8 Stunning Photos Of Tango Dancers Breaking The Mold

Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
It’s Wednesday night at El Beso, one of the most traditional and popular tango ballrooms in Buenos Aires. Inside, dozens of couples move to upbeat tunes in the intimate space, their bodies twisting together in this sensual dance. But while this may look like a typical milonga — a place where people gather to dance tango — the dancers are far from El Beso’s usual crowd. Instead of traditional heterosexual couples, with male leaders and female followers, two men sweep by — one wearing a black silk dress, white gloves, and heels, the other one sporting an elegant suit. In the opposite corner, a woman in a sparkly dress invites another wearing a fedora and a faux mustache to the dance floor.

But no one bats an eyelid. Pairings that might draw a second look at a conventional milonga are expected here, at the International Queer Tango Festival of Buenos Aires. This night is part of a weeklong event that attracted more than 200 dancers from countries as diverse as Italy, Canada, England, the U.S., and even Syria, with the goal of dancing sans prescribed gender roles. (Though, when tango was in its early days, men almost always danced with other men.)

The festival was started in 2007 by Augusto Balizano and Mariana Docampo, two professional dancers who have been teaching tango to queer communities for almost 20 years. Balizano and Docampo saw the need to create a space outside the classroom where their students could dance without facing judgment from traditional dancers. Over the past decade, they’ve seen attendance at the festival grow from just a couple of dancers from neighboring countries to hundreds from all over the world.

“The biggest difference between queer and traditional tango has to do with the roles. In traditional tango, you always talk about a man who leads and a woman who follows, but here instead we talk about someone who conducts and someone who is conducted,” explained Balizano in an interview with Refinery29. “It’s a bit more complex linguistically, but the person who leads the dance doesn’t necessarily have to be a man, and the person who follows doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman.”

Regardless of their sexual orientation, many dancers of queer tango find the initiative extremely empowering.

“For me, queer tango is not really about orientation, it’s about understanding that as a person I can take any role that I choose. And you can’t look at me and tell by looking what that role might be,” Stan Holman, a dancer from Vancouver, told Refinery29.

While the festival is also held in different cities around the world (New York, Berlin, Mexico City, Paris, Rome, and Moscow), the atmosphere of the Buenos Aires event is particularly attractive to tangueros and tangueras. “It’s very special because this is the tango motherland, the place where it all started,” says Alessandro Scurti, who flew in from Rome to take part in the weeklong festivities.

Ahead, Scurti and other queer tango dancers share their stories and their experiences trying to break into a dance community with stereotypical gender norms.
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Augusto Balizano, 46, and Mariana Docampo, 42

Augusto Balizano and Mariana Docampo, in addition to organizing the International Queer Tango Festival, are cofounders of Tango Queer. They started teaching queer tango classes independent of each other in the mid-1990s, for the gay and lesbian communities respectively. When they met through a mutual acquaintance in 2007, they decided to create a space where their students could dance freely — a queer milonga.

Ever since they founded the Queer Tango Festival 10 years ago, they’ve been organizing weekly queer milongas that take place Tuesday evenings in the historic neighborhood of San Telmo.

“When we started out, I thought there was going to be more resistance from the traditional community, but there wasn’t. I think part of it is that our movement doesn’t harm the tango community; on the contrary, it enriches it,” Balizano told Refinery29.

“Beyond there being some people who think that we shouldn’t exist, who think that tango shouldn’t be danced by queer couples, overall we had quite a bit of support from different groups within the tango community. That made us realize that the tango community had been needing a space like ours,” he added.
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Juan Pablo Ramírez, 37

Juan Pablo Ramírez has been dancing tango for nine years. Originally from the city of Santa Fe in northeastern Argentina, he fell in love with tango when he moved to Buenos Aires.

“I used to dance folklore, but when I moved to Buenos Aires 10 years ago, I found it impossible not to fall in love with tango — you see it everywhere, at the bakery, the newspaper kiosk… Tango is everywhere here, and the more you see it, the more it takes over your heart,” Ramírez told Refinery29.

Together with Daniel Salazar, his professional dance partner, Ramírez offered one of the most powerful dance exhibitions of the evening — a tango performance that narrated the story of a trans prostitute and the physical abuse she faced from her clients.

“What I like to transmit in my dances is emotion, and being able to sensitize the audience, touch their soul with the art,” he says. “As artists our mission is to sensitize people, help them communicate with their inner selves and with things that happen around them, and to ultimately move them and persuade them to act with their heart.”
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Maria Agustina Riccioni, 34, and Maite Pegoraro, 30

Maria Agustina Riccioni and Maite Pegoraro have been dancing tango for eight years, but they only joined the queer tango movement in 2015. Both native porteñas (porteño refers to someone who is from Buenos Aires) who identify as lesbian, they found themselves frustrated with the rules of traditional milongas.

“There are some milongas that are so traditional that if you dance with someone from the same gender, you’ll get kicked out. I don’t go anymore to those milongas because I don’t agree with those rules,” says Pegoraro. “I wanted to learn the change of roles, and be able to dance with men and women.”

Riccioni adds, “At the end of the day, it’s about being able to have the choice of who you want to dance with. I respect men who just want to dance with women, so I also want to be respected if I only want to dance with women. It’s just about being able to choose, and for the woman not to be confined to a passive role where the man has the power and is the one who decides who he dances with.”
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Martin Bellier, 45, and Leiza Ferrari Luna, 33

Martin Bellier was crowned Drag Queen during last year’s International Queer Tango Festival. At this year’s festival, he was accompanied by his new dance partner, Leiza Ferrari Luna.

“I started coming to queer milongas 10 years ago, when it was still prohibited to take photos of the milonga so that people dancing with others from the same gender wouldn’t be compromised if the photos were made public,” Bellier told Refinery29.

“The policies of gender inclusion that have been promoted in Argentina over the last few years helped install queer tango as part of the whole tango movement in Buenos Aires… These milongas not only welcome queer dancers, but also orthodox dancers who want to join the dance the way we would like to participate in all milongas. It’s not an issue of sexuality to dance with someone from the same gender.”

Like Bellier, Luna has been dancing tango for several years. She took up the dance as a hobby when she was a teenager, and eventually became a professional dancer. While queer tango has become a constant in the Buenos Aires scene, Luna believes there is still progress to be made, especially in other parts of the country.

“It’s interesting to see how this movement catches up in the interior of the country. So much is happening in Buenos Aires because we’re a cosmopolitan city, but this process is only just starting in other provinces,” Luna told Refinery29. “We came to this milonga dressed up like this on the subway, and it was totally normal. That could never happen in other provinces.”
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Johannes Spängberg, 31

Johannes Spängberg learned how to dance tango in his native Sweden two years ago. But he discovered queer milongas more recently, during a two-month visit to Buenos Aires, and he would go to one every week. Being part of this year’s Queer Tango Festival, Spängberg told Refinery29, was the highlight of his trip to Argentina.

“In Sweden, we don’t have queer milongas, so I started out as a leader,” he said. “But there are some queer tango dancers where I live, so at some practices we would dance with each other. That’s how I started to learn to follow at milongas. I also took one course of following technique in milongas, but I was the only man.”

While he is most comfortable dancing in the follower role, Spängberg told Refinery29 that he has had to revert to the leader role during traditional milongas where he felt role changes wouldn’t be accepted.

“I’m very well aware when I’m in a traditional milonga not to dance with other males, and to always dance as a leader. In these very traditional milongas, I pretend I’m not a great tango dancer,” he said.
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Alessandro Scurti, 44, and Ugo Zuccarello, 48

Alessandro Scurti and Ugo Zuccarello are a married couple from Rome who often go to queer milongas in Italy.

“At the beginning, I felt tango was something so traditional that it was impossible to match this macho tradition with my way of life, my gay identity,” Scurti told Refinery29. “But I discovered that things are changing little by little, and that for the past 20 years, there have been new and different ways to live the tango scene.”

“In queer milongas, I also dance with women when they ask me to dance,” he adds. “This is one of the differences of a queer milonga — it’s more common to meet women who ask men to dance, while in a traditional one [the women are] usually seated in a corner waiting for an invitation.”
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Graciela Flores, 50, and Liliana Chenlo

Graciela Flores is originally from Buenos Aires, but has been living in Los Angeles for the past 16 years. After being introduced to queer tango by a porteño friend, she decided to start a queer tango community in L.A., which she named Counter Queer Tango. This is her first time at the International Tango Queer Festival.

“I love dancing, I love both roles, but being gay, I love being able to invite a girl to the dance floor, or dress up as queer. In queer milongas, you feel like you’re surrounded by family,” Flores told Refinery29.

“I am a professor of tango, and I also dance disco. I loved the thought of having my own tango group that was open to transsexuals, transvestites, queer people, women, men… That was my goal, to create a type of ’90s disco, but with tango.”
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Photographed by Ignacio Colo.
Stan Holman, 64

Stan Holman, of Vancouver, Canada, has been dancing tango for nearly five years, and this year was his third attending the festival.

“For me, milongas like these validate the complexity of my personality and of your personality. We live on a spectrum of sexuality, of having some elements of masculine and feminine, and in an evening like this, we get to move along our respective spectrums,” Holman told Refinery29.

“You’ll notice that I have a dress tonight, which is rather unusual for me. But I also haven’t covered up my beard or shaved my chest,” he adds. “I was just asked to dance by an individual dressed very much like a hardy fellow, a man with a mustache and a potbelly, and we had a great time just playing with our respective roles. I don’t think under that costume there was a biological man, but that didn’t matter. We were out just playing with stereotypes and playing with the music.”
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