36-7).  There was a concerted effort to connect the ideal of Argentine maleness to this gaucho image as a way to counteract the changes to Argentine identity produced by large-scale immigration around the turn of the century:


The Argentinian nationalist writers of the 1910s, attempted to recreate the ‘national, the essence of the ‘nation’ and of argentinidad, in the figure of the gaucho, a romantic male free rider and heroic figure of the Argentina of the wars of independence . . . The authors were reacting and pioneering in resisting immigration and the cultural effects of Argentinian modernization. . . . a study of Argentinian national male images needs to problematize the continuity of the rural and the contemporary exaltation of the pampas and the gauchos.  [Archetti 1999: 18]


The image of the compadre is also linked to ideal Argentine masculinity.  A figure of the late 1880s, the compadre came to signify an archetype from the outskirts of Buenos Aires, whose actions were based upon “honor, loyalty, and respect for one’s word of honor” (Salas 1995: 68; my translation).  According to Collier, he was characterized by “fierce independence, masculine pride, and a strong inclination to settle affairs of honor with knives” (Collier 1995: 37).  Compadres were seen as the epitome of masculinity:


At the top of the virility scale stands the guapo or compadre, who is a feared, envied and respected figure in the barrio.  He has made his name due to his courage and he has won it without stridency or strokes of luck. [Salas 1999: 14]


More urban than the gaucho, the compadre was still untamed.  Many of the compadres worked as bodyguards for political chiefs (Salas 1999: 15).  These men frequented the brothels and so are linked in the public mind with tango (Salas 1999: 21).  Salas (1999) writes that the tango was the mouthpiece of the arrabal, or outskirts of town, where the compadre lived (Salas 1999: 13).  They are immortalized in the literary works of Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most famous Argentine writers, as well as in the tangos of Homero Manzi and Cátulo Castillo (Salas 1999: 23).

Another late nineteenth century character linked to the popular image of tango is the compadrito, called the “compadre’s son” in the film Tango: La Obsession (1997).  Salas (1995) quotes Leopoldo Lugones’ definition: “a hybrid of the gaucho, the white and the black.” (Salas 1995: 70).  Compadritos were “mostly native-born and poor . . . street toughs . . . [but] not criminals” (Collier 1995: 38).  The compadrito was the urban/suburban equivalent of the ideal male in porteño minds who “brought together many . . . Spanish, criollo and Italian values on masculinity” (Scobie 1974: 229).  The early images in tango are of tough, outwardly resilient men in the mold of the street tough, dressed in a dark suit with a white neckcloth, heeled boots, and a hat to hide the face (Salas 1995: 70-1).  Scobie (1974) writes that tango “gave the compadrito a perfect stage on which to parade his postures and attitudes” of masculinity (Scobie 1974: 229).

Borges argues [that] the aggressive man, the compadre or compadrito—one of the archetypical figures of tango lyrics, is imagined as a rebel denying the legitimacy of an abstract judicial system regulated and administered by the modern state.  The social destiny of this rebellious man was thus based on a kind of ethic of “the man who is alone and expects nothing from others” (Borges 1956:8).  [Archetti 1999: 142]


Many films depict the tango dancer as a tough, lower-class, independent compadrito.  These films, as well as popular literature, serve as a reference point for tango dancers and the general public.

The characteristic traits of the compadrito are to dance the tango as a master and play the guitar. He is an elegant seducer whom no woman is able to resist; he has been in prison and is admired because of his courage, physical strength and capacity to cheat where necessary. The compadrito has a defiant and hostile attitude towards other men. . . . He is a character of the outskirts, not the center of the city; he is not a man of the cabaret and most of the time he roams a local territory inhabited by other men like him.  [Archetti 1999: 152-3]


On a real level rather than an ideal, men who strove to emulate the ideal Argentine man competed for power against the other males around them, and against men of different social classes.  Performing accepted masculine behavior aided a man in the competition for power over other men.


Since masculinity is an assumed identity, it must be sustainedly exercised in order not to fall away, and no challenge to it can go unanswered, because to do so would be to open a fatal breech in its façade. Masculinity, even more than femininity (which is, of course, also a closely guarded façade), must be constantly affirmed in a masculinist society.  Since power is in the hands of masculine subjects, who compete mightily for its benefits, an imperfection in one’s inscription into the codes of masculinity weakens his right to compete and endangers is success in competing by moving him closer to those social constituencies (for example, “women” or feminized men) that are excluded from competition.  [Foster 1998: 67]


Part of men’s competition was for sex and women.  Men were believed to have a rampant sexuality which drives them toward sex.  In Argentina, prostitution was not only legal until 1919, but believed to be necessary to the healthy functioning of society.  With the large number of available men at the end of the nineteenth century and the small number of available women, Guy notes that early Catholic Church leaders thought that “. . . prohibiting prostitution might . . . lead to homosexual practices” (Guy 1991: 13).   Competing for women was encouraged as healthy, male behavior because it was seen as better than competing for the sexual favors of other men.  The links between the brothels and tango forged a strong connection between gender roles as performed in tango and the enactment of masculinity in Buenos Aires.

The image of the “ideal” man changed over the course of the twentieth century.  As the city grew, , there was also a movement away from settling the score with violence.  The rural/suburban compadrito was replaced with a more cultured, urban masculine model who took emotions into account:


Moral attitudes based on understanding the feelings of the ‘other’, uprightness, honesty, loyalty and lack of extreme passion replace the primitive reactions based on masculine bravery, vengeance and extreme courage.  [Archetti 1999: 156]


As the reality of women working emerged, a model of male-female relations evolved that allowed for more female emotional autonomy and greater emotional scope for men.  However, the core ideals present in the gaucho, the compadre, and the compadrito still figured in the public mind as how “men” should act.

Men’s roles, like women’s roles, have changed at the end of the twentieth century in Argentina, but not entirely.  Men experience more allowances to be emotionally sensitive and open.  They reveal more of their “feminine” side than before (Giardinelli 1998: 114).  At the same time, men are still expected to act in a traditionally masculine manner.  They still pay for the woman on dates, open doors, and are expected to support the family. Women still want a manly man who “. . . behaves like a man, who can ensure the maintenance of the family, who is strong, determined and able to make decisions on their behalf and is outstanding and respected by the community” (Stølen 1996b: 225-226).  Like modern women’s roles, the list of ideal traits in a modern, masculine man create a series of complex images:

Cornwall and Lindisfarne argue, with  justification, that the different images and forms of behavior contained in the notion of masculinity are not always coherent and can appear contradictory and indeterminate (1994: 12).  . . . masculinity cannot be treated as something fixed and universal. . . .  they refuse to accept that there is only one way of ‘being a man’ (1994: 3) . . .  [Archetti 1999: 113]


My male acquaintances and friends in Buenos Aires present a similarly confused picture of what a modern man should be.  Some continue to play the compadrito: tough, untouched by sentiment, crude, treating women as objects or expecting women to be subservient.  Others cook for their partners, write poetry, talk of their love for their wife/partner, and open up emotionally on a very deep level.  One treated me as an equal intellectually and on the dance floor, but insisted on paying my bus fare and always walked on the street side of the sidewalk because he had been taught to treat a woman that way.  Many of my male friends expressed some confusion as to what role women wanted them to play.  Most seemed very aware that a performance of some sort was central to being “male.”


Tango and gender roles


The ability to dance tango well was viewed as a sign of masculinity—a macho credential.  [Azzi 1995: 118]


At the turn of the century, tango was not considered an appropriate activity for a respectable woman. [Firpo] 



Because dance uses the body, gender plays a large role in how dance is negotiated in culture.  Tango began in an era when men greatly outnumbered women in Buenos Aires.  The larger number of men compared to women led to the development of a visible gay population (Salessi 1997: 152-3).  It also led to both male and female prostitution on a large scale (Salessi 1997: 150-51, 160).  The same period of time also saw the growth of a female workforce outside the home, competing with men for work.  All of these factors challenged the “sex/gender system and the gender structure of the economy” (Salessi 1997: 147).

The criminal underworld was linked with the “immoral” world of the homosexual, the prostitute, and with the immigrant population in bureaucratic texts on public health and psychology (Salessi 1997: 161).  Because tango was the dance of the underworld and the lower classes, it was connected (in reality and imagination) with these twin worlds of the criminal and the homosexual (Salessi 1997: 163).  Salessi quotes Horacio Salas:


At first [tango] was danced separately like the candombes; later the partners came together and transformed the dance into one for partners intertwined, preferably men; and thus it passed into the brothels.  [Salessi 1997: 158]


In an effort to control the lower classes, middle-class bureaucrats legislated controls over tango.  One element of the new bureaucratic control over the lower classes was the development of a discourse on sexuality that categorized “deviance” (Salessi 1997: 143).  By defining the lower classes as other, low, morally bad, and foreign, the new middle class bureaucracy could define themselves in opposition as good, moral, and belonging to Argentina (Salessi 1997: 165).  Tango was in part tamed by the bureaucracy into a strongly heterosexual form as a means to reduce “deviant” behavior.

Many dance halls still have an atmosphere that stresses the performance of heterosexuality.  They are still places for men to find women to take home (Taylor 1998: 38).  Jakubs (1984) argues that for the early dancers of tango, the compadritos, tango was “the sure way to meet, impress, and conquer women" (Jakubs 1984: 138).  This suggests continuity of purpose within the tango community over more than a century: the pursuit of women.  Being seen with an attractive woman and preferably leaving with her, also proves that a man is not homosexual, which continues to be a central issue for many Argentines. 


Men . . . must always demonstrate not only that they are ‘real’ men, but that they are not queer.  This does not mean to imply that a woman’s femininity is never called into question in societies associated with the tango, it only means that the tango never makes an issue of femininity . . . the demonstration of proper heterosexual urges . . . must take place in the public domain . . . with large-scale public display . . .  [Foster 1998: 58] 


This image of maleness created in tango is performed for the other male dancers (Savigliano 1995: 46).  The aim is not to impress a woman, but to impress other men with maleness.  It is not an emphasis on heterosexualism, but about power plays between men: “Any interest in either love or sex (with a woman) would corrupt the macho picture” (Savigliano 1995: 43).


Tango is not about sex—at least not about heterosexuality—it is about love, but love and sensuality (according to our previous informants) are queer preoccupations.  Hence, macho men only care about the true passion of male friendship . . . and they are obsessed by the judgments of their male peers . . . which, in turn, frequently revolved around their ways of relating to women . . .  [Savigliano 1995: 45]


As discussed above, maleness needs to be performed because it is not a given, but rather is constructed continually.  Therefore, a man must continue to act in a heterosexual way in public in order to prove his masculinity and to disprove his homosexuality.

Salessi feels that these turn-of-the-century links between homosexuality and tango remain “deeply embedded in the national identity of the large Argentine middle class (Salessi 1997: 141).  Tobin supports this view, noting that in the film Tango Bar there is “the obligatory dance between the two male protagonists” of the tango show.  During this sequence, the men say that they were “practicing” tango, not “dancing” together, and that this was purely to get ready to dance with “broads” (Tobin 1998a: 81).  Men I interviewed mostly emphasized “practicing” as opposed to “dancing” with other men.  Tobin studied tango with two male tango dancers, both of whom demonstrated mastery of the follow role, but who denied that they could dance the traditional woman’s role:


I noticed that Rivarola danced the woman’s role with great flare and, apparently, gusto, but when I complimented him, or asked how he learned to dance the woman’s role so well, he would invariably respond with false modesty, denying that he was in fact dancing the woman’s role, or that he had actually ever learned how to do so. . . . Similarly, Gómez, despite executing particularly flashy figure eights, claimed, ‘I don’t really dance the woman’s part, it is just for teaching.’ [Tobin 1998a: 92]


Tango can be seen as a mode of competition between males in order to gain power and perform masculinity.  Taylor writes that the tanguero sees himself as needing to prove that he is not “stupidly innocent” and that he “sees the rest of the world as mocking observers” (Taylor 1998: 5).  He wants to prove himself as a dancer and as a man to the other men. 

Because tango is associated with the lower classes, tango can be seen as a struggle for power between men who have very little real power in society: “. . . the tango refers generally to men from a social class with difficulty in acceding to political and symbolic power . . .” (Foster 1998: 82).  Thus, being good at tango might be even more important in terms of gaining power because no other outlet is available to some of these men.  Savigliano connects this contestation of the male to the class and race barriers that tango crossed in the form of upper-class, white men.  Where class and race difference occurred, the contestation of maleness gained more importance:


There is no such thing as pure, stable maleness . . . .  Maleness and its counterpart, the unmale (not necessarily the feminine), are products and records of gendered and sexualized class and racial struggles and of the struggle over the ghostly question of national identity . . . Machismo is not an essence; it is a practice and a product of history.  [Savigliano 1995: 46]



According to Savigliano, the dancing female in Europe in the nineteenth century was portrayed as a femme fatale who had a sexuality that could disrupt and threaten, but also be powerful in a way that was not entirely negative, and this sentiment was widely accepted in Argentina as well (Savigliano 1995: 103-6).  Women’s bodies were seen as more passionate and closer to nature than men’s: “Dancing was thought to reveal the instinctual nature of women, their truth communicated by physical means” (Savigliano 1995: 103).  Tango did not change this image, but created the image of a man who was an equal to this image of women, a homme fatal (Savigliano 1995: 106).  This macho male had control over the woman in tango.  Her power was not diminished, but his “virility” took control over her (Savigliano 1995: 109).

New entertainment venues during the 1920s and 1930s both reflected and helped shape emerging gender roles in Buenos Aires.  The dancing academies, cabarets, and other venues for dancing tango that arose at the turn of the century created new spaces where men and women interacted publicly.  As men dominated in these venues, they provided space for men to construct a model of masculinity appropriate to the early 1900s.  The women in the venues served as a feminine foil against which masculinity could be contrasted.

Not many women were able to take part in the nightlife of Buenos Aires in the beginning of the twentieth century, but those few women provided alternative models of women (compared to the housewife), and provided the feminine foil for the performance of masculinity via tango:


Between 1910 and 1930 . . . the tango became the music of the cabaret. The cabaret provided an arena of entertainment, dancing, shows, and informal social life that fundamentally changed the leisure habits of many men and women in Europe and elsewhere.  For the first time in Buenos Aires, in an elegant and intimate atmosphere, men and women could enjoy informality in public. The cabaret as a public institution represented a challenge to the cult of domestic life, family feasts and celebration, and formal balls. . . .  The cabaret became both a real and imagined arena for ‘time out’, and, for many women, for ‘stepping out’. Women could escape from the order of home, from the routines and drudgery of family duties, and thereby be tempted by the excitements of the cabaret and nightlife in the center of Buenos Aires. . . .  [but] only a minority of women moved into this space. [Archetti 1999: 139]


The women who moved in tango circles were artists, milongueras, “who talk and exchange dances with clients” and mistresses.  They presented alternate models of femininity to that of the stay-at-home wife, and were considered dangerous because of their independence, while at the same time alluring because of their freedom (Archetti 1999: 139-140).  The simple fact that these women existed physically challenged the status quo beliefs about women (Archetti 1999: 140).  Then, as now, tango provided a space where women as well as men could negotiate society’s expectations and values.  Archetti notes that “The women of the tango have never been docile or passive objects of desire”  (Archetti 1999: 150).

Just as masculinity was presented against a foil of femininity in Argentina in general, masculinity in tango  performed against a foil of femininity.  Most tangos were written by men, and therefore the combination of the act of dancing tango and listening to the lyrics that play during the dance, reflect “. . . the double function of the tango as both a male discourse and a cultural code and mode of cognition of masculinities and gender relations” (Archetti 1999: 134).  Men were mostly responsible for the models of femininity portrayed in the tango lyrics of the 1920s to the 1940s. 


The construction of images and models of masculinity were intimately related to the way men perceived, defined and imagined an idealized femininity.  The male narrative can be seen as a male discourse on gender relations . . . [Archetti 1999: 136-7]


There was no one model of womanhood presented because different kinds of women figured in different areas of men’s lives.  For example, the women who danced tango were not the same women who stayed at home with the children: the wives stayed home, while the mistresses went out to dance (Archetti 1999: 140).  Likewise, there is no one male voice that predominates, but “a variety of ‘men’ with different voices and moral and psychological dilemmas” (Archetti 1999: 156).  Through tango lyrics, one can see what a man needed to learn, and how he was expected to feel/react to situations in male-female relationships (Archetti 1999: 156)  “Alternative definitions of manhood” can also be found in the large body of tango lyrics produced during this Golden Age of tango, displayed in contrast to the qualities of femininity:


Masculinity without femininity, men without women, is perhaps unthinkable.  A man needs a woman to reaffirm his own masculinity . . .The lyrics of the tango, a dance made for a man and a woman, [shows] tension existing between a conventional morality that defines woman as passive and chaste—the mother and the disciplined spouse—and a romantic drive in which man is fascinated by the seductive power of the femme fatale. . . . The coexistence in tango of different moral codes provides, in many ways, alternative definitions of manhood.  [Archetti 1999: xvii-xviii]

In the 1990s, dancing tango is a site of performing masculinity and domination and is also an Achilles’ heel for Argentine men: to challenge their tango abilities is to challenge their masculinity.  To have women leading women (removing men from the scene) or to have a man follow, is a phenomenon that brings up men’s fears about their masculinity and sexuality.  One of Archetti’s (1999) informants told him “the tango reflects a doubting masculinity, not machismo, and powerful women like we have plenty of in Argentina” (Archetti 1999: 157).                                             

As evident from the information above, gender roles in Argentina have been challenged continuously throughout the past century and continue to change today.  No one set of ideas rules, although the traditional stereotypes continue to be widely accepted at the same time that new ideas are encouraged (often by the same people!).  Stølen (1996) suggests that when codes change, what looks like new behavior is often based on a continuation of old ideas:


While modification in behavior reflects responses to economic, social and structural change, this does not necessarily lead to alteration at the level of ideas: gender systems may be adapted or recreated, rather than transformed . . ..  Often processes of change contain elements of both a striving for continuity—new ways of behavior that preserve ”old” gender values—and a striving to achieve “new” values.”  [Stølen 1996b: 19]


I found this to be consistent with my data on the tango world in Buenos Aires.  New attitudes about the equality of the roles of leader and follower existed side by side with a preference for men to continue leading and women to continue following.  Women have begun to teach both roles in tango, and have begun to lead in public, but women are still supposed to “surrender” themselves to the man when they follow.  The changes in sexual division of labor have not entirely altered the old values.



Dance, economics, and gender


Dance as indicator/mediator of social change


My guiding hypothesis is that social change can generate change in dance and, conversely, that change in dance can be identified, analyzed, and understood in terms of social currents and societal conditions.  [Daniel 1995: 1]



Cowan (1990) sees the body “not merely as a natural object but as one socially and historically constituted” (Cowan 1990: 21).  The body interacts with others within a society, and that society “inscribes itself on the body of each of its members” (Cowan 1990: 22).  Through everyday practice, such as standing and walking, the person brings into his/her body the experience of being in that culture and of moving appropriately, thus incorporating the belief system/value system directly onto the body.  People learn to move in specific ways that give others information about the gender, class, group, ethnic, and national identities of that person (Desmond 1997: 36).  This is the central idea of Bourdieu’s “habitus”:


In Bourdieu's conception, mastery of the body is essentially the successful in-corporation . . . of particular social meanings, inculcated through various bodily disciplines . . . details of dress, bearing and manners . . . [is a] process of gendering.  [Cowan 1990: 23]


The body’s “. . . action . . . is a kind of incorporated memory” of the culture’s rules (Butler 1997: 154).  By repeating accepted movement, the body cites “a prior and authoritative set of practices” thus strengthening the norms of the society by performing them (Butler 1997: 51).  The performance of dance expresses cultural messages more strongly than other mediums. As a medium that includes visual, aural, kinesthetic and emotional responses from the audience and the participant, the messages it carries are far stronger than messages that are sent only through one of these channels (Hanna 1979: 46). 

The cultural information presented in dance in social situations both contains strong messages and encodes cultural ideals of behavior and is a site of resistance/agency by the individual: “Dance tends to be a testament of values, beliefs, attitudes, and emotions” (Hanna 1979: 28).  Certain movements are allowed within a culture, while others are outside the accepted codes of behavior (Hanna 1979: 31).  Who may dance and how they may dance are culturally determined:  “Cultural patterning affects the sequence of interpersonal interaction, that is, who dances and who interacts with the dancers and how, when the dance occurs, how often, how long, and why” (Hanna 1979: 32). 

Dance is not a separate entity, but embedded within the life of a culture.  Therefore, the “work, economics, religion, and politics” of a group of people both affect and are molded by the dance form/s of that society (Hanna 1979: 34):


The staples of anthropological analysis—considerations of social function, symbolic systems, philosophical meanings, or political implication—can apply powerfully to dance and are important because they are often overlooked in aesthetically oriented commentary.  [Cohen-Bull: 270]


Because the body is used in dance, gender and sexuality can be separated from dance only with difficulty.  Thus, dance is an excellent avenue by which to approach issues of gender and sexuality in a culture:


Dancing [is] an activity in which the body is both a site of experience (for the dancer) and a sign (for those who watch the dancer) in which sexuality—as a culturally specific complex of ideas, feelings, and practices—is deeply embedded. [Cowan 1990: 4]


Through participating in dancing, a person embodies the gendered rules of movement for that culture.  Indeed, by dancing, the person embodies the gender ideals of that society, strengthening them or challenging them through reenaction:


Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow: rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space, through a stylized repetition of acts . . . the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.  [Butler 1990: 140]


Although a dance often occurs in a specific venue, bounded by time and separated from daily life, what happens on the dance floor informs daily life, and the meanings negotiated there affect daily life (Cowan 1990: 5).  Changes in the culture will be both mediated by and reflected in the changes in the dance (Delgado and Muñoz 1997: 16-18).  A change that occurs on the dance floor, a new way of dancing or a change in the practice of dancing, opens “. . . new contexts, [dancing] in ways that have never yet been legitimated, and hence producing legitimation in new and future forms” (Butler 1997: 41).  Therefore, women leading as an act itself creates the context for legitimizing the practice of women leading through repetition of the action:


The dance product changes in the eyes of viewers, who have different understandings depending on their historical backgrounds, contemporary trends, and the immediate environment of the performance.  Change, as a result, is a significant part of tradition, but it is a constant in dance.  [Daniel 1995: 138]


By dancing, the participant both forms a message and transmits it to their surroundings.  The meaning of the dance varies depending on the dancer and the setting, rather than having an inherent, static meaning: "the physical act of dancing creates a kind of cultural meaning" (Cohen-Bull: 269).  Simply participating in dancing changes the practice, because each time a dance is done,  “participants and spectators produce cultural memory” (Delgado and Muñoz 1997: 17).  The dance is never exactly replicated, and negotiation of meaning therefore is inherent in dance.

    In addition, one person may have learned several acceptable ways of moving, and may exhibit “body bilingualism” in switching between modes of movement (Desmond 1997: 47).  Therefore, one person could dance in one way to perform being upper-class (or female, or traditional), but also be able to dance in a way that performed lower-class or male or modern).  For example, growing up in my neighborhood, I learned to walk and dance “black” in order not to be called a “honky,” despite the fact that I am white.  I learned not to walk “black” at school, where I was scolded for not walking like a lady.  The situation would dictate which behavior was most appropriate to exhibit.  In other words, different contexts would demand different ways of moving.  Thus, cultural change is even more complex than looking at one way of moving for each member of that culture (Desmond 1997: 43). 

    The performance of dance is a heightened moment of self-reflexivity.  The dancer is usually more aware of the body and what it is doing than in everyday quotidian movement.  The dancer experiences cultural messages on a body level even if/when making a statement for or against  the cultural values associated with the dance and dance-event.  (Cowan 1990: 24)

    In many societies, including Argentina, women have had fewer economic opportunities than men.  Stølen (1996) writes: “Unequal access to the learning of skills and training is one of the mechanisms by which the sexual division of labor becomes a powerful system of social constraints” (Stølen 1996b: 187).  In tango, as in other sectors of the economy, men have had access to more information and training, and thus to more power in the actual practice of the dance.  Stølen notes that “gender divisions [of labor] are embedded in production itself” (Stølen 1996b: 188).  She points out that economic change, seen in changes in work, can affect the gender roles themselves within a culture:


Social change is often . . . associated with changes in the condition of work.  If innovations build on existing gender divisions, they may only cement differences that are already there, and not represent a major challenge to the existing gender roles and perceptions.  However, certain innovations may provoke ruptures . . . Thus relationships may change, new forms of femininity and masculinity may emerge and others disappear.  Cultural ideas about gender do not directly reflect the social and economic positions of men and women . . . .  Nevertheless, there is a close relationship between what you do, or do not do, and who you are, i.e., between work and gender identity.  [Stølen 1996b: 227]


Therefore, the act of teaching and learning dance, as well as the social practice of tango, produce the gendered divisions in the roles of lead and follow.  What is currently happening within tango is the alteration of these classic divisions of work. 




Men following women or women leading men in the dance halls is a recent phenomenon that has been noticed by several researchers.  Trenner (1998) notes that "more and more people, without regard to their gender, are becoming competent leaders and followers at the same time" (Trenner 1998: 3).  Trenner credits this to "the women's and men's liberation movements . . . the influences of gay culture . . . [and] the general mixing of culture throughout modern western [sic] society" (Trenner 1998: 1).  Taylor (1998) also documents isolated incidents when women led and men followed, but only in dance class.  The women in the class were asked/allowed to lead:


Now legitimized by the teachers, we could try this out in the center of the dance floor, and the men would also have a chance to try.  The laughter and astonished comments suggested that everyone enjoyed this equally.  But once we stopped . . . the instructor asked the men for their reactions and commented merely that now they would know their role better. . . .  This [having women lead and men follow] had only served to enhance the men’s lead.  [Taylor 1998: 87]


In another class, the teacher reflected that “in the future” a woman might be able to lead, but it would not be like a man leading because “it would have to be from her experience as a woman: she could lead as a woman” (Taylor 1998: 86).

Tobin (1998) covers the phenomenon more carefully than the other researchers: either he has paid more attention to, or has seen more evidence of role-switching.  He notes that Argentine men practice together, but do not dance together at milongas.  Few women lead because of the harsh reaction of the men, and almost no one switches roles so that the man follows the woman unless it is in a playful manner:


Argentine men routinely teach each other how to dance in tango dance classes, and they often practice and even show-off dancing together in tango prácticas, but in the milongas of Buenos Aires and Montevideo men never dance together.  A few women, too, practice with one another in tango prácticas, but they are often met with disproval.  The common explanation is that a man must learn the woman’s part in order to lead a woman, but that a woman does not have to learn the man’s part to follow a man.  Many men even warn that once a woman has learned to lead, she is ruined as a follower.  Thus, if a woman in a práctica dances the man’s role with another woman, she is unlikely to be asked to dance by any of the men who are present.  The stigma of having danced the man’s part may even follow her from the práctica to the milonga, where she is still less likely to be asked to dance, and if she does dance, her dancing of the woman’s role is likely to be judged harshly and to be held up as an example of the damage done by dancing the man’s role.  Conversely, a man who dances the woman’s part at a práctica is not stigmatized in any way.  Occasionally, at prácticas or very informal milongas, or near the end of the evening, a couple will play at inverting their roles—the woman leading and the man following—but this arrangement rarely lasts for an entire song, and it is always accompanied by joking on the part of the man who is dancing or on the part of other men who are witnessing the spectacle.  [Tobin 1998a: 93]

My research agrees with Tobin’s data and expands on the reasons why changes in leading are hotly contested.

Tango presents a strong case for serving as a porteño identity symbol and as an international symbol for Argentine identity.  Fetterman defines symbols as “condensed expressions of meaning that evoke powerful feelings and thoughts”  (Fetterman: 26).  A dance is the physical equivalent of a sound bite: a lot of information is transmitted swiftly and economically.  Hanna notes that “[c]ommunication occurs through symbols; a symbol is a vehicle for conceptualization: it helps to order behavior and is a transformation or system of transformations” (Hanna 1979: 39).  As a symbol of porteño identity, tango serves as a reification of gender roles.

Changes in tango are actively resisted; tango mirrors the ideal “old ways” even if they no longer exist in people’s daily lives.  At the same time, as a symbol, tango must reflect changes in  society for it to remain relevant.  Therefore, the changes in tango reveal the ambivalence of the community about changing gender roles, the economic realities of the tourist trade, and adhering to the popular image of the “old.”





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