Those who know of tango only from the movies might see it as the epitome of passion, sexual tension, drama. This is quite far from social tango, i.e. what normal people dance for leisure, not film choreographers nor professional dance competitors. It's not that social tango can't have drama or passion; rather, they are expressed differently. Instead of astonishing acrobatics, it usually employs restrained movement of the partners, who are so close to each other that they essentially become one being. Drama is also not the only thing that can exist in this dance: it can also have some silliness, joy, friendly banter. The main thing is to learn to listen to yourself and to your partner: then the potential for self-expression can become endless.
So, what is social tango? Different tangueros (tango dancers) might give a whole plethora of answers — and those answers might drastically change as they improve as a dancer. It is important to hear and to interpret the music — but that is not the key characteristic, and a dance having its specific music is nothing out of the ordinary.
Many dancers would say that intimacy and a distinct way of walking are key. This intimacy has to exist on both physical and emotional levels — after all, our body and mind are inextricably linked. In tango, physical closeness requires a lot of trust: partners are not just embracing each other, they also walk in the embrace. The body often knows better what is available to us and what is impossible because of mental blocks: sometimes you might end up working through those right there, on the dance floor. In a way, tango is similar to meditation: it requires a degree of openness, concentration, grounding. Yet it is not a proven psychotherapeutic approach, and viewing it as such is a bad idea: tango might unexpectedly bring up the deepest insecurities, and the dancer would be left to deal with the consequences. Tango teachers are not therapists, and you can't be sure they'd be able to help.
Tango, like other partner dancers, has two roles: one person (usually a man) leads, and another (usually a woman) follows. Does everyone need to study both roles if they only intend to dance one? Some teachers believe beginner tangueros have enough problems as it is, and learning one role is already a lot. Others see learning both roles from the start as incredibly beneficial: the dancer can see both sides of the dance, and events without an exact gender balance stop being such an issue.
Each role differs in its nuances, yet the key skills are similar. When one studies both roles, they do not as much learn something new, as they approach familiar things from a new angle. This fuels a deeper understanding of the dance, and they start to interact with it on another level. So, although at the beginning it can be a bit more challenging, in the end, this approach helps us to become better dancers.
My story with queer tango is a story of coincidence. I just wanted to learn how to lead and did not care much what dance to choose. The first few months, I felt euphoric. I had attended salsa classes before, yet in queer tango, for the first time, I felt that I understood it — or was starting to, at least. Instead of just drilling sequences of steps and figures, we focused on technique — how to move, how to connect with a partner. Surely, this is something every dancer must learn, and as teaching methods develop, it becomes more and more prevalent. Yet for dual role dancers, knowing how to connect and interact with one's partner is paramount.
Those who came into tango in search of traditional «femininity" and «masculinity» object to queer tango as a departure from the essence of the dance. Yet from a historical point of view, queer tango can be seen as a very natural development. The dance emerged among marginalized people, conquered ballrooms, and now it once again becomes an outlet for a marginalized group. From margins into mainstream and back again — it came full circle, moving up through the helix of history.
Queertango dancers might view it as a way to express themselves, with no political agenda in mind. Those who are against it usually see some kind of political view, from feminism to «homosexual propaganda» and destroying the «traditional» family. For them, two men dancing together are especially jarring: at least you can «justify» two women as being «forced» into it by gender imbalance. This illustrates how hard it is for any form of art to be apolitical: it doesn't matter if queertango dancers are doing it with an agenda in mind or if they just want to have fun, in the end them being there is a political statement; excluding them from an event is also a political stance. It is impossible to separate the two, especially in places where homophobia is approved by the state; and what would be the point anyway?
Nowadays, there's been a shift in some communities from queer tango to open role tango (i.e., dancing the preferred role). This terminological shift has the potential to make queer tango more acceptable, even mainstream. The word «queer» makes many dancers uncomfortable as it refers to the LGBTQ+ community: it is strongly connected to politics and sexual orientation. In the end, people who sexualize the LGBTQ+ community can use it as a tool that allows them to attack queertango dancers for the «wrong" sexuality. Those who actually dance both roles or do not adhere to their gender role in the dance might also prefer to disengage themselves from the idea of queerness or 'otherness'. It can be a way to move from the perceived margins to the mainstream; a way to make this dance the norm, not «something some freaks do". Others might use the term specifically to disengage from the LGBTQ+ context, make queer tango «straight.» Not all queertango dancers are LGBTQ+, not by a long shot; and not every straight open role dancer is an ally. For some dancers, «queer tango» and «open role tango» are pretty much synonymous. After all, the central, key idea — the idea of freedom in dance and of one's self-expression within it — exists in both terms.
Tango is multifaceted. The simplest tango tune has endless potential for different interpretations. Within the elegant simplicity of movement, complexity hides: one must learn to move their body, interact with their partner, listen to their body. Tangeros might spend years just learning how to walk — and it never becomes perfect, because in tango, as well as in life, absolute perfection does not exist. The euphoria of first achievement becomes the frustration of constant missteps; the frustration transforms into self-confidence, new triumphs emerge, you start to see the dance in a new light; yet as soon as you relax and feel content, as if you finally understand what's it all about, another wave of frustration envelops you. In queer tango, those ups and downs can be more pronounced; yet the moments of certainty can also get so much more satisfying. When you start dancing both roles, tango becomes infinitely more complex — yet in the end it opens up to you on a new level, gaining a mysterious simplicity.