Iona May Italia

Iona May Italia:

Sex, tango and respect: part 1
At the milonga
(There will be a part 2 about teaching and practice situations tomorrow).

I’ve been musing lately on the scandal involving young comedian Aziz Ansari. People have characterised his behaviour as everything from innocent cluelessness to sexual assault and his date’s account of events as everything from courageous victim testimony to revenge porn. I’m not going to pass judgement on that case here. And I don’t want to trivialise actual assault by comparing it with the kinds of behaviours prevalent in the tango scene which I’m going to talk about below.

But I do think it’s a good time to initiate a conversation about how we treat each other in this dance in which we are so physically close to each other, spend so much time in embrace and in which it’s common, especially in teaching and practice situations, to touch and manipulate the other person’s body in ways far more intimate than those of everyday life.

As tango dancers, we are used to much more physical closeness, even with strangers, than most other groups of people. Even off the floor, my tango friends (especially Westerners) hold me in long hugs at meeting and parting: giant, exuberant, swaying and squeezing and taking-little-stompy-steps-together hugs; stroky, soft, nuzzly hugs; hugs of substance. That’s a beautiful thing.

And, when sexual attractions are involved, as they so often are, that’s also an innocent thing. As a beginner in Buenos Aires, I spent a lot of time at the older people’s milongas, where, despite the fact that I was stiff and awkward to dance with, old guys in meticulously-buttoned polyester jackets and pungent, musky, old-school colognes would invite me out onto the floor: often, I’m sure, just for the pleasure of having a younger woman in their arms. It would therefore be hypocritical of me to lament the fact that so many male professional dancers only dance with the beautiful 25-year-old blondes and slender, delicate-featured young Japanese and Korean women who abound in Buenos Aires.

Men are more likely than women to prioritise physical attractiveness over dance skills; much more willing to invite the gangly beginner tripping over her own feet like a new-born colt but who is glossy of hair and lithe of limb and bright of eye. Much less likely to invite even one of the most highly skilled dancers in the world if she is older than them (I’ve witnessed this *often*). Women are much more prone to put good dance skills first. But everyone – men and women – likes to be close to an attractive person of their preferred sex. And by close I mean literally in immediate physical proximity. Men are more enslaved to this than women (on average). But we’re all vulnerable to it. We have to be. It’s the source of life for our species.

Whatever you are feeling in your own heart and imagination is your business alone. But what you communicate matters. And there the boundaries are blurry. There are no chalk-white rangoli, carefully sifted through stencils, to mark the threshold. Sometimes it’s clear, of course, when someone is inching their fingers round towards a boob or patting a bottom. But sometimes you can’t tell. Is that guy breathing so heavily into your ear trying to create a soft-porn soundtrack to the dance or does he just have asthma and a bad habit of twisting his neck? Is he stroking my upper back in a creepy way, or just readjusting his hand? When she places a hand on the leader’s neck and rakes her fingers up into his hair, is that an encroachment into uninvited possessive intimacy or just an attempt to copy the look of stage dancers (who often use this gesture)?

You can’t always tell but these are my two rules of thumb for touch at the milonga. First: you’re not in a court of law; you don’t have to prove anything beyond reasonable doubt. If *you* feel uncomfortable or creeped out, don’t dance with that person. Break tanda if necessary, if you feel icky. You might be wrong; their intentions might be good. But respect your own feelings.

Secondly: let the dance have every last gramme of sensuality intrinsic to it. Don’t be afraid of anything that is expressed organically through the tenderness of the embrace, through the intricacy of the movements, through the lovely facial expressions of concentration and bliss that the dance itself conjures up. But don’t add a picrogramme more. Sensuality and even eroticism are emergent properties of our dance. They can’t be tacked on top, like a veneer; they are woven in, not block printed. They are part of the grain of the wood, an accretion of layers, growing ring by ring from the inside out. Anything added is liable to seem creepy, corny or cheap.

We embrace each other because we want to dance. And we dance with each other because we want to embrace. Those two things are often inseparable. And it’s at that point – when it’s impossible to distinguish what is pleasure in your partner and what is pleasure in the dance itself – that tango, for me, is at its own most moving and most beautiful.

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