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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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