“It’s chaotic and fantastic,” said Karen Curtis, Abrazo Queer Tango founder and Queer Tango Festivalito organizer, in an interview with The Daily Californian about her personal connection to the festival. “It’s exhausting and exhilarating.”
Abrazo Queer Tango, a Berkeley-based and volunteer-run organization, has been giving queer Argentine tango classes to dancers of all levels since 2011. In addition to these classes, which take place on Sundays at Finnish Hall, weekly “practicas” are also held as informal events to practice the dance. And, on the third Saturday of every month, Abrazo Queer Tango puts on a “milonga,” a more formal social event similar to a practica. Traditionally, Argentine tango has been thought to uphold rigid gender norms and the Hispanic concept of “machismo” — essentially, performative masculinity — as a partner dance that most often takes place between a man, who leads, and a woman, who follows.
Curtis pointed out, though, that this beautiful partner dance has a history of being danced by same-gender partners. Before the traditional concept of tango arose, the dance originated as a form men would practice with each other, although there are also early 20th-century postcards depicting women dancing tango together. Thereafter, however, milongas historically only allowed opposite-gender partners to dance with each other in public.
“When you say … ‘traditional tango,’ people assume that you mean a man leading and a woman following,” Curtis said. “Our goal is to say, ‘Here’s this beautiful dance; it doesn’t belong to any one group or any one orientation. It’s a beautiful partner dance and we invite you to come and engage with it and dance the role that inspires you.’”
Thus, in queer tango, the “queer” aspect has to do with shifting preconceived notions of gender norms. In a queer tango setting, anyone can lead or follow no matter their gender. This is the idea behind the broader international queer tango movement. Although Abrazo Queer Tango did not create Bay Area queer tango — that’s an accomplishment credited to QueerTango San Francisco, the organization that first started leading queer milongas in the Bay Area — it is now the organization that puts on Queer Tango Festivalito, an annual queer tango festival taking place at Berkeley and Oakland locations. According to Curtis, New York is the only other city to have an annual queer tango festival.
A critical aspect of the festival is that every year, the organization hosts a tango teacher from abroad or somewhere else in the United States; this teacher comes to the festival and leads workshops and private lessons as well as puts on performances at the festival’s milongas. This year’s teacher is Gaston Olguin, an accomplished tango dancer from Buenos Aires who has been dancing since he was nine years old.
As noted by Curtis, the festival has come a long way since its 2012 beginnings — the original organizers were only able to put on the 2012 festival because one of them had airline miles to transport a teacher to the Bay Area. Nowadays, the festival is much larger and can financially sustain itself.
On March 18, the festival will kick off with a milonga at Oakland’s queer-owned Wooden Table Cafe, one of the festival’s sponsors. This evening will be an opportunity for festivalgoers, many of whom often commute to the Bay Area, to get to know one another.
Then, from March 19-20, Finnish Hall hosts queer tango workshops and practicas; the festival concludes with a gala event at Lake Merritt Dance in Oakland. This year’s gala will feature a performance by the Quinta Tango orchestra, which is an all-women tango ensemble.
Lily Hanson, a UC Berkeley physics graduate student who is currently writing her dissertation, got involved with Abrazo Queer Tango just under four years ago. As a dance enthusiast, she stumbled upon the organization while looking for dance opportunities in the Bay Area. She described herself as someone who eagerly jumped into social dancing opportunities, and as a physics student, she said she is particularly appreciative of the bodily complexities that tango demands.
One unique aspect of tango is the way in which potential partners communicate with each other — there is an established etiquette. As Hanson noted in an interview with the Daily Cal, this communication can sometimes be confusing in queer tango. Gender performances can muddle someone’s desire to be perceived as a leader or a follower. Thus, it can sometimes be good to think strategically and to make sure you show off the role you wish to take from the start so that other attendees will immediately understand which “role inspires you,” as Curtis put it.
“The most important thing is communication,” Hanson said. “Most of the people around you will remember what that was like (to be a beginner) and how hard it was.”
For Curtis, watching dancers get over this initial hurdle is one of queer tango’s most gratifying aspects. In this dance, liberation can be found — one unique to the experience of turning gender roles upside down.
The Queer Tango Festivalito will take place March 18-20. More information can be found on abrazoqueertango.wordpress.com.