By Maria Belen Smole
One by one, the dancers started coming into one of the rooms at the IATI Theatre on the Lower East Side. In almost complete silence, they changed shoes at the entrance. None seemed to know each other. Some said hello, others just remained silent checking their phones or looking through the windows. Little did it seem like they were about to embark on a dance that would keep these strangers as close as a second skin.
The tango lesson was about to begin. The instructor stepped in and gave the motto for the class: “Choose one role and keep it for the whole tango.” The rules were clear: It didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman, or if you wanted to dance with a same sex partner or not, you could either choose to lead or to follow.
The seven male and five female students quickly found their partners. Only one of the pairings was mixed sex. Instead, mostly men danced with men, and women with women.
Tango, a dance that originated in Argentina and Uruguay, is known for its passion and sensuality, and has been traditionally performed by a man and a woman. However, times are changing and that was precisely the point of the second New York Queer Tango Weekend. From Sept. 29 until Oct. 2, nine instructors from New York, Boston, Canada, Germany and Argentina, tried to alter the way people see the tango and the sexism inherent in the perceptions around it.
“We are trying to promote inclusive tango that could break the stereotype of the macho with the rose in his mouth and the woman dragging on the floor,” explained Walter Perez, 44, organizer of the festival, where dancers are invited to choose the role they want to take and the gender with whom they prefer to dance.
During the whole weekend, the Queer Tango community shared master classes, workshops, and gathered in “milongas,” the places where people go to dance tango, throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Usually dark and with wooden floors, milongas are places where it’s completely acceptable for a stranger to ask you for a dance, where you both embrace, touch and intertwine legs.
“You need to be fully present and fully focus on your partner and you can’t acquire the skills without effort and without time,” said Emna Zghal, 46, an artist from Tunisia living in Brooklyn who was taking classes over the weekend. “In the visual art world that I was so immersed in, everyone’s looking for a trick to success and to get noticed. The values are very different in tango. It turned my life upside down.”
After a bit of warm up, the couples -men with men, women with women- started dancing so close they could have almost drooled on each other’s shoulders. Chest next to chest, stomach next to stomach. The expressions on their faces were soulful, like a singer crooning a ballad or a poet reading a sonnet. Eyes completely closed, they seemed to be showing an underlying passion, something so deep you could feel their blood boiling inside.
“We have to support freedom of expression and be able to express ourselves without being scared of being censored or discriminated,” said Perez, who runs this festival because he believes art should fight for freedom and equality.
A native of Buenos Aires, he moved to the United States in 2000 because he felt discriminated against in Argentina for being gay. “Here in New York, there’s so much freedom about sexuality that no one’s going to kick you out from a milonga. But in Buenos Aires, they do,” he said in Spanish. “I wanted to be coherent with my art and myself, I wanted to represent on stage what was going on in my life, I wanted to be in the tango world but dancing with a man.”
Two of the festival’s instructors, Sidney Grant and Claudio Marcelo Vidal, taught the students some basic steps. They share something more than just the class, they’re an engaged couple.
“It’s a story of love, passion and tango,” said Vidal about his relationship with Grant. Vidal, an Argentine professional dancer, is actually the first man in the tango world to wear heels. His drag queen shows, he says, helped him cope with heels, even when he is dancing backwards.
Grant, on the other hand, is a native New Yorker and a professional ballroom dancer. “I’m somebody who’s very well versed in over a dozen partner dances, latin and ballroom dances, but Argentine tango is a breed apart,” he said.
Grant is the first openly gay man and North American to win the U.S. Argentine Tango Championship in 2011, but he started in tango 15 years ago. He was on vacation in Amsterdam when he got the last ticket available for “Tango Pasion,” a tango show. “It was like destiny,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I was transfixed and transformed in that moment.”
Even for Grant, a New Yorker, discovering queer tango was a blessing. “The gay male community is a very sexually charged community, and it was so awesome as a dancer to have this outlet to connect very intimately with another man, and it wasn’t overly sexual,” he said.
In Argentina, where he often travels with his students, he discovered and found refuge at La Marshall, the biggest milonga ia for gays, lesbians and anyone who likes to dance to tango without limitations of gender, sex or role preference. “ La Marshall was my nirvana.”
La Marshall was founded by Augusto Balizano, who along with Miguel Moyano, formed the first professional gay tango couple around the world. For him, he hopes to live enough to see queer tango spread around and mix itself with the traditional one.
“I’d like tango queer to disappear as queer, and be simply tango. That it won’t be necessary to say it’s queer to give that field of support for those who don’t have a place where to dance,” said Balizano in Spanish. Balizano, an instructor at the festival, was invited to take part in this year’s festival.
For all of the dancers–instructors and students alike, the tango can be a lot more than just an artistic expression. “Tango, in particular, transcends age, race, religion, ethnicity, occupation and socioeconomic background,” said Grant. “It’s very important to have something where all that just melts away and you just have two human essences connecting. It’s such an important message to the world, and emblematic of the peace and harmony that this world desperately needs right now.”