Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Politics of Tango

Violence, Sex and Revolution

To understand the politics of tango in the modern world isn’t simple. Tango is danced on every populated continent in a wide variety of styles and contexts. And different people dance for different reasons. And so the dance differs as well, and there are distinct classes of tango. As societies splinter and cultures separate people, so tango splinters and separates. In an urban metropolis within this neoliberal world-system, tango is split, like people, into classes: bourgeoisie and proletarian.

Bourgeoisie tango is the tango of the ballroom, the tango of elaborate embellishments, the tango of fashion and flashy steps. Bourgeoisie tango has no awareness of politics. Proletarian tango is the tango of the small studio in the barrio, the tango of a more radical simplicity, the tango of passion and deep politics.

If we are to hope to understand this kind of tango, much less think of dancing it ourselves, we need to know its history. In her book Paper Tangos, Julie Taylor writes “the tango mines certain experiences and poses certain unanswered questions, but it does so in the context of certain lives and certain historical moments.” (p44) To have our own experiences with tango, as dancers or as spectators, and learn to pose our own unanswered questions, we have to know something about the history of Argentina.

Tango was first danced in the poor immigrant neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in the late 1800s. “Far from Flamenco ruffles and roses,” writes Taylor, “Argentines invented the tango at the turn of the century in brothels on the outskirts of Buenos Aires as it thrust its slums ever further into the pampas.” (p2) As danced by the urban poor of Argentina, the tango has been shaped by and become a reflection of the experience of the communities who kept it alive amidst untold suffering. Many kinds of violence were reflected and confronted in their tango; and the history of the tango is the history of a people who suffered and survived this violence.

The early tango was inspired in the melancholy of modernization. As both a song and dance form it is a reflection of an era in painful, uncertain and unwelcome transitions. In particular, early tango was a subaltern political expression of the torments of urbanization. Taylor writes:

“The city center represents wealth, success, fame -- a chance to climb the social ladder at the price of the human values left behind. But the emptiness of these goals provokes the tango’s lament for the lost neighborhood or barrio on the edge of Buenos Aires, where the sophisticated but disillusioned tango singer spent his youth.” (p6)

Tango also became a reflection of the violent experience of poor immigrants in Buenos Aires.

“[T]he tango expresses suffering under terror imposed initially by economic violence that formed the context of the invention of the dance and its songs among impoverished immigrants who did not share a language but who managed to share a dance.” (Taylor, p61)

Throughout the 1900s, the tango went from being ignored or shunned by the Argentine bourgeoisie to being danced by them. By the Peron era, tango had become one of the most celebrated expressions of Argentine identity. But it was and is now a conflicted identity, torn, like the tango, between different classes. After the dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s, throughout which many tens of thousands were killed under the military dictatorship of a cabal of generals and many millions were immiserated under and the economic dictatorship of the International Monetary Fund, tango took on yet more depth and complexity. Writing about her experience as a dancer in Argentina throughout this period, Taylor writes that “the tango’s meanings shifted not only to include a unique Argentine identity, but also trespass as well the particular forms of disorientation, loss, and uncertainty of the nation’s fate inculcated by years of terror.” (p19)

Dance is both a vehicle to express the suffering of lived experience and an arena to confront it. As the dance form develops over time, it acquires aspects and attributes that reflect the dancers and their society. Dancers are reflected in their dance forms with an intense intimacy. In the tango especially, the insecurities, vulnerabilities and sufferings of the dancers are invoked in the spirit of the dance as much as their beauty, resilience and creativity. And so dance becomes a unique social space where history can be confronted and identity can be explored and better understood. “In Argentina,” writes Taylor, “the tango, with its many exclusions and mirrors of exclusions, can create a space to reflect on power and terror.” p71

Just as the tango expresses the terror of modernity, it also invokes an older kind of violence: the violence of men against women. The history of tango is a patriarchal history, from the early immigrant male proletarian tanguero, to the tango as a symbol of the paternal nationalism of Peron, to survival under the extreme patriarchy of the military dictatorship. “In all eyes,” writes Taylor,

“women have the most difficulty laying claim to a dance that they love and that they see as beautiful. Both men and women, inside and outside of the dance halls, tell me that in their eyes, the tango dances around relations between men and women, relations that dancers and observers alike question. And many Argentine dancers and observers imply that, especially in the wake of decades of political violence, they also fear the tango bears the weight of other forms of authoritarianism.” (p13)

Both bourgeoisie and proletarian tango dancers must contend with the violence of men. Pure patriarchy has no class consciousness. “All the women were on guard against dominating men,” writes Taylor. “They were a problem in the tango as they were in our jobs and families.” (p107) Just as tango expresses the history of political terror, it expresses a history of male dominance, and as it does so it creates an arena where the embodiment of our fears and memories of oppression can be confronted.

Tango is a patriarchal dance form par excellence. It brings together two archetypical gender roles into a verbally explicit power relationship in which the man leads and the woman follows. The uniquely sexualized content of the dance form, when invoked, expresses male control and female submission. All this is true, and yet the tango is also more complicated than this. As much as the tango is a dance of passionate control, it is also a dance of melancholy and doubt. “In the tango,” Taylor writes, the dancers

“often attempt to seek out and affirm self-definition -- a self definition at whose core is doubt. The dance, sometimes including elaborately staged behavior, can be one way of confronting this result of their search. The lyrics... insist that an assertive facade should betray no hint that its aggressiveness could have arisen from an anguished sense of vulnerability.” p3

Speaking of the leader, Taylor writes that “[a]s he protects himself with a facade of steps that demonstrates perfect control, he contemplates his absolute lack of control in the face of history and destiny.” (p11) Again, while tango invokes a history of violence, it creates a space where this history can potentially be confronted, understood, challenged and survived. And herein lies the possibility for a revolutionary politics of tango.

When the tango recalls for us the miseries of modernization or the terror of a dictatorship, it also calls to us to dance ourselves through it, to persevere through pains and uncertainties and to empower ourselves with an embodiment of our beauty and resilience in the face of any oppression. When the tango recalls patriarchy, it also calls for us as followers and leaders to examine it, to understand its history, and to confront the archetypical gender roles which are caricatured in the dance. “[T]he tango,” a dancer told Taylor, “elaborates all the elements and all the doubts involved in confronting differences.” (p82) It is here, as a nexus of differences expressing themselves in harmony and in the process reflecting and reconstituting social relations, that the tango acquires revolutionary politics.

“[D]ance floors are the spaces of urban utopia,” writes Doris Summer in an article titled Dancehall Democracy. “[E]veryone fits in, not by looking and acting the same, but by improvising variations on a given theme because dance is a creative art that values difference over conformity.” While the dance hall as a whole collectively embodies the fluid synchronicity of differences, the dancing couple unto themselves also are capable of creating a utopian space where differences are improvised and power is shared in harmony and rhythm. In particular, the opportunities that tango provides to understand, confront and change gender relations and power dynamics are of revolutionary interest.

A tango can be danced between a domineering male leader and a submissive follower. But it doesn’t have to be danced this way. In moving towards a revolutionary style of dance as both leaders and followers, we can challenge the patriarchal dynamics of difference and share power as leaders and followers, without even altering the steps. To help rethink the politics of leading and following, I look to three maxims of the Zapatistas: preguntar caminando, mandar obedeciendo, and somos iguales porque somos diferentes.

To preguntar caminando is to walk while asking, to go while questioning. To improvise and change and to stay in motion. It is a perfect metaphor for the constantly renegotiated power politics of revolutionary tango. Mandar obedeciendo is to command while obeying, to order while yielding, to follow while leading. Mandar obedeciendo can be understood, embodied and improvised by leaders and followers in revolutionary tango. Finally, somos iguales porque somos diferentes: we are equal because we are different. Our history has divided us. What makes us equal now are our inescapable differences. When we renegotiate these differences together, we plant the seeds of a new history. When we nurture these seeds with our skill, our beauty and our passion, whether we know it or not, whether or not anyone else is watching, we are dancing a new world in the shell of the old.


Paper Tangos by Julie Taylor, 1998
Dancehall Democracy, Social Space as Social Agency, by Doris Sommer, from ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America, fall 2007

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