Gender, desire, and drag


Queer Tango

What's TangoForge? Who's Vio?

  • Vio is part of the international movement to Queer Argentine Tango by encouraging gender complexity and exploration and creating space for GLBT people to enjoy tango. She is the founder of of Queer Tango Boston and Queer Tango Wellington. Her students now run their own weekly practicas and classes as community organizations. Vio is committed to building and supporting Queer Tango everywhere and, through her school TangoForge, to liberatory teaching methods. She is the co-author of Aleph Bravo Tango, a novel about Argentine Tango which, among other things, encourages readers to imagine a Queerer Tango. The novel was published in 2009 and is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

Global Queer Tango Connections

Queer/Tango: Gender performance, objects of desire, and inhabited essence … delinked

Research Note © Violet Saraza 2009

Judith Butler’s groundbreaking investigations of gender have proposed that gender is a performance, one which, in its efforts to reproduce an image with no original, is always perturbed and often subversive.[1] She has also proposed that heterosexuality is a “regulatory fiction [which] functions to converge sex, gender, and desire.”[2] Related investigations of sexuality find it, too, repeating, striving for a consistency which seems to always defeat it.[3] Theories of both gender and sexuality suggest that the search for a singular authenticity will always evade us, because such a singularity depends on a mirage, crystalline only in our minds, and made all too real  by our heroic efforts to arrive in it. Queer fan I am. I watch out for my gender disfixity, slight to invisible though it may be. I remember wanting to be a boy. If I work hard at it, I can play high femme.

Argentine Tango is about 130 years old. A dance of immigrants, expressing loss and cultural hybridity, it has enjoyed several waves of popularity and its own transnational migrations. Today,  major cities (from Shanghai to Capetown) have tango dances (milongas) nearly every night of the week.[4] With rigid gender roles, tango has not been welcoming to gay people, let alone feminists or those expecting communication and equity in intimate relations. But tango, and Argentina, is changing. The first gay milonga was created in Buenos Aires in 2003, the same year the city legalized gay civil unions. [5] (A majority of urbanites now support gay marriage. [6]) And 20% of the tourists are gay. [7]In 2007, the Argentine government co-sponsored the first International Queer Tango Festival. [8]Lively queer tango communities and festivals have also been built in Berlin and Stockholm. GLBT classes are now offered in San Francisco, Portland, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, and New York City.

This research note examines the unique possibilities that tango may create as it becomes queered, and identifies ways in which the extreme gender environment of traditional tango is already queer. I distinguish three layers of gender experience in tango: drag, object desire, and inhabitation of essence. The note draws on four years of participant observation research as well as current public texts (email discussions and websites) and some background research in the limited English-language literature.


“Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation.” [9]

Drawn to their addiction, tanguera/os dance nearly every night. They dress up and enter a specific social space, stiff, formal, and a bit nervous. On the way to their seat, they greet friends and enemies alike effusively. They sit, change shoes, and affect an unhurried cool belying their desperation, as they awaiting their first partnering.

They are wearing costumes. These costumes are, in essence, drag. They are dated, unchanging, stereotype images of men and women, pushed to extremes. Women’s dresses are slit to the thigh. Every possible sexy cut is worn, without irony. Men wear suits, dandy shoes, pocket handkerchiefs, and hats. The costumes and images do not change with the dancer’s age, nor with fashion, although there are innovations, such as pants with slits showing the leg (for women), and ever bolder combinations of colors and fabrics on men’s shoes.

In tango halls, women sit daintily, coyly seducing men with their eyes and smile. Men pose and swagger until they choose their next partner, requesting a dance with such a subtle nod that rejection will go unnoticed, then sauntering to collect a consenting lady from her chair. He sweeps her into his strong embrace and enjoys her passive accompaniment, accommodating her frailties graciously. After working his magic on her for about 11 minutes, he abandons her, not yet exhausted, back to her chair, and moves on, confident in his unverified virility. Perhaps fulfilled, perhaps not, she moves on to a fresh seduction.

Tango awaits, a lush playground for drag kings and queens, whose fantasy stage costumes, excessive gender styling, and exaggerated performances are the norm in a tango scene, already a landscape of extreme gender performances.

But what does tango’s drag do and mean for straight dancers? For straight people, too, have gender fantasies, fantasies they are not able to play in their daytime, at their job, in their relationship, in their sexuality. In this sense, tango provides an experience of gender performance for straight people, who then must consider which is their “real” self.  Is the “real” me the passive high femme of my nights, or the tough professional of my days? Just as an observer fails to “resolve” the “true” gender of a drag queen, [straight] tangueros must fail to resolve their own “real” gender identity, which their performance at the milonga causes them to decenter, expand, and find the discontinuities of.

Contract (the cabaceo): objects of desire

“Compulsory heterosexual identities….are theatrically produced effects that posture as grounds, origins, the normative measure of the real.” [10]

Dance scholar Julie Taylor has argued that Argentine Tango is a theater of the grotesque. [11] In addition to costumes, tango’s repertoire includes the ritual performance of heterosexual desire. Indeed its very structure enforces heterosexuality, as the contract to dance depends on the recognition and pairing of a man with a woman.

Argentine Tango has a peculiar set of codigos (codes) which govern the social relations of the dance. The unenumerated codigos structure a social space of anonymity and dignity around the intimate and vulnerable experience of the dance. First, they separate the dance from romance, by forcing it to end abruptly at the cortina (curtain), leaving no space to pursue last names or phone numbers. If they identify themselves at all, dancers tell only their chosen tango/drag/over- name (sobre nombre). The codigos also separate the space of tango from the social hierarchies of the external world. Since occupations are not known and everyone wears their best, dancers’ socioeconomic position in the class structure is not repeated within the milonga. Inside the milonga, the ruling hierarchy is dancing skill and passion for the dance (which is recognized at all skill levels).

The codigos enable dancers to avoid dance partners they don’t want without shaming those who seek them.  In contrast, most American dances involve a person walking up to another and asking verbally (or extending a hand); the asked is under considerable cultural and social pressure to consent out of politeness. For such a demanding and intimate dance as Argentine Tango, politeness is inadequate context for engagement.[12] To protect the egos, dances are contracted at a distance, by means of eye contact. Thus, dancers must be able to recognize appropriate targets. Men seek the eyes of women; women seek the eyes of men. Once eye contact is established, the man/leader gives a subtle nod toward the dance floor, or perhaps just raises an eyebrow. The woman/follower consents with a second nod, a smile, or by maintaining eye contact. Either one may break the negotiation up to that point simply by breaking eye contact. But once the contract is made, under no circumstances may it be broken. The follower waits for the leader to arrive and, no matter that it may take some time for him to make his way through the crowd to her, may not accept another dance, nor may the leader delay, stop to chat, or redirect his attention.

However, despite the atmosphere of performances of masculinity bordering on caricature and seeming retrograde passivity of women “waiting to dance”, the contracture of dances is egalitarian and consensual. Indeed, its demands of the passive partner are distinctly post-sexual revolution: She must desire. No dancer will get a dance in this system without expressing desire. A follower seeks a leader with a gaze that communicates desire.

There are only two roles. To succeed at either of them, one must play the role. In that role, one enters a contract, making it real. In participating in this theater, we repeatedly enact these role relationships. Yet, waiting, dancers chafe at the limitations. Men secretly admit they are shy and wish women would ask them. Impatient women trespass propriety by sitting down next to men, chatting, and hinting for a dance. As Butler points out, in the “interval between the acts…risk and excess threaten to disrupt the identity being constituted.”[13] Suppressed, nearly frantic desire appears as frustration and despair. It rails at the gender roles. It is apparent to everyone that these roles, once taken, are not identical with desire and identity. Dancers must become the roles, repeatedly, as ritual. Indeed, they submit to the required gender polarities of tango, fully aware of the distance between these roles and other longings. And the main longing they are experiencing is to be dancing, a desire which, despite the rigidities of the codigos in which they are trapped, waiting and sweating, is not about gender.

In trying to begin to live queer/tango, my partner and I have proposed to accept the roles of leader and follower but we break its marking by gender. All eyes may seek, but in the contract they must submit to the role. The initiating nod is the invitation, promising the responsibility to lead and protect. The confirming nod indicates the desire to accompany and the willingness to follow. For queer tangueras, there are more objects and there are more possibilities among them. In the moment of the cabaceo I assert desire. The desire is twofold. I find and indicate my desire for this person, right now, for this music, in this urgent moment now that the tanda has already begun revealing its musical style. I also find and indicate, and prepare to manifest, my desire to lead or follow, to create or collaborate, to control or submit with this person. I respond to a drag, an object of desire, specifically, I respond not only with desire, but with my own gender role defined spontaneously in response.

Inhabited essence

“There are no direct expressive or causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy and sexuality.”  [14]

In straight tango, the external gender role corresponds to the role in the dance. Men lead and women follow, almost exclusively. There is considerable policing around gender roles in the dance. Women are told that if they lead it will “ruin” their ability to properly follow. (Virgin ruination?) Women who become bored and frustrated with disempowering aspects of their role as followers are encouraged to suffer patiently rather than making the unfortunate decision to entertain themselves by leading. Men who enjoy following feel considerable pressure not to dance socially. It is seen as shameful for men to dance together, perhaps because it signifies “lack” of a woman partner and thus reflects on their desirability as dancers and their prowess at securing dance partners. (In its mythic origins, tango was created by men who danced together [only] because of a lack of women.)

The exceptions are: Women who are professional teachers are expected to learn to lead – for professional reasons, only. Men/leaders are expected to be able to follow just enough to be led by a teacher – for educational reasons, only. Men might follow at a class or a practice session (practica) for educational purposes, only. However, women are often unwilling to try leading fellow students in classes. (Unwilling to abandon their femme fantasy for a minute, they would rather wait for a man.) Role reversal is anointed by distinct power hierarchies, by the cleansing aura of the professional roles. Women may lead as teachers. Men may follow as students. To lead or follow in any other circumstance would be, for men, to look powerless, and for women, to evince an unbecoming assertiveness.

Despite advanced skills, professional women teachers rarely lead at milongas and men, although they know how, rarely follow. Even if the gender ratios are badly skewed, men do not dance together for pleasure. Women will sit complaining of the lack of good leaders, but will not take to the floor. There are few notable exceptions in the professional world: a pair of dissimilar brothers, Enrique and Guillermo di Fazio, perform together as Los Hermanos Macanas (witty guys).[15] Anton Gazenbeek and Sergio Segura perform together and collaborate in many tango projects. Anton wears dramatic femme goth makeup in his tango “art” photography projects. However, he dances with women on the instructional CDs marketed by Sergio’s Production company.[16] Perhaps the static nature of an individual’s role may be more important than its relationship with gender identity. At least one biological woman dances and competes as a professional leader (dressed as a man). You can cross over, but you cannot go back? You certainly cannot waver between multiple identities.

But what is it to lead and follow, technically? It has nothing to do with costume, bravado, or foreplay of flirtation and acceptance. A leader is required to extend his heart forward, vulnerably, ahead of him, until he would fall were it not for the slight lean and resistance provided by the follower. He must keep his chest puffed out so, several inches ahead of his feet, and steer her with it. He may not shrink from her; if he does, he relinquishes his capacity to lead and abandons the dance. From this awkward position (also often twisted at the waist), he must navigate, interpret the music, improvise a dance to it, and tenderly but firmly move his follower through it. He should be able to lead so surely that even an untrained dancer cannot avoid following him adequately. He is masterful, all knowing, superbly in control (of himself and her), and provider of safety, excitement, and tenderness. To state the obvious, this is certainly the experience of masculinity that many men would like to possess. In tango, with a mere 8 years of dedication, they can have what they may not be able to produce at work, at home, etc. He will also gain the respect of other men. Even the merely adequate milonguero is treated with respect by the other men in the room. At the milonga, men do not harass one another.

Following is more difficult than it looks and sounds, particularly for women accustomed to responsibility. It requires surrender. A follower cannot think or guess. She cannot express the music. She most move in devotion to her leader, without introducing weight or hesitation, as if she is part of his clothes. Her motion is the evidence of his mastery, and she moves as an extension of his subtle gestures, too small to see without the magnification provided by her naked leg, pointed toe, and flowing skirt. To enter the space of following is akin to “deep listening”. She prioritizes the embrace, the relationship right now, over anything that has or could happen. She embraces and protects his extended heart with her own and, like him, she must not abandon this position. She meets his sorrow with her longing, until the music leaves him spent and he is done with her.

The leader interprets and creates, decisively. The follower listens and responds, collaboratively. To dance Argentine Tango, these roles must be taken for the duration of the dance.[17] In taking them, dancers agentically enter these roles which I am choosing to call “essential”. Recognizing that gender and liberation theories are undecided with regard to essences, and without taking a position on their origin, natural distribution, or degree of sociality, I will refer to an interior, stripped-down, and, indeed, binaric mode of gender consciousness, which is neither playful nor performative. It does not have personality or style. Whether or not we have a stable gender identity, this inhabitation is separable from it. It is not strategic.

“Queer tango is a dialog of following and leading without the interference of gender or sexual preference.” Felix Volker Feyerabend, founder of the Queer Tango Milonga Tango Fatal, Hamburg 1998[18]

Unlike gender performance, inhabitation of this essence is invisible and secret.  Only the two dancers will know whether their partner makes this inhabitation fully and only they will care. The choice to so inhabit is individual and internal, involving no commitments and little stake (other than whether this person will likely want to dance with you again). The payoff is also personal. This choice (and its consequences) could be conceptualized by a non-dancer as the combination of the choice to concentrate on what someone is saying and the choice to give a “good” as opposed to a “superficial” hug. You can easily maintain your social responsibilities without doing either of these.

The decision to inhabit the essence, utterly transparent to the partner alone, is always secret, never fully disclosed, never mentioned (aside from teachers’ admonitions), nor the dancer’s reasons for taking it (or not) for a night, partner, song, or moment. Dancers may easily refuse to inhabit/manifest the essence while adequately fulfilling their basic obligations in the dance. Superficially reminiscent of domination or submission, this inhabitation is thoroughly agentic. It cannot be forced or extracted, demanded, bemoaned, or complimented.  It is a “break” moment, independent of everything surrounding it.

For beginning dancers, particularly for women who follow, the discovery of the character of this essence and of the importance to the dance of inhabiting it, is sometimes offensive. At the same time, some women, particularly middle-aged proprietors and professionals, seek tango specifically for this alterity. The follower’s role seems at first a total erasure of agency and voice.  The offense, for those who take it, lives in active tension with what many describe as a feeling of “addiction”. Likewise, “sensitive” or “feminist” men, confronted with the demands of leading, also recoil from its masculinity (and from the painful possibility of failing at it).

Tango allows dancers to experiment (encouraged by teachers) with furthering their commitment to inhabiting these essences for the space of a dance. There is no punishment for not doing so, and no external reward (other than more dances, but there are so many variables in that equation that the result always seems arbitrary).

When in queer tango the roles are separated from gender determination, queer tango becomes a space for access and development of feminist projects like “men having access to their feminine side” or women “learning to be assertive”. A space marked off from personality and life-role, it offers these experiences in silence and reflection. Women may wonder at the experience of moving a man, at moving a man around her (rather than moving herself around him), of gracefully controlling something larger than herself, of successfully asserting her will against the gravity of body mass ratio, of smoothly “displacing” him with a sacada. As interesting as these directions of experiment made possible by queer tango is the significance (which exists in straight tango), for “sensitive”, “feminist”, or less “successful” men to experience mastery and decisiveness, and to have this experience in the context of art and an embrace. And likewise, for women whose internalized sexism or life necessity has deprived them of protection and guidance, to enjoy such care, in a limited, safe, and respectful setting.

Recall also that these essences may be detached from and contradictory to the extreme drag performances simultaneously underway. At this time, most women leaders are straight and femme.[19] They change only their shoes to lead.

Queer tango offers to manifest the promise of queer theory, a space in which gender performance and gender essence can be intensely active, yet unbound, delinked, to reconfigure 11 minutes later for the next tanda of four songs, with another partner. And perhaps it is the partner who inspires a shift, from lead to follow, making clear to a dancer (whose own costume has not changed) the interior continuum of desire, not only for gender objects but for gender experiences and for the delicious unbound link between the two. This fat edge is the realm of genderqueer and some transgender people who “play” with their own gender and desire, rather than moving their self into a new gender polarity. But in tango these experiences become the landscape for anyone who has learned both roles. And therefore I propose that tango is already queer, queer/tango.

queer/tango’s gender erotic

Desire kindled from unbound gender and sexuality: To follow her, to lead him, her shoe with my hat. I seek them out, willing to communicate my desire, ready to follow through with my extended heart, with my utmost compliance. All this, frankly, is much more interesting than pressing our bodies together – which, indeed, is the least noticeable part of the experience, and often escapes dancers’ attention altogether. Perhaps tango’s eroticism is not the sexuality of the body. (It is unlikely that anyone could actually do the dance in a state of more than momentary arousal because the dance demands too much concentration.) Tango’s eroticism is about gender and the gender erotic involves three fluid levels of gender experience. This queer realm contrasts not only with heterosexual gender lines but with straight and gay experiences of gendered sexuality, which still often have consistency, fixity, and commitment.

These three levels – drag, desire, and essence – are assembled anew in the response to an object in relation with its (and my) drag, our immediate expressions of desire, and our spontaneous will to inhabit an essence. If we both make that inhabitation we will likely achieve a sublime level of connection, unity, and shared, inseparable, artistry which seizes a moment and etches it into our hearts and minds with unusual permanence.

This is not to paint a utopian image of tango, which can be torturous. Indeed I once wrote “I wouldn’t wish this dance on anyone.” My object of desire often refuses to look my way. And I must watch my true love’s desire and body engage, alongside me, with others. And technically, it’s a nearly unmasterable dance.

Like gender, tango has repeated its myths until they are numb and absurd. Like gender it proposes infinite variations, then suppresses self-knowledge in ritual theater of orthodoxy. It has been deconstructed, and is being reconstructed in the intentional subversive practices of leading women and gay dancers. But queer/tango also subverts straights in intimacy with a perfect, symmetrical, and consuming gender identity, which exposes our frailties as it offers us fantasy embodiment. In accepting the invitation, we nightly face it as costumed performance. We shed the fantasy wearily in the dawn only to embrace it again at nightfall. In between, tapping our feet, our nightly embodiment becomes more real than our professions. We commune with our clothes on, in public and witnessed, through the medium of these extremes of gender and sexuality. And what becomes most private, most secret of everything in life, never discussed with anyone, barely visible to careful watchers who are always there, is the rapture of total inhabitation of an essence, with that one. With her, only with her.

[1] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990: Routledge.

[2]Patricia Ticineto Clough, Feminist Thought: Desire, Power, and Academic Discourse 1994: Blackwell, 149

[3] Weeks, Jeffrey. 1991. “Sexual Identification is a Strange Thing.” Pp. 79-85 in Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram Press.

[4] //

[5] Byrnes, Brian. 2003. “Wary of past abuses, Argentine capital approves gay rights.” Christian Science Monitor, July 13 // (Accessed April 15, 2008).

[6] Angus Reid Global Monitor. 2007. “Urban Argentines Support Same-Sex Marriage: Angus Reid Global Monitor.” February 23 // (Accessed April 15, 2008).

[7] Gotkine, Elliott. 2005. “Gay tourists discover Buenos Aires.” BBC, January 13 // (Accessed April 15, 2008).

[8] //

[9] Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 13-31 in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. (1991: Routledge, NY).

[10] Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 13-31 in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. (1991: Routledge, NY).

[11] “Tango! Dance the World Around: Global Transformations of Latin American Culture”, Conference at Harvard University. Friday, October 26, 2007–Saturday, October 27, 2007

[12] (It does happen, but only in more serious situations, such as the dancer is an important friend of your friend, or a respected elder, or the host of an event.)

[13] Ibid.

[14] Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 13-31 in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. (1991: Routledge, NY).

[15] //

[16] //

[17] Some “queer tango” is about swapping the lead, even during the dance. So the roles need not continue for an entire dance.

[18] “Queer Tango: A Gift Ready to Be Received” Felix Volker Feyerabend Interviewed by Marc and published in the newsletter of the San Francisco International Queer Tango Festival Argentino  Volume 3, March 2, 2009. //

[19] This will change as queer tanguera/os make welcoming spaces for more gay & lesbian people to grasp the dance as their own.

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