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The Pleasure Principle

My greatest tango pleasure is the back circular contra voleo, c. 2007. In the moment of this voleo I feel fully alive, every muscle stretched out working, and sublimely connected to my partner who has snapped his power through my whole body. As the tips of my toes reach the highest point somewhere near my shoulder, touching a special moment of the music which seems to collapse space and time, sound and muscle, into the center of the universe, utter delight floods through both of us. I am the consequence and fulfillment of his power and we both feel it, everywhere. The rest of the dance –pleasurable like smiles between kisses– is sweet anticipation of this moment.

Not all voleos are equal… Sometimes men are shocked by the height of my foot. I tell them, laughing, that this is motivation to keep their neck upright, and then more seriously, I explain that I can only get my foot about waist-high on my own. It’s their power that drives the rest. Sometimes I’m thrilled to see my foot next to my ear.  But it is not height who characterizes the best voleos, it’s trust. As the man drops into his contra movement, he must release tension in his shoulder joints so that he leaves my body where it is while generating power. As in any change of embrace, my shoulder joints mimic his. If he leaves his shoulder joints thus free through the maximum point of the voleo and its release (my foot returning to the floor), my body can move to the maximum of its flexibility. If he nervously tenses his shoulders to reestablish the embrace too soon, he stops the flow of power through my body prematurely. The voleo still happens, but not to its (my) full potential. A premature tenser is a man who doesn’t trust me.

It is this voleo which is the real crux of Tango Fundamentalism. (Regular readers, please note that I have updated the term ‘New Victorianism’ to ‘Tango Fundamentalism’. Victorianism is too associated with naïveté. Tango Fundamentalism is an explicit reaction against women’s full participation in tango.)

Note: This voleo should never be done unmarked. And it should be marked to both legs, not only to left.

Tango Fundamentalism purports to be about safety, quality of the ronda, musicality, and authenticity. None of these claims stand up to any serious scrutiny. Dancers who violate the ronda, execute moves unsafely, or have difficulty dancing on music recorded after 1950 are simply unskilled, and ideology is no protection from the resultant problems. Fixed concepts of tango ‘authenticity‘ are unreliable marketing inventions irrelevant to a living artform. The real agenda of the Fundamentalist Era of Argentine Tango (c. 2010-) is the resubordination of women’s bodies to male definitions of attractiveness, and male assertions of what is supposed to feel good to us and satisfy us. So today’s back circular voleo (when it is allowed to leave the floor – a privilege reserved for professional performances) is contorted by the requirement that the woman keep her thighs chastely glued together. The word “elegance” is code for constraining the woman’s body, and this applies throughout the dance.

By 2020, the repression of this voleo had turned to outright aggression.

• • •

The sexual revolution of the 1960s was a process through which people validated personal experience and pleasure against institutional rules which told them what they should want and how they should feel about it.

This meant that people affirmed their rights to have sex (and children) outside of marriage, to have sex with partners of the same gender, to explore their personal sexual pleasure and family formation without fear of criminal prosecution, social ostracism, or medical pathology. Women’s sexuality was re-understood, not in the terms of reproduction, or serving men’s needs, but instead focused on understanding women’s sexual satisfaction. The popular culture which emerged from this political movement was one in which women tell their lovers what feels good to them.

These changes accompanied institutional and social changes related to gender, such as occupational participation, establishment of legal rights, income equity, sharing household work, and so forth. In medicine, women whose ailments had been trivialized and misdiagnosed created their own forms of medical science, asserting authority about their own bodies. Crucial to these movements was the idea that women’s experiences and desires did not seem to match how men think things ought to be.

The global subculture of Argentine Tango is a refuge from these changes, a bubble of past-time carried forward, in which men make the decisions, control the expertise, define the good, get almost all of the jobs, and dispense the treats by personal whim. Women are defined by their aesthetic virtues, are not considered intelligent enough to have opinions, and are told what should give them pleasure and how they should seek and receive it.

• • •

During the 1990s in Buenos Aires, women participated in Gustavo Naveira’s Investigation Group, and helped with the work of articulating tango according to its elements, rather than through sequences, as tango had previously been understood. This paradigm shift in the conceptualization of the existing tango repertoire was to be called Nuevo Tango, although Petróleo had already seized this term to describe his own innovations of the 1940s. (So Naveira founded the second era of Nuevo Tango.) Women didn’t just help with the analysis, they also applied movement dynamics from professional dance to the execution of tango movements.

According to Raul Masciocchi, a participant, Naveiera’s group included tangueras with backgrounds in ballet and modern dance. Their expertise from “traditions that already had a detailed description for every movement” enabled the group to “begin to understand how tango movements worked…Naveira developed it, but it was the women who really made it work.” [ Merritt  2012: 54]

These women also brought athleticism and flexibility to the follower’s role, making powerful, fluid movements, which characterized the aesthetic of tango in the first decade of the 2000s.

It is this way of moving which is castigated by Tango Fundamentalism. Just as women who seek sexual pleasure are degraded with the terms “loose” or “sluts” or “jezebels”, women who move their bodies joyfully in tango are accused of “throwing their legs around”, “showing off”, or “not caring about connection”. Men’s pleasure in these movements is denied and repressed,  and they are bullied with the slogans “only the embrace matters”,  “it’s not about doing fancy moves”, “[traditional] tango music is just better”, and told that pleasure is to be had from [the skills of the community of men] circulating the ronda, not from the dynamic skills of their partner.

{ Furthermore it is apparent that the real goals of Fundamentalism are to eliminate the man’s dependency on a trained partner. With this far more limited dance, he can choose the girl with the shortest skirt and know it will be an acceptable dance, because all he does is guide her imbalance to fall on the next beat. Every movement which requires projection (even barrida) has been eliminated. It’s not possible to dance on dramatic or melodic music with untrained girls. It’s not even possible to pause. So the milongas become a breathless stamping out of an expressionless rhythm. But for men the benefit is that their elegance and poise is insulated from the woman’s skill. He doesn’t have to trust her, he doesn’t have to maintain respectful or mutually satisfactory relations with the more skilled women in the community. He can be a great and desired dancer without having great partners, without having relationships at all. The male ambition is not to actually understand and develop women’s pleasure, but only to be able to adequately entertain as many women as possible without taking any risks. }

Inexperienced women, easily addicted to the ecstasy of masculinity with musicality, scurry clacketing and simpering to do whatever it takes to get the next hit, unknowing and uncaring about what they might be missing or destroying in themselves.

I love to mark, but neither it nor the reverse cabeceo are solutions to male-leader domination of tango priorities.

It is time for followers to bring the most basic practice of the sexual revolution to tango.

Dear Tangueros,

We have a perspective which may be different from yours. If we are going to dance with you we expect you to be interested in hearing from us what hurts and what feels good. Your work is to be able to receive this as information, without rebuking, denigrating, or pathologizing us. We do understand that various personal preferences may not be your thing, and every dance must be truly consensual. But if you are willing to explore new territory, we will be patient and encouraging. You need to understand that our feedback is not a criticism of your character or capacities, but is given in faith that you can easily make some adjustments with the consequence of creating the conditions for a profound and ecstatic experience. 

With affection and enthusiasm,


Demonizing and prohibiting swaths of the tango vocabulary is not the only way to achieve safety. How to have an event with lots of flying legs and no bruises…



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