In Buenos Aires, the tango starts with a gesture that is almost imperceptible to the untrained eye.
At traditional "milongas," as tango social dances are known, men do not approach women and ask them to dance. Rather, the Argentines sit across the room and make eye contact. If the woman does not avert her eyes, the man nods slightly. If the woman nods back, then he approaches her and they move to the floor.
That initial gesture is known as "el arte de cabeceo," or "the art of the nod." This ritual saves the man's dignity from public rejection, and it respects the vulnerability of a woman, as she can easily refuse and not feel obligated to dance with the man.
This is only one ritual among many. Throughout the entire exchange, traditions determine where to place your hands, how many songs you dance together — and strict gender roles are always present. Some dancers claim that the social codes inherent in the tango are necessary because the dance requires strangers to become so intimate with each other.
But there's a new kind of tango taking place. At the gay milonga, known as La Marshall, you'll find several kinds of couples dancing: women with women and a few mixed-gender couples — but mostly men with men. Five o'clock-shadowed cheek to five o'clock-shadowed cheek, they execute their steps with precision and clear intent.
Tango in Buenos Aires is constantly refining and redefining itself. The tango began in the 1800s near the ports on the south side of the city. It evolved from the overlap of slaves brought from Africa, immigrant laborers from Europe, Cuban sailors, and women who arrived or were coerced into working the brothels. During the years the music and dance became less bawdy, as it shifted from whorehouses to high society. Experimental music by masters like Astor Piazzolla, who introduced jazz and classical elements to the tango, opened it up for further experimentation. In the past decade, nuevo tango, in which electronic music is mixed with Belle Epoch classics, has the younger generation in Buenos Aires dancing.
Two of the latest trends, gay and queer tango, are attracting dancers from across the world to Buenos Aires. Many trace gay tango back to one man: Augusto Balinzano, who tours internationally to teach gay tango. When he's in town, he teaches tango at Lugar Gay, a guesthouse exclusively for men in the neighborhood of San Telmo.
A professional tango dancer, he says that gay tango wasn't a deliberate movement; it just happened.
"One night I was dancing with a man," he says. "Then the next time another couple of gay men joined us. And so on. Now we have gay lessons and a gay milonga."
Indicative of major changes in Argentine society, the gay tango is something of a perfect storm that came about from an economic crisis, improved civil rights for homosexuals and a revival in tango's popularity.