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.