Dancing with Women

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

After many years in the tango community, classes for women still hold a special place in my heart. In offering them, I think not only of female tango dancers, but also of the entire spectrum of feminist effort in the world, the right of women to dress, live, study, work, marry, create, and reproduce (or not) as they themselves choose. Relatively speaking, most women in the United States live well, but “it could be worse” is not an answer to the question of equality and freedom. There is inspiring “feministing” to be done everywhere, some of it subtle and some of it fierce. I imagine all of it flowing into the same river of compassionate progress.

You may be thinking, dancing is what I do for fun! I don’t want it to be work! And I would agree with you. I guess I just don’t view uplifting women as the tedious or boring kind of work, but rather a kind of “creative work,” like arranging flowers or decorating roller skates. I do it for the same reason I dance at all, because it’s meaningful and satisfying! For many women who have followed for a long time, it can be very refreshing to lead, especially if it means they can dance more frequently. Others report greater satisfaction with their overall social tango experience when they share learning and dancing time with other women.

Like all art forms, tango invites us into the world of imagination. In my tango world, everyone in the room has equal access to the resources and pleasure of the tango tradition and is free to participate in it as they so choose. This world is a curious, playful, and accepting one, and I am delighted to see it materializing more and more in the cities and towns I visit. In my observation, female leaders are often the hallmark of this atmospheric shift.

Mine was a typical fledgling tango community in the late 1990s: a handful of obsessed beginners but no dedicated teachers, and a few seasoned dancers who told the rest of us captivating stories about Buenos Aires. We organized workshop weekends with visiting artists and then practiced the material for hours on end, willing the tango into our bodies through sheer enthusiasm. I was as passionate as any tango pioneer, but my community still had its share of challenges.

Learning to lead kept me involved with tango when women outnumbered men 3:1. I know with certainty that I would have quit long ago had I not had the opportunity to learn both parts. Leading also gave me deep and lasting female friendships that have supported and nurtured me both inside and outside the tango community.  Those women hugged me when Mr. Right did not ask me to dance, when Mr. Wrong harassed me mid-tanda, when my skimpy top twisted sideways at the wrong moment, when my own ill-placed stiletto drew blood. They reassured me that I was not alone in my disappointments and mistakes, both tango-related and otherwise. In fact, my most cherished friends today are the women I have held in my arms on the dance floor.

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

The perspective of the leader as well as that of the follower has enabled me to teach successfully as a solo artist, both through community organizations and in university settings. This career also gave me the opportunity to travel and the time to refine my skills and gain deeper generalized knowledge of movement. It also greatly influenced my craft as a choreographer of dance performance, both within the classic tango form and when exploring hybrid movement languages and theatrical structures.

Beyond my own story, though, one of the biggest reasons I continue to offer events for women is simply to keep them dancing! I want tango to be healthy and inspiring for women and the truth is that it is not always that. Whether it is a gender imbalance, stereotypes of “younger” vs “older” women, or other stresses, many women speak of frustration and lack of fulfillment stemming from the social tango environment. Learning to lead together creates a relaxed, supportive space in which they can cultivate tango in a different way.

Because when women DO stay involved for the long haul, and find ways to enjoy tango on their own terms, everyone wins! The community as a whole grows stronger and benefits both from their dancing skills and also from a multitude of creative contributions that range from DJ-ing to dressmaking. Studying both roles and contributing over time looks different for each woman. Maybe you find that your boleos are more balanced and powerful, or you discover that when injuries prevent you from following, you can still lead comfortably. Maybe you learn to play the bandoneón, or produce a festival. Whatever your vision is, I’d like to do my part in making room for it to enter the tango world.

If you are a woman who leads, or have one in your life, please share a dancing story or image in the comments.