Masculinity in Tango

Igor Polk, October 6 , 2007

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Other articles you might be interested in:

Strong Lead;

Encouragement for a beginner dancer;

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Igor Polk: Some time ago I have asked: "I am looking for advice how to make tango attractive for men who are looking for masculinity in Tango. As for ladies, I am deeply interested how to teach them be more feminine, find that feminine power in themselves dancing tango." This topic is for men. Deby Novitz even said: "This whole conversation about masculinity in tango is a little weird for me. To be honest, I don't understand it at all. "

Before publishing an answer, I feel I have to clarify my view on what masculine and feminine power is.

Being masculine means when other men, say friends of a dancing men, admire the dancing of the dancing man. And all them want to look and act like him. Probably, it should include confidence, strength, agile movements, control over the situation, and admiring expression of the face of his lady ( an her loving embrace).

Inner Men's power is like that - confidence, ability to control the situation, providing freedom and security to his lady, and may be at the same time playfulness, risky, sharp, powerful dancing style - just to prove his mastery in the first group of his abilities: "See? No matter what, she dances great!"

Shortly, ability to make her dance well with him and to show his friends that it is very easy for him, and at the same time look the way men like.

Woman's power is not surrendness, even though it is a pre-requisite to it. It is ability to control the situation by other means than direct. Ability to influence her man in such a way so that he leads her what she wants and the way she wants. ( Surrender to fool him that that it is he who in control ;) ) Ability to handle the situation no matter what and look like a queen always. Ability to make him dance well with her.

Admirers of the good women are... men too. They all want to rush and invite her for dancing.  

* * *
Igor: First I'd like to introduce you to the letter of Jake, which is outstanding and containes most deep thoughts about Masculinity in Tango. Published with permission.

Jake Spatz:

To further address the concept of masculinity in tango, you might simply look at the lyrics. I wrote an essay comparing the two recordings of "Humillacion" by D'Arienzo and Biagi, and that would be a good place to start. You could also look at the lyrics of "Muchacho" on my website-- that song is virtually a _definition_ of the real male tanguero vs. the poseur.

It's all about defiance-- of history, of society, of fate... of everything except the woman in your arms. She's the one thing in the world that's on your side. That's the culture... and it's very much an immigrant culture. The dignity of tango is an aggressive act AGAINST the world, because the world is what puts you down, tells you you're not a man, you're not a "citizen," you're not worthy enough. Tango is a big Fuck You to that voice of the establishment. Want proof? As soon as tango became culturally accepted, circa 1955, it began to perish. Same thing happened to jazz: as long as it can be a subculture, and subversive, it's got meaning and energy and soul. Once it becomes the norm, tango is all cliche-- a parody of itself, a caricature.

That's what I think, anyway. Just consider Pugliese: he's the saint of tango, and what did he do? He spent time in jail. He defied the government and the music market itself. His whole career is a kind of protest against mediocrity, in favor of excellence and honor. And he did it with total dignity, and without any elitism. THAT is a man, if you ask me.

Just tell people what happened. Tell them about the men. The dance will take care of itself. Play Di Sarli's "Comme il faut" and tell them it's the soundtrack of the apocalypse, and that they're the last people on earth, and that they're about to be destroyed. If they can't figure it out from there, they should be dancing something less sublime and more "up."

Make any sense to you?

* * *
Igor: Now back to regular discussion:

Sergio Vandekier:

"..In my many years of growing up in Argentina and abroad and dancing tango this is the first time I heard that "men abandoned dancing tango because they thought tango was feminine". I must confess: this possibility had never crossed my mind. This has to be the most unusual and absurd problem in the world of tango. Quite the opposite in Argentina "Tango is Macho". It is virile, poised, proud and somewhat arrogant like an Argentine man. Tango reflects his personality and his culture..."

* * *

"...I will admit that watching the standard ballroom "Latin" dances, the men end up looking a little in the effeminate side. I think this is because the mannerisms that they do look more like a parody of the dance, their exaggerated hip movements don't help much either... This effeminate posturing is not prevalent in real salsa dancing or swing or tango. Still, when a jock type thinks of dancing, he perhaps thinks of the ballroom competitions he saw on TV.... Forget those guys, they'll never get into tango or any other dance. As for the rest, just teach them and encourage them to hang in there until they gain some confidence and a sense of achievement."

* * *
Victor Bennetts:

"... I just want to add a few observations of my own. In Australia there is also a strong macho culture which generally is sport orientated and regards dancing as for 'girls'. I have a lot of friends who are constantly being henpecked by their wives and girlfriends to do ballroom and salsa, mostly on the back of tv shows like 'dancing with the stars'. When I tell them I dance tango and love it they generally look at me as if I am some sort of traitor to the male race. So now I usually say something like 'ok, but in tango its not about learning a whole series of steps, the man improvises the lead (like playing jazz) and the woman must follow as if she is some beautiful instrument you are playing'. Generally I get no more questions about why I might like tango, I just get questions about how I can stand to see my wife dancing with other men :-)So I think if the classes emphasize the roles and the lead and the follow rather than slavishly trying to teach a series of steps (the hated! by me 8 step basic) then men usually stick with it at least as much as women.

On the follow I would just add that I don't really like the word 'surrender'. Good following in my opinion is clearly feminine but not submissive. I see leading as a bit like getting up on the bus to offer your seat to a woman or opening a door for a woman. It is something clearly masculine that comes from a different time, but we can still enjoy it today without feeling that the woman is surrendering any part of her freedom. To mark a step is to make a rather beautiful proposal where you are not expecting anything in return other than the satisfaction of seeing the step followed well. The woman might be accepting your invitation, but she is not merely surrendering to you. She does have to trust you but she might be a better dancer than you. She might actually give you some feedback in the way she steps about the speed of the music or that she wants to do some embellishments. The dance just requires that she does that in the context of your invitation. In fact I would say th! at dancing with a follower who just surrenders to you and gives nothing back is pretty dreary. You need them to step in the context of your lead, but to do it with some intention, resistance, intelligence whatever you want to call it. "


* * *

"..My wife and I have had some conversations on this subject in the past, as well as the broader topic of why it's hard for people (men in particular) to get into, or stay with tango. In the US (the only place I really know anything about), most of the teachers are female, at least where I live anyways. While for the most part, they are very good dancers, but some of the things they explain (and some of the exercises), are not in the least bit helpful for me. At my very first tango class, we focused on (what I would call), some "touchy feely" types of exercises. Not only did I not get anything at all from them, they actually made me want to leave and never come back. If it weren't for the fact that my wife and I had signed up together for a series of classes, that first class would have been the end of my tango adventure. I now understand what they were trying to teach in that first class, but that doesn't change the fact that not only was it was a complete waste of my ti! me, but it actually was pure agony. BTW, my wife thought the class was just fine. :)

Another example from my first class, was when I was first told, "lead from the chest, not from the arms". This might have made some sense to me, if we were in close embrace, but since we were in a practice embrace, (and our chests were not touching, just our arms), of course I had no clue what she was talking about. This forces me to have to make a guess at what they actually mean, and when you are a beginner, the odds of a correct guess are very low. Eventually, another instructor explained to me, the concept of "The Frame", and I was able to understand it (you do use your arms, but together with your chest and shoulders).

Over the past few months, I have taken some workshops from Argentine men, and the philosophy from them seems to be different from what I hear from American women instructors. In a lot of classes I'll ask questions on how to lead x, y, or z. The difference seems to be (and this is likely an over simplification), American female teachers say, "the lead is an invitation", meaning (to me) the women is free to accept or decline the invitation. However, when I've asked Argentine men on various leads where I'm having a problem, I usually hear something along the lines of, "Be the man", or "Do what you have to do, to get her to follow". :)

FWIW, I went to my first milonga, maybe 4 - 6 weeks after starting the tango. While I know that I was lousy, people did dance with me, and it made me want to continue. I usually asked people for feedback, and I received lots of helpful suggestions. The things that multiple people commented on, were the things that I focused on. In my opinion, beginners dancing with other beginners, is an extremely slow way of learning the tango. For me, getting out to milongas every couple of weeks and dancing, along with taking an occasional private lesson to get me past things I am stuck on, seemed to work much better for me. Of course, my wife and I continue to take weekly group lessons on various topics.

I think that teachers should find ways to get new dancers (men in particular) to feel like they are making progress, and it is worth their time. Once someone cathes the "tango bug" they might be willing to put up with very slow progress, but not initially. Like it or not, that's they way most men (at least in the US) are. We in the tango community can either complain about it (ie, do nothing), or deal with it and figure out what to do differently, to get a different result. Another way of stating it is, "If you keep doing what you've been doing, you're going to keep getting what you've got".

* * *
Michael Ditkoff:

"...A woman should should also exude confidence, posture, and precise control of body and movement. IMHO, the above items are not gender specific."

* * *

"..You would have to work darn hard to convince me that any of the big tango bands (run by men) are free of emotion. Heck, that's what got me interested in tango is that raw quality..."

"..So in tango -- and here I go trying to hop back on the topic -- I posit that what the aim is, is for a male to be passionate at the same he is firmly and coolly in control. It is this tension I think women would find more interesting (and is most likely more like the milieu in which tango used to be done)... "

"..> If a man was to show an emotion, OMG, it would kill him. That's because many confuse weakness with softness. >
Nope. I show emotion all the time. I just refuse to let the bad ones control me... "

* * *
Darlene: "Igor's Question: a woman's perspective"

Hello All,

This is my first time posting... I don't like to be considered someone that "lurks" on the list without ever responding back... yes, I'm a bit of a voyeur. I enjoyed the Heel-Toe discussion that went on for far too long, etc. and was a bit dismayed that more of a discussion about "perverts" didn't linger longer. Such are the whims of a discussion list. Also, thankfully, most of us just have better things to do... like DANCE.

But I thought I'd give my answer to your question, Igor.

When I first started dancing tango a lot of women were nice and a lot weren't so nice to me. They have the basic societal issue of "competition" and were none too pleased there was yet another female to contend with. An attractive female the men wanted to dance with (no matter how unskilled I was) didn't help matters. I purposefully go out of my way to make sure that women, and especially attractive women, feel welcome and warm and accepted because of my lukewarm reception when I first started. I genuinely am happy to have them -- BTW, it doesn't matter what size you are, how old you are, how much money you have, etc. to be attractive. Just making the effort to look your best is all.

Here I am, a woman, about to tell you what I think men are up to. Sorry to burst some of your bubbles... we women are smarter than we look. We also may not be exactly right in all cases so this is just my opinion. Thanks for allowing me to share it.

Basically, men want to dance with attractive women that smell nice, are good conversationalists, etc. and make them feel good about themselves. When a guy is new, he doesn't have a clue about the "proper" embrace. A strong lead can take an inexperienced woman and make her look and FEEL great. A weak lead feels completely intimidated and like a blubbering idiot.

I have over many years invited, coerced and bribed (with the promise of a date, if you will, for some fellow that actually learned tango) many men to visit our community with the goal of adding them to the Argentine Tango herd. I have grabbed them from West Coast Swing, East Coast Swing, Country/Western and my former boyfriend (before Tango became my "boyfriend"), Salsa. I've given free lessons, cheap lessons and encouraged them to go someplace else for group or private lessons, etc.

They're consensus? Gosh, I hope you're sitting down. They didn't like the music.

Okay, there, I've said it. Please don't get all your tailfeathers ruffled over yet another discussion about "traditional, alternative, neo, nuevo," etc. on me. This isn't about that well-worn topic. Of the 40 or so men, NONE liked the music. They danced the other stuff because it was what they could hear a beat to, or dance to without thinking or whatever. What does that tell me? These guys dance to get laid. The go to hold women. They're doing the same thing many of us single people are doing: they're looking for love. My fault that I didn't find a "dancer" amongst them -- I just didn't get that right!

Our AT is much more sacred than that. We cull the herd of the players pretty easily and quickly. You MUST become obsessed with the dance and to many of the men, they know they're goal was to meet a chick and move on to other things. How many of us know of a particular guy or gal that once they found someone (in whatever dance form / style it happened to be) they NEVER went to tango anymore? I can think of 3 couples from my former AT community. How many of us know a guy in our communities right now that really only dances tango as a means to find yet another vulnerable, gullible woman he has absolutely no intention of developing anything more serious with than an affair because he is a MILONGUERO in the worst possible way? And we "let" them do it because, dammit, they're good dancers!

Don't blame them. They have a goal. They've succeeded.

I always am excited when I meet a man that hasn't danced anything. He doesn't have any preconceived notions. These are our victims (oops, I mean... targets... oops, I mean... people of interest to focus our recruiting goals on).

We come to tango for many reasons.

We are the lucky ones that, for whatever reason we came to tango, FOUND tango. Who cares about finding the other things? Perhaps, we reason, we'll eventually find that. It is no longer the goal if it ever was.

When I was a cocktail waitress, in those crazy times known as the 80's, one particular evening a man, shirt open to the navel, hairy chest, gold chains, was "talking up" some women in my section. I came to their rescue and explained that since he came over to meet the women and he'd done just that, he should now move on. Well, he went and complained to the Owner (not just a bartender or manager, mind you -- I really ticked him off). The owner had a bit of a talk with me but did an about face when I simply explained to him my modus operandi -- I always concentrate on the women. If he doesn't have happy, attractive women in his establishment, he won't have any men. Folks, I didn't lose my job... lol ;)

Igor, this is the harsh reality of our societal existence: to "make tango more attractive to men" we just need to keep as many attractive females around. BTW, it wouldn't do us any harm to have really, hot, young, gorgeous men around, too, right ladies?

As for men that aren't masculine enough... yup. This is tricky. I don't like to dance with effeminate men that are spaghetti noodles. You guys know what I mean because I hear you men tell me about so-n-so women, etc. doing that exact same thing. I've worked with a few of my gay friends (from when I modeled, etc. -- not from dancing, okay?) to "butch" up their walk, etc. but they are just of the stubborn variety (like us all, duh!) that think someone should love them for who they are (how sophomoric, right?) -- kidding. I think what women don't want is a guy that thinks he's straight that really is gay lurking (there's that word again) in tango parlors. We want men that are men that are good dancers.

Men want women that are women that are good dancers.

Bottom line: there's no easy answer here.

We already have alternative tango nights. We play stuff that borders on undanceable to the DIEHARD traditionalists (you know, the dancers that, more than likely have been to our sacred Buenos Aires and so therefore, "know" what tango really is, the ones that have completely forgotten what it was like when they first started dancing and someone was kind enough to focus on music they knew or could easily find a beat to, the ones that maybe were given patterns, the ones who now REFUSE to dance to alternative or with beginners). You people MAY be responsible for keeping tango elitist, snobbish, incestuous and inbred by sticking to your guns on this... maybe not.)

Maybe patterns are easier for our beginning men so we need to remember to listen to our students to find out what they need. I wasn't taught patterns until I started going to group lessons. Until then, all I did was dance.

Better dancers need to dance with beginners... both leaders and followers. Make people comfortable and feel welcome.

I owe a debt of gratitude to all the dancers before me. I don't have as much experience (only dancing AT 6 years). I try to be open-minded... thinking one day I may be exactly like them and unable to bring myself to dance ever again with a beginner -- I'm almost there, folks, really (and fearful of that, you have no idea). You'd have to know me to know my intentions with tango... but, generally speaking, being elitist isn't it.

I hope to see many of you at the Portland Tango Fest!




* * *

To hop in, briefly:

Jeff wrote:
> Men don't show emotion because usually when confronted with a predator that is a sign of vulnerability.
1. Man is a predator.
2. Courage is an emotion.
> So lemma see, we have Shakespeares, Beethovens and at least a few other guys who are anything but emotional cripples. >
We also have the entire Mediterranean basin, for starters. :-)
> So in tango -- and here I go trying to hop back on the topic -- I posit that what the aim is, is for a male to be passionate at the same he is firmly and coolly in control.
I think this whole issue could be cleared up by allowing American men to have male (rather than female) emotions.
> I suspect that the original comment from Igor was someone taking a dig at him or possibly assuming that tango was just a subset of ballroom.
On the contrary, Igor was asking for counsel on behalf of his students and new male dancers in general.

In my opinion, if one (as a teacher) is going to broach the topic of what's masculine and what's feminine, one should be able to embody the one and inspire the other-- or mock both of them-- or etc. To raise the topic and remain incapable of illustrating it isn't fair to students. Teachers should stick to what they can successfully embody in their own person, because a major part of what a teacher does is serve as a role model.

Igor in particular might want to avoid the topic verbally for a while, and just show the men what (and how) a man (a gentleman) IS, while addressing less thorny topics. Or else use satire.


* * *
Tom Stermitz,

"... We've been throwing around the terms feminine and masculine, and those are useful but loaded terms. A more specific and easier to address issue is to address CONFIDENCE or lack thereof. Yes, tango requires masculine guys, but at the basic level it isn't that these guys aren't masculine. They feel tentative because they aren't confident. Tango requires (the follower requires), that the man proposes an idea, a step a sequence of steps or whatever. This is daunting for the men at first, and the crux of the problem is confidence vs uncertainty.

I've taught for ten years, which is important because I've tried and abandoned many things with a specific goal of creating better retention of the men. Women are important, but they have more patience, can learn quickly in privates, and in general have an easier time with tangoat the beginning. Retain the men, and we'll retain the women.

In my experience, the single most important driver for retaining the guys is whether they feel confident. Secondly, the foundation for confidence is understanding the music. You can draw a big fat arrow:


* * *
Steve Pastor:

"Please, help to find ways to uncover masculine part of tango to potential great leaders !"

This is acually an interesting subject which, to me, requires a review of the changing roles of men and women in the U.S. in general (and perhaps other English speaking countries).
I think these lyrics capture some of the confusion...

"Real Men" by Joe Jackson (1982)

Take your mind back - I don't know when
sometime when it always seemed
to be just us and them
girls who wore pink
and boys that wore blue
boys that always grew up better men
than me and you

What's a man now - what's a man mean
Is he rough or is he rugged
is he cultural and clean
Now it's all change - it's got to chage more
'cause we think it's getting better
but nobody's really sure.

Some of you may remember that we went through a period here in the US where women routinely criticized men for being Neanderthals. Many men responded to this by toning down the more overt aspects of being male. Soon, historically speaking, women started asking where all of the "real men" had gone. Because of my age, and the pre feminist culture I grew up in, I think I have a pretty good idea of what "masculinity" looks like in dance. Defining it point by point is not so easy, however. It has a lot to do, though, with the fact that the man is usually bigger and stronger than the woman. Both the man and the woman accept this, and form their partnership acccordingly. If you don't accept the biological difference between men and women, I think you will have difficulty uncovering the masculine part of tango.

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Greg G:


This tends to be the thing I find most guys around here struggle with. In ballroom dances, there's a known timing that you can find in the music. With Argentine Tango, there isn't. AT is more about feeling the music. That's a difficult concept to get across sometimes, especially when you're also trying to teach them how tango works. This gets more problematic when the music branches out away from traditional tango music.

* * *
Caroline Polack: ( One who "has been to our sacred Buenos Aires and so therefore, "know" what tango really is".)

"..My least favourite leaders are the tentative insecure ones. Their leading is weak. Weak core, spaghetti arms, muddy cues, weak axis, weak balance, weak grounding. They either are too weak or too aggressive in their leading, both signs of lack of confidence.

So, essentially, weakness in leading is not masculine. Lack of confidence is not masculine. Worse of all are leaders who can't stop apologizing. Please just cut that out. A simple squeeze or stroke is more than apology enough.

Signed "

* * *
Sergio Vandekier:

" Finally we arrived to equating masculinity with confidence.

1. One of the male characteristics that in some way I initially described as " the man being poised" : a state of balance or equilibrium, as from equality or equal distribution of weight; equipoise.

2. A dignified, self-confident manner or bearing; composure; self-possession: to show poise in company.

3. Steadiness; stability: intellectual poise.

Man in Argentine society like in tango is confident, he is in charge, he knows where he wants to go and how to get there or at least he projects an image of knowing even when he does not know. This cultural characteristic is present in Tango.

He moves without hesitation, with authority, and certain arrogance.

He needs the woman and her femininity. He wants her for himself and seeks her attention. He adores her and expects her to spend time with him. He knows that the most valuable thing she can give him is her femininity. Something that he does not have and only a woman can give him. This is her strength and he is conscious about it.

Now when you have a beginner man who has to concentrate in the music (which he does not understand), that has to concentrate in his foot work (which is very difficult, even when doing a simple walk), at the same time in leading the woman (something that he cannot do) and also to avoid collisions, following the line of dance, staying on the periphery of the floor (something that he frequently forgets to do).

How can he be poised and have confidence?

How can he have confidence when the woman that is his companion learns to dance faster than he does, when she seems to be dancing and following the instructor or other dancers with ease, yet she has lots of problems following him.

He has no confidence, he moves with hesitation, his face red with rage, while his partner assumes a posture of passive victim, dancing with hopeless number.

No wonder he finally quits, his ago and confidence shattered into small pieces.

So now let's go and create a method of teaching men to dance tango that prevents and avoids these problems.

Good luck"

* * *

"Hi Greg, I'm always puzzled by statements such as yours. I appreciate your contribution and courage to post your opinion, but I have to wonder what tango music you are talking about.... Maybe you are trying to find a steady, easy to follow beat to the music of Hugo Diaz' harmonica.... Otherwise I cannot believe that you can say that there is no known timing in Argentine tango music. ...The beat of danceable tango music is so pronounced and overpowering that you have to dance rhythmically.... The 4x4 and 2x4 of the tango is incredibly strong. Milonga and vals are also extremely rhythmical and the beat or timing is very easy to feel...

Still, I do believe you. I've met a number of guys and women who have the hardest time finding the rhythm of the tango. I don't know what it is, but some folks just have a hard time with music... I've taught in many classes by having the people tap their foot to the strong beats in tango, I've had them snap their fingers and even clap their hands to the beat. They seem to get it, but immediately after the exercise, they dance completely off the beat. It's amazing really, I wish there was something that could be taken or inhaled to make the beat accessible to more people... Please, try listening to Rodriguez of the 50's, Darienzo from the 30's and 40's, and definitely good old Di Sarli from the 50's. If you don't hear the the timing pretty soon, please go to some teachers and ask them to work with you to help you find and use the beat of the tango. I guarantee you that there is so much rhythm in tango that it's practically impossible to ignore. Cheers, "


* * *
Victor Bennetts:

"Greg, If you find dancing to the rhythm difficult you could try dancing to the melody instead..."


* * *
Deby Novitz:

"..A fat, unattractive guy who you would never give the time of day to in the street, in the milonga suddenly becomes a King because he can dance. He knows that. Oh yes he does. With many more women than men, he can dance with who he wants. Just because he danced with you before, doesn't mean he will dance with you tonight, no matter how much he enjoyed that dance he had with you before. You need to earn that dance again. "


* * *

On 10/11/07, Jay Rabe wrote:

> > >Victor wrote:> Its not unusual for a follower to do something you don't expect.
> Amen. In fact, if you get right down to it, it's pretty UNusual for a
> follower, no matter how experienced, to do EXACTLY what you expect, in terms
> of her step speed, direction, or timing. IMO one of the goals of a leader is
> to accommodate the variability of his follower's responses. Like Gavito
> said, "I lead, but I follow." The leader cannot afford to "expect," to count
> on, a specific response. He must wait for her to start moving, pay enough
> attention to her that he can see/feel what she's doing, and adjust his step
> and body mechanics accordingly.

Sssh. Don't tell anyone this. This is a secret. Imagine telling a beginner man he has to

HE HAS TO FOLLOW THE WOMAN'S REPSONSE TO HIS LEAD TO DETERMINE HIS NEXT MOVE ?? (within a millisecond, after all, this is not chess), and take responsibility for whatever goes wrong.

And we wonder why there aren't enough men in tango.

Yet the surviving men keep trying. It must be that the rewards of tango are greater than its obstacles.



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Published with permission,
Copyright©2007 Igor Polk, Jake Spatz
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