Sunday, 16 December 2012

Is tango macho?

I've heard it said a few times that tango is macho. Recently there was a post on Paul Yang's blog which argued that male-led tango reflects the macho culture of Argentina. I've never been really convinced. For a start, the practice of the man leading the dance isn't Argentine in origin, any more than the Argentines themselves are Argentine in origin: both are European. An old peasant dance, partly close-hold, like something in a Breughal painting, came to court with the servants, and worked it's way up into the ballroom where it encountered a three-beat music and became the waltz. Or so it's said. Most early dances were choreographed patterns, but once people danced close, someone had to say which way they were going, and in Europe it was the men. I've read that vals and other European dances were the popular social dances in Buenos Aires throughout the 19th century.

Perhaps we use the word 'macho' in English because we don't have a word of our own for the attitude. I don't think this means that there is no such thing as a macho attitude and behaviour here. The lack of our own word suggests we've been unaware of the attitude, whereas in Spain there was such an awareness, and a word for it. If you have a word for it you can talk about it, object to it, deal with it. If you ignore the attitude it's much harder to make it part of a dialogue. 

So was tango macho in Argentina? Many of the older dancers tell how at their first (local) milongas they, the guys, would have to stand in the middle of the floor, while the girls and their mothers would be seated around the perimeter, inspecting them. The guys would endeavour to contact the girls by cabaceo, and if they failed would have to slink off the floor when the dancing started. I can't help thinking that nothing could be calculated to be more deflating to a macho attitude. Maybe that was the thinking.

& to this day no guy gets a dance at a traditional BsAs milonga unless a woman looks at him and meets his gaze. In the UK we still have the remnants of an older social dance culture, which might not be exactly macho but reflects an older social order: it's up to the guy to initiate the dance by asking the woman. In theory, of course, she can say no, but the 'invitation' can seem like an order, can even be an intimidation. & women are still reluctant to ask men to dance in the UK, whereas in BsAs a woman can look quite fixedly at a man, clearly signalling that she wants to dance with him. So which is macho, the social dance of BsAs or London?

(Interesting how a new pattern has emerged at milongas here. Women and men declare their interest in dancing by standing in an open space near the floor, where they then meet each other more or less by eye contact. No one has planned this or agreed it, it's just happened like this.)

No, I don't think that tango is particularly macho. Yes, guys usually lead. If two people dance close, they can't both lead unless they are dancing contact improvisation, a fascinating dialogue in itself. Tango could be led in a macho way, but would the leader be popular? Whereas if his lead is soft, clear and musical, if he gives his partners what they enjoy, he might get to dance a lot. & if he gives his partners what they enjoy, what they want, arguably it's the women calling the shots.

P.S. For a much more nuanced and detailed study of gender in tango and in Buenos Aires, part of Dancing Soul's thesis on the topic is  available on her blog.


Random Tango Bloke said...

I think first you would have to define what you think “macho” is. Is it used in a negative or a positive sense (Caballerismo)?

Secondly I think that you have to consider the style of Tango being danced, Yes there are soft and sensitive leaders in but then there what one of my favourite teacher’s describes as “ruder” dancers. She described European dancers being more in the first category and Argentines in the second. She enjoyed both. I must make it clear that she wasn’t describing bad dancing/ rough but a more “macho” dancing.

I also remember having a private lesson with a 19 year old famous starlet in Argentina and being told to “hold her like a man” – she wanted me to hold her more tightly than my usual gentle and soft embrace.

As for the cabeceo – I’ve heard many times that this gives the power to the woman. Personally I do not believe it. I think it gives power to the dominant dancer and does not discriminate by gender. Yes a guy can only attract a woman who is prepared to look but it works the other way too. The dancers power will probably be down to ability but there will be other factors such as attractiveness, social standing and of course the gender ratio.

Chris said...

Well said TC. The idea hereabouts that invitation in BA milongas is done only by the guys is based on misunderstanding. And when in a London milonga one hears a "Ladies tanda" announced as e.g. "the time we reverse the tradition", this refers to an English tradition - not an Argentine one.