Accessibility and Equality in Argentine Tango

Published February 15th 2018
Author: Alison

‘Traditional’ Argentine tango Milongas are governed by a set of ‘Códigos’, codes and classes are not free from them either. But are they really required now or have they outgrown their use and are now actually hindering communities?

Firstly these codes are not always made explicit to those just starting out. Therefore, new dancers hit their first Milonga and make ‘mistakes’ and are ‘told off’ by some in the community. I do feel we have a problem with hierarchy in our Tango communities. There are ‘experienced’ (or at least call themselves this) dancers who like to ensure newcomers know their place, pointing out all their ‘mistakes’ and making them feel as small as possible just at a time when they need encouragement. These ‘experienced’ dancers ensure they are seen as top dogs to be followed in everything they say, even if it is completely unfounded or just plain wrong! ‘Beginners’ unfortunately on the whole never question them, so are left feeling stupid, uncomfortable and we are lucky if they come back, or continue to second guess themselves and put their dancing progress and skill down for years to come.

I do feel that some ladies who decide to lead, have this problem. It means they can ‘lord it over’ new followers and put them in their place, picking at every little thing that is going wrong, when actually it’s a two way street. They are just beginning to lead and are definitely making mistakes too. Don’t blame the new person just because they are new, you don’t know who they are or what they can bring to the dance. Equally they could be a maestro in disguise!

Another bar to access is deciding that someone cannot join in the next class just because they have only just started. If they feel they want to have a go, they should be allowed to. If they do not cope, then a quick polite word at the end of the class about progressing a bit further then joining back in is harmless. There are dancers out there that progress quicker than others, or come with skill sets from other dances, or are fast learners. I have heard stories of people being told to sit down and watch, which they found hugely embarrassing. Do not be a bar to someone learning.

I have a particular problem with the idea of tandas. Originally tandas were used as floors were crowded and three or four tracks were a good number before the partnership split and found the next. However, our floors are in general hardly crowded. It should be a choice how many or indeed how few dances are danced before parting, without it being seen as an insult. Firstly there is the music, maybe you don’t like this song, that’s allowed, can’t you just go and have a chat with your partner instead, the next might be better. For me the most important reason against tandas is that maybe you are unable to dance three or four songs in a row. You may have a medical issue which makes it impossible to dance around for 10-15 minutes straight, and what if it’s all milongas! You should be able to dance as much as you feel able to, recover and join back in when you are ready. Just because you have an issue should not mean you cannot dance or be part of the community anymore. Barring access to someone on this basis seems totally wrong. I understand people get around this by only dancing with people who know about their problem, but this makes them seem off limits to other dancers who are left in the dark about why.

Cabaceo is another idea which can be limiting for dancers. Cabaceo is a rule that has a real origin. Rooms were too packed to get to someone to verbally ask, so you caught their eye from across the room and met on the floor. As I have said we don’t really have this problem anymore. Cabaceo relies on you being able to see and communicate non verbally with just eye contact. What if you cannot see the other side of the dimly lit room? Does that mean you should miss out? Dancers have to wear glasses to get a dance, take them off to dance, and then can’t recall 10 minutes later where they left them. This seems so ridiculous when you can get off you backside and just ask! Every other partnered dance style does it this way and it works.

I also think there seems to be this touchy mentally that if a women says ‘no’ to a man in Tango he will be hurt and humiliated. I understand that part of the origins of the cabaceo was to stop social stigma as a result of being declined a dance. However the social hierarchies of early 20th century Buenos Aires, are not the same as today. Woman are allowed to say no, in every context in our lives now, it’s called equality. I would like to point out it is not difficult to say ‘No’ in a polite way, we do it everyday in other contexts, so why should in dance it be any different? ‘Sorry, I’ve just danced and need a breather, maybe later?’ ‘I’m not into this song, shall we wait for the next, do you fancy a drink though?’ Or just introduce yourself if you don’t know each other. *A quick personal point, I don’t use cabaceo so please do just come and ask me for a dance!

Also on this subject of gender equality, ladies can ask men to dance. The idea of the man asking the lady to dance is quite outdated, if I want to dance I should be able to ask someone. Most men find it quite refreshing, and it also takes the pressure off people new to Tango who are nervous about who and how to ask. It will also break down this ‘rule’ that new followers must sit and wait and wait for a dance as some sort of rite of passage. They have paid to come in and given up their time so therefore should be allowed to dance.

Another aspect is if you are a couple outside of tango. To some this means the lady is off limits to everyone else. I am not the property of my partner, therefore I am free to dance with whomever I chose. Also please do not ask permission from my partner to dance with me, ask me! I have free will and a mind of my own!

Lastly I’m not saying that every community should rinse out all the traditions of Tango. I’m just suggesting we look at what we are doing and question whether it is still relevant, and whether anything is creating unnecessary barriers in our communities.

Interested in learning more able accessibility and equality in dance? There are some amazing people out there making accessibility in dance their mantra. For example Candoco Dance Company, Magpie dance and Stopgap Dance Company, and the Wheelchair Dance Sport Association. Equality based dance is also making strides with Same Sex Ballroom competitions, Queer Tango has been around a long time but is now gaining more recognition and acceptance. I’m sure there is much more out there too!

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