I’ve been learning to lead for the past three years, the most recent year in Buenos Aires. When I lead women or women observe from the margins of the dance floor, nearly every woman will either tell me, “One day I would love to learn to lead” and then proceed with the same litany of reasons as to why that’s not possible right now; or say with laughter, “I want to lead but I don’t know where to put my boobs,” sweeping their arms in large circles around their breasts as if they swayed uncontrollably with every step. I reply jokingly, “You leave your boobs where you last left them.” Why do so many women worry about their breasts when following or leading a woman?
In a New York Times article about the power of touch, research shows that in our society touch and affection come more naturally for women while men have been socialized to resort to violence or aggression when confronted with high levels of stress. Many cultures and societies around the world, including the United States, embrace the idea of platonic hugging, hand-holding, and skin-to-skin contact between women. In sum, it should come as no surprise to most women that two women can hug or embrace perfectly fine without stressing out about the placement or longitudinal coordinates of their boobs. However, when the Di Sarli tanda begins and a new female dancer enters my embrace, without fault, she will steer clear.
Dancer and teacher Alex Krebs once told his class at a seminar in NYC that the follower always determines the design of the embrace and can choose to remain in open embrace or close the embrace with a single step forward. The leader can invite or propose a more intimate quality to the embrace, but ultimately, it is the follower’s choice. I always respect the follower’s choice and wished more male leaders would do the same, but typically, it is a lack of good technique and not male chauvinism that explains why so many male leaders are incapable of dancing in open embrace (e.g., poor body alignment, inability to push from the ground, weak core muscles). Male beginners first learn to dance in open embrace and graduate to the closed embrace; however, it is less common to find female leaders who make this same transition. And one explanation may be because female followers feel uncomfortable embracing a woman, trying desperately to steer clear of the boobs.
Tango has a dominant trope that has prevailed since its origins: tango is the dance of passion and seduction. When we Google Argentine tango, within seconds, we find the classic image of the woman gazing longingly into her leader’s eyes.
Argentine author Marta Savigliano writes how this dominant narrative of tango was produced by the imperial powers of the 20th century that exoticized South American and Latin American dances. According to Savigliano, in the early 20th century, cities like Paris and London defined the rules of love, passion, and gender roles in public spaces, where men were praised for their strength and skills of seduction. Women learned to gain autonomy and independence by exhibiting their sensuality in sanctioned public spaces. However, this sensuality was reserved only for the male gaze and embrace. It is not until the 2000s when tango nuevo and the queer tango movement surfaced in Buenos Aires and around the world when women began to lead at milongas. Although you can still find women leaders at milongas in Buenos Aires today, for the most part, at a great majority of milongas, nearly all women follow and if women choose to lead, they typically only invite their female friends to follow. But I believe there is a new revolution beginning in Buenos Aires where professional dancers like Inés Muzzopappa and Corina Herrera are going on tour to teach and perform. Paola Tacchetti is one of the few female instructors in Buenos Aires who has successfully taught classes weekly without a male partner, something that is nearly impossible to do for most female instructors there. Furthermore, more and more women are learning from male and female instructors in Buenos Aires to play an active role in the dance to celebrate their autonomy and agency. Let us celebrate the 20s as the decade of the woman and celebrate the embrace and our deep-seated desire to connect with another human being, regardless of his or her gender.