It’s 10 p.m. I shed my jeans and T-shirt. Instead of putting on pj’s, I pull out high-heels, sparkling necklaces, bracelets, earrings and a shimmering dress with slits enabling swift steps. A professor goes to town; a magical word — tango — demolishes my routine.
The world of the milonga — the place for tango dances — plunges me and hundreds of others into a weekly reunion of music and gliding, pivoting, ornamenting, suspending time.
On any weekday or weekend, as most of its residents are drawn to sleep, tango clubs, lessons and master classes twinkle throughout cities like Chicago as magnets to the tango-initiated. These places gather dozens, even hundreds of dancers at each site.
The cost of participation runs from $10 to $15 for a group class (or a milonga) to the pricey indulgence of a private lesson, ranging from $60 to $120, with a tango master. The tango scene is open to the public; novices are welcomed with a warm embrace, advanced dancers with high expectations. Websites such as tangomango show daily and weekly tango events in major cities. The age of dancers spins from 20s to 70s and beyond.
Why Tango Now?
Tango is music married to movement, a sense of one’s own body. Sensuality is embedded in tango, offering an escape from routine into the domain of nocturnal fantasy.
(MORE: Do You Wanna Dance? Don’t Wait to Be Asked)
Some may say traditional gender roles galvanize us — the vulnerability of woman as a follower and the machismo of a guy, tango’s leader. Others say we seek the roles we battle against in the light of the day. Perhaps it is also an opportunity to challenge, revise and reverse these roles in fluid motion.
Or, perhaps, it is a desire to break away from our snowballing attachment to electronic gadgets, instead grasping for a direct unmitigated physical connection to a warm fellow human.
Tango exudes intimacy. It is a breach of tradition to invite by approaching, extending a hand, or asking. The invitation is solicited and sealed across the dance floor — by eyes, locking on each other, anticipating and promising a good embrace. Nothing verbal. The couple is connected for one tanda — a sequence of three dances, nine minutes of intimacy, belonging to music, to each other, to a place in a smoothly moving tango circle.
Personal and Universal Connections
Born in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, tango during its 100-year history bourgeoned into a global dance culture attracting all ages. It has been associated with immigrants’ lore.
“Not knowing the language and thus limited in verbal communication, the immigrants shared their frustration and pain in close embrace, dancing,” Oscar Casas said in a recent lecture to my Northwestern University students.
In my own participatory research on tango, I was surprised by the prominence of Jewish musicians and dancers who emigrated from Russia. Beginning tango lessons with a Chicago Colombian teacher, studying with touring Argentine masters, practicing with my American neighbor, little did I know that this path would lead me to reconnect with my former compatriots of Russian-speaking immigrants.
Tango has attracted major composers and performers. Opera superstar Placido Domingo sings and cellist Yo Yo Ma plays tango. The dance form also invades film. One hardly finds a lead cinematographic male who would not be filmed dancing tango — from Al Pacino to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudolf Nuryev, Richard Gere, Marlon Brando and Antonio Banderas. Often, they exude machismo, long aligned with tango.
Entering the tango scene, you immediately learn that in the couple, he is a leader, she the follower. The bias is surprising in the context of modern gender politics.
But the roles are deceptive. An expert on tango, Marta Savigliano writes, “Milonguitas could challenge their male partners with the thrust and energy invested in the walks: manipulate the couple’s axis of balance by changing the distance between the bodies and the strength of the embrace; … disrupt the cadence; add unexpectedly fancy ornamentations, … complicating the timing.”
Women also learn to lead; strong male leaders demonstrate an ability to follow. Tango is improvised, opened to unexpected surprising moves and musical discoveries. As a musicologist writing on gender, I see tango as an intimate dialogue, a playful exchange.
Whether working or vacationing nationally and internationally, dancers find each other, whether in Japanese cities, Finnish festivals or Estonian tango classes. Tango unites a global community, yet offers its initiated a veiled space for improvising, searching for your own sense of body, movement, intimacy.