According to www.ballroomdancers.com, the tango began as a dance representing the relationship between prostitute and pimp. Www.triogarufa.com corroborates this history, as much as anything can confirm a rather mythic beginning. What we know for sure, anyway, is that the tango traces its roots back to the homesick, bone-poor, European immigrants of late ninteenth century Buenos Aires. This dance began in a community that spent its days in the meat-packing industry and its nights in the brothels. Eventually, the tango made its way up in society, and now it is a ballroom standard of which there are several versions, including Argentine, International, and American. To top it all off: whole organized vacations to Buenos Aries are structured around learning Argentine Tango.
I’ve discovered all this very recently. For most of my life, my scrappy knowledge of the tango included the rose, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in True Lies, and my mother’s evaluation or, perhaps, warning: you cannot dance the tango with just anyone. This dance was as foreign to me as Buenos Aires is to the Chicago suburbs.
Recently, however, I’ve picked up a few ballroom dance lessons, and the tango and I have been officially introduced. The dance studio’s version of the story goes like this: the tango is a cat-and-mouse game in which the leader pursues the follower, who coyly eludes capture. She must focus her gaze beyond her partner’s right shoulder, or if their eyes do meet, both partners must remain serious and intense. The frame is strong; the follower must continually push away her leader, keeping the appropriate distance as he stalks towards her. Stalks because their heads must remain level, no waltz-like swooping. Stalks because he’s relentless.
The first time I danced the tango—only the basic walking step for the American version—this stalking startled me. The slight, young instructor who was so patient when, earlier, I stumbled through the cha cha, drove me backwards with a force I had not anticipated. It was as if there were a tiger in front of me, crouching, ready to pounce. (Yes, that exact metaphor ran through my head, melodramatic as it sounds.) The hair on the back of my neck stood up, my stomach clenched, I poised for fight or flight, and then, the instructor relaxed—we had reached the other end of the room. As we drew apart, I noticed, as never before, how airy the studio space was, lit by a late winter sun.
The tango is difficult, especially for a feminist—it grates against the way I want to live in the world. Because I am female, I am a follower, which means I must surrender control to my (male) partner over where we go on the dance floor and what we do (dips, twirls, cortes, promenades), otherwise the dance won’t work. I can’t choose, and even when it looks like I am leading (when my partner is shadowing me) I feel like I’m in a cage—my partner must retain his strong grip in order to lead me into another figure. Now, I’m not against the follower position per se; however, the biologically determined roles make me nervous and the fact that I, as a female, have no say is irritating. My partner, too, is having qualms about being a determined, almost forceful, pursuer. There is a dark side to the tango, and I can’t help but wonder how much of its history we still feel.
But, confession: the more I learn to trust and heed my partner’s directions, the more I like being a follower. I don’t have a good sense of rhythm, nor do I like making decisions in the heat of the moment. As a follower, all I have to do is pay attention to my partner, and he will take care of everything. It’s his job to keep us in time, make the dance interesting, and prevent us from crashing. I can just enjoy the moment, relieved from the stress of leadership. Then, I hear Simone de Beauvoir whispering, [T]here is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. This is an inauspicious road, for he who takes it—passive, lost, ruined—becomes henceforth the creature of another’s will […] But it is an easy road; on it one avoids the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence. Indeed.
She whispers, my heart clenches. Then, the instructor turns up the music, and it’s time to take it from the top. I obey my partner’s command and whirl into his arms. I have to get this right; it’s two days before our first performance.
 Another issue: the tango and ballroom dance in general, at least at the beginner level, fail to acknowledge narratives outside of traditional heterosexuality.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.