Dancing Scruffy Cheek-to-Scruffy Cheek: Gay Tango

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.

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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.

The long-standing dictatorship in Argentina that lasted from 1976 to 1983 considered anything different to be subversive. Even following the fall of the dictatorship, though there were no actual laws directly discriminating against homosexuals. But there was an Edict Against Public Dancing, according to a report written by Sociologist Amy Lind and published by the North American Congress of Latin America in 1997. This edict pledged to "punish any proprietor who allows men to dance together."

Lind goes on to explain that individuals were arrested under these edicts, held by police for up to 30 days and fined.

In 2001, Argentina experienced an economic crisis when the peso devalued. To aid their recovery, the government tried to attract more tourists. And because it had become such an affordable trip — prices were down by more than a third — both straight and gay tourists realized they could eat steak, drink Malbec and dance the tango for a third the regular price. Even those who didn't go to Buenos Aires to learn tango would become smitten by the art form.

Civil rights for homosexuals gradually improved, and in 2002 Buenos Aires' City Council passed a measure recognizing same-sex civil unions and extending health insurance and pension rights to same-sex partners. Since then, the city has worked hard to attract gay visitors, creating a gay tourist map and presenting at gay travel symposiums.

As a result, Buenos Aires has become a very popular destination for gay travelers, and according to Hector Aguilar, an architectural historian who gives lectures for Lugar Gay, "It now rivals Rio as the gay destination in South America."

One gay man, who asked to remain anonymous, came to Buenos Aires from his hometown of Montreal for almost three months to escape the Canadian winter. "I heard about it at a gay travel convention, and realized that not only was it inexpensive, but there was a lot to do here," he says. "Mostly, I am working on my tango. There are more gay milongas starting, and even some of the straight ones are becoming open to same-sex couples."

Gay tango is the natural outcome of these social changes in Buenos Aires, and the city hosted the first Queer Tango Festival last year. It drew about 500 people from around the world, organizer Roxana Gargano said. Take note: This festival was not gay tango, but queer tango. Another evolution is occurring.

Ingrid Remmen, who is visiting Buenos Aires from Norway to study queer tango, explained the difference: "Gay tango is about sexuality, and queer tango is about opening up traditional tango so that women can lead men or other women."

A teacher of queer tango, and one of the founders of the Queer Tango Festival, Mariana Falcon decided to learn the man's part when, as she puts it, "I lost my tolerance for bad leaders. And even when the leaders are good, I don't want to wear high heels and short skirts and play that feminine stereotype. It's not who I am."

She found even gay tango a little restrictive, as while some same-gender couples danced together, ideas of the dominant leader and submissive follower were still in play.

Queer tango, as she envisions it, means that it doesn't matter if you're straight or gay; you have the opportunity to be who you are — leader or follower — regardless of your gender or sexual orientation.

Of course, many tango dancers will stick to the traditional way; much of the pleasure of the tango is not just the footwork, but the embrace is important as well and straight dancers tend to be more comfortable in this close proximity with the opposite sex.

Joe Wieder, a straight tango dancer from New York, believes that it's just easier for a man to lead a woman, because, as he put it, "In tango, size and sex do matter."

But queer tango in Buenos Aires is about more than just the dance.

"Tango reflects changes in society," she says. "The growing popularity of queer tango means that as a society we are becoming more open-minded. Straight or gay, when partners learn to interchange roles, both can access different types of power."

They can do this, she says, by shifting their embrace. Or, as queer tango becomes more familiar to people, the negotiating of follower and leader roles could happen by something as simple as a nod.