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Life Through Dance

Reimagining Tango

By Elizabeth Dickinson

Last month I waded into the ballroom gender role debate and wrote about ways to reinterpret, reframe, or subvert traditional gender roles.

Most smooth and international ballroom dances celebrate a lighter, more romantic side of life, even the sadder waltz numbers. Not so with tango—the music usually sounds passionate or angry, and tango choreography can include movements that look as if the lead is shaking the follow. So it may not come as a surprise that some women don’t like tango much. In my experience, there have been at least a couple of women who haven’t wanted to dance it initially because it reminded them of violence they had suffered. Fortunately, over time their concerns lessened, and they were able to dance tango and enjoy it.

And then there’s the history of tango. I was surprised to learn that some tangos could be traced to the mid-sixteenth century, with origins in Moroccan and Spanish slave dances initially danced by two men. However, most historians claim modern tango originated in the barrios around 1880 where unwashed, chaps-wearing gauchos (cowboys) had to bend their knees to dance, and women leaned back in the crook of the men’s arms to avoid the smell. (The rose in the teeth may be another effort to forestall the stench.)

Rudolph Valentino popularized tango through his 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and American tango eventually acquired more elegance and refinement. However, tango still has overtones of oversized machismo, of men seeking to prove their masculinity or dominance through dance.

When choreographing a new tango routine, initially the choreographer wanted me to act genuinely afraid of my partner at the beginning of our tango. Frankly, it didn’t work. It leant a sense of heaviness to the dance, and I became a clomper. As the choreographer observed, too many tangos look like the dancers are gritting their teeth.

No one wants to watch clomping and teeth-grinding on the dance floor.

What did work was instilling a sense of what I call playful irony (similar in tone to the old Saturday Night Live news skits called “Really?”). It’s kind of a one-upmanship, a little edgier than a foxtrot flirtation.

The internal monologue of the follow goes something like this:

“Oh, so you want to chase me, do you? I’ll give you a chase then.”

“Oops, caught me!”

“Yes, indeed you do have impressive muscles. What are you going to do with them, big boy?”

“Not so fast, buster. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, too.”

“Oh, so you want to play that game, do you?”

“Sure, I can do everything you can do … but with real flair.”

“Really? Is that all you can do in response?”

“Watch this!”

“You can have that move, but I have this one.”

“Impressive, huh?”

“Okay, I’ll give you that one. We make a good team.”

“Well, maybe you are a little special.”

“But don’t take me for granted.”

You get the idea, I hope.

May we pursue our paths, injecting playful ironies where appropriate.