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In the popular imagination, tango is an exotic seduction born on the sultry streets of Buenos Aires. In truth, it’s a complex improvised form danced the world over.


Social tango is an improvised art form.

Carolyn Merrit: So, you share a vocabulary of steps with your partner. But what happens when you step into the embrace is unknown from second to second, which is terrifying on the one hand, but incredibly exciting on the other.

And nobody understands this better than Gustavo Naveira, who with his wife and dance partner, Giselle Anne, are among the foremost exponents of the form.

Giselle Anne: As soon as he starts—

Gustavo Naveira: Is the instant.

Anne: I react at the moment.

Naveira: We go together and it’s there.

Anne: Yeah.

Naveira: It’s just a click.

Naveira is one of the leaders of the great late 20th century renaissance in Argentinian tango, which continues today.

Meredith Klein: From the mid 80s ’til now, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every single day more people have danced tango.

Yet the common perception of tango has been more than slightly warped by representations in popular culture.

Merrit: So, I think the images that we have of tango are largely informed by television and by movies. I think in the popular imagination that the intimacy and the sensual or the sexual or the passionate elements are very easily read from the outside. I think that what’s happening inside the dance can be much more than that.

Klein: It’s very intimate without being sexual at all. In our lives we dance with hundreds, thousands of different people and it’s really inappropriate to bring that dynamic to all of those encounters. Maybe, occasionally that exists between you and a person, but just as rarely as it exists in the rest of the world.

Naveira: The dance we are doing in general, couple dances, are more about concentration, more about feeling movement… Communication between the partners. It’s a great pleasure to coordinate movement and be successful in that.

Klein: And that experience of coming completely into the moment is what people are seeking in so many different ways. It’s about leading and following, and that there’s no way to come into an embrace with someone and not know what’s gonna happen without paying complete attention to each other and letting go of the external. So, for us, in the moment, it’s very internal, and very subtle and whatever looks showy or impressive from outside is just a byproduct of that connection.

Yet, that connection is governed by strict gender roles. 

AJC: Can you make a man dance?

Anne: Not really,

Naveira: Not really.

Anne: The other way around doesn’t work really in the same way.

Naveira: The system is that the man leads and the woman follows the man’s decisions. This said like that sounds terrible, but the system gives the opportunity for both to fully dance with all the needs of expression and give it shape and give it rhythm and give all kinds of nuances.

Merrit: For me, an ideal tango is one that becomes a little bit more of a conversation, even though I’m stepping into the embrace in the role of follower.

Klein: But, if the guy has a kind of skewed sense of the lead and he feels that the dance is created by him molding and shaping the follower’s body and physically moving her through space as opposed to asking that she move, then it’s uncomfortable.

And in social settings, the partner’s roles continue to be defined by gender. It is the man who asks the woman to dance.

Merrit: The invitation to dance is generally initiated and accepted without speaking.

Klein: The request is given by a look. It’s called the cabeceo, and it’s a way of looking at someone significantly across the room and when they meet your eye contact then a slight nod or a gesture toward the dance floor… Very subtle, so theoretically people around if you are accepted and you go out to dance, they see that, but if you’re rejected, no one sees anything.

Merrit: Ultimately the woman is responsible for closing the deal. So, the dance doesn’t happen unless the woman meets his gaze and holds it. Then on the other hand the man has to look at her in the first place, so both of them are responsible for that happening.

And though many traditions of tango survive today, the form has continued to evolve. The dance lay almost dormant for more than two decades during a period of great social and political upheaval in Argentina. After democracy returned in 1983, there was a resurgence in interest in cultural heritage. The tango revival, begun at the University of Buenos Aires, was led by Gustavo Naveira.

Klein: So this group of young students started sleuthing everywhere in Buenos Aires to try to find people who were still dancing and learn all they could from them. They really looked in every corner of the city and they found the groups of mostly older people who were still getting together and dancing.

But this endeavor was hampered by a dearth of academic tools for explaining the dance.

Klein: To a really great extent, wonderful dancers didn’t really know what they did, and it made it really hard to learn. So, for example, your friend might ask you “How do you do that gancho, that hooking movement of the leg that’s so cool.” And you might be like “Oh, yeah, here, watch.” And you might show it to him, and he’s kind of there scratching his head. And he’s like “Well, did you start with your left foot or your right?” Then you ask your friend again and he goes and does the same gancho but this time he gets into it in a completely different way. And he doesn’t even realize because it’s so innate in him to get to this gancho but he hasn’t studied how he does it, or systematized it in any way. So what Gustavo Naveira did in the mid to late 90s was run a series of practicas, and they analyzed the dance. So, as they investigated, they developed a language that allows you to really understand what they were doing, and be able to teach it much, much better, but also it made them realize that they were only realizing say, five to ten percent of the possibilities of this language. And so they started to use the terminology to permute the movements so that instead of that one gancho that you asked your friend about, all of a sudden there were 36 ways to do a gancho.

During this period of reinvention, tango music was also going through a period of discovery. Some of which caught on.

Merrit: Electronic tango compositions were being produced and released by Argentine bands, primarily.

Merrit: I think a lot of younger dancers and, younger and international listeners of tango music, of electronic music accepted it as tango. Tango traditionalists in Argentina, no, mm mm, it’s not tango.

Naveira: A tango dancer could dance any music.

AJC: You don’t need to have that—

Naveira: You don’t need to have exactly the traditional tango. You could do it to any music. But, I do believe we still don’t have better music for that dance. It’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect.

Merrit: I think that there is something essentially emotional about the music of tango. And I think that many people perceive that when they hear it. The sound of the bandoneon is famously melancholy. People say that the instrument weeps.

Today, the godfather of 21st century tango, Gustavo Naveira, believes the form belongs to everybody.

Naveira: People from all over the world can perceive the feelings of that music, and they have their own feelings. The dance can bring you through a process that it’s absolutely magic for everybody. I don’t feel that I am the magician. I feel that it’s something that happens. Maybe it could be explained by science, I don’t know. But it happens, it’s there. I’m part of it. So I don’t take a role and say “I’m the magician, you’re the public, and you’re the listener,” or “you are the…” No. We go, we dance, and we live in a kind of magic world for three minutes.