On a recent Sunday afternoon at Finnish Hall, tango teacher Mira Barakat demonstrated a connection exercise designed to help students better respond to their partner’s movements.
“Leaders, hands up,” she said, playing the music on her laptop. It was time for the students to pair up and practice.
Although men have traditionally assumed the role of leaders and women of followers of social dancing, but it was Abrazo Queer Tango, meaning some women led, some men followed, and a few students did both during the one-hour class. It always takes two to tango, but in a queer tango class, the role you choose won’t be determined by your gender.
Abrazo is part of the Bay Area’s queer tango community, one of the largest in the country and an outgrowth of a global movement.
“Queer tango is Argentine tango without the homophobia, transphobia and rigid heteronormative rules that exclude many people from dancing,” says Karen Lubisch, one of the founders of Abrazo Queer Tango, which offers classes and dances, called milongasin Berkeley since 2012.
Tango has its origins in late 19th-century Buenos Aires, a style of dance and music that brought together influences from black Argentines, Spanish and Italian immigrants, and Europeans of Argentine descent, according to Tango: The Story of the Art of Lovethe groundbreaking 2005 book by Robert Ferris Thompson, which officially recognized the dance’s often overlooked African roots.
The queer community has also been overlooked in the history of tango, although “queer people have been tango dancing since the beginning of tango,” Lubisch said. In fact, American and French postcards of women dancing the tango in the 1920s promoted it as a homosexual dance.
Once the tango gained popularity in Europe and the United States in the 1910s and 20s, it became more of a couple dance for a man and a woman, fueled by films starring Rudolph Valentino. In the 1980’s, argentinian tangoa stage extravaganza performed by dancers from the Buenos Aires neighborhood, created “the strongest tango revival of the 20th century”, according to Thompson.
It has taken more than a century since its inception for the LGBTQ community to reconnect with dance. In 2000, Tango Queer classes and milongas in Hamburg, Germany, helped codify the movement, leading to the creation a year later of Tango Queer in Buenos Aires.
Lubisch discovered queer tango after dabbling in salsa and country western. When her queer salsa teacher started teaching tango in 2009, she took her first steps and had an epiphany.
“I was overwhelmed,” she said, before quoting tango teacher and writer Iona Italia: “Tango is a delight for the physical body that comes from the joy of being alive.” For soft-spoken Lubisch, a self-proclaimed introvert, tango was all that and more. “Tango felt like a distilled fusion of joy,” she said.
Queer tango began in the Bay Area around 2006 by queer tango dancers who became teachers and organized the first classes and dances. With the help of a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous), Lubisch started Abrazo Queer Tango in San Francisco. He operated briefly in Oakland before making Berkeley his permanent home in 2012. She chose the word hugbased on the spanish word for kiss, encouraging the idea of kissing queer tango.
The Bay Area is the nation’s most active and largest queer tango community, Lubisch said, as it offers weekly queer tango classes, offered by Abrazo and individual teachers who run their own classes, as well as Abrazo’s monthly queer classes. milongas.
Abrazo has a mailing list of 300 dancers. About 25-35 people attend his weekly classes at the Finnish Hall, where a beginners class is followed by a one-hour class practice, or practical, followed by an intermediate course. About 35 to 50 people attend its monthly milonga. Fifty to 75 are regulars, but there are also foreigners “who make the Bay Area their year-round queer tango destination,” Lubisch said. Abrazo held annual festivals until the pandemic, which have yet to restart.
Abrazo is part of an informal network of queer tango communities here and abroad that “support each other, learn from each other and grow together,” communicating primarily through Facebook and newsletters, Lubisch said. Washington, DC, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle have well-established queer tango groups, while Chicago, Portland, Austin and Santa Fe have more of a fleeting presence, Lubisch said.
David Lefkowitz, who comes from San Francisco to dance at Abrazo every Sunday, said he also dances elsewhere, but because Abrazo is “more queer oriented, it feels a bit more welcoming.” He dances both roles in the tango in order to improve his mastery.
Compared to other social dances, tango requires a high level of sensitivity from the partner in order to perform the complicated footwork and physical contact. The open embrace creates a kind of separation from its partner, similar to a waltz. The close hug is the cheek-to-cheek stereotype that requires full body contact. Thus, trust issues with a partner also become consequential.
In addition to dancers being assigned a dance role based on their gender, Lubisch said he saw other forms of homophobia, including a teacher unwilling to teach a woman to lead or a man to follow. Such incidents occasionally happened in the early days of Abrazo, but aren’t as much of a problem anymore, Lubisch said.
“What do you do if you’re filming and there are people who don’t want to dance with a woman who’s directing? What if the next man wants to wear heels? asked Lubisch. “It could be dangerous.”
Abrazo is run by volunteers, although the rotating staff of three queer tango teachers and three to five straight teachers and DJs are paid. “They’re straight but not straight,” Lubisch said. “All are wonderful.”
Although Abrazo is designed to be a safe space for the LGBTQ community, not all attendees are gay. A few of the older women told Lubisch that they are often overlooked in a straight environment, where men prefer younger women as partners.
Janette Cariad, a pelvic physical therapist from Berkeley, who describes herself as “open queer,” has been coming to Abrazo for at least seven years.
She first learned to follow but started to lead. “You learn a lot more about dancing playing the opposite role,” she said.
Cariad also dances with The Bruja at the Berkeley City Club, the Argentine Tango Club of (UC) Berkeley and Rhythm on Ninth Street. “What I love about Abrazo are the people,” she said, “with its diversity, and the fact that it’s a very safe space, where I can experience the culture of consent and inclusivity in action.”
“If you go to other milongas, a lot of people have been dancing together for years,” Lefkowitz added. “Here, it’s more about community than parade.”
Like seeing the world in living color
Barakat, originally from Berkeley, is one of Abrazo’s main teachers.
After discovering tango, she moved to Buenos Aires in 2010 and lived there for two years, studying dance. Since then, she has led intensive immersion programs there, called BA. Tango Evolutions.
As a teacher, Barakat said she needs to be aware of everyone’s dance goals to ensure they are supported in dancing the role they want in the way they want. To that end, she asked students at the beginning of class to indicate their preferred pronouns and roles. “I would try to do the same in a live venue, but the queer community is a little more explicitly open to that,” she said.
At the end of the lesson, about half a dozen dancers showed up for practice. Some seemed to have been dancing together for a long time, due to their expertise. Men danced together, women danced together, straight couples too. Barakat mingled with the students as the rapid thrusts of the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument that is a mainstay in a tango orchestra, kept the dancers aware of the rhythm.
A faster, more rhythmic tango, also called a milonga, brought Lubisch to the ground with an accomplished follower. Everyone descended into deep concentration, as the pace demanded quick footwork. They danced flawlessly. As the song ended, the partners bowed to each other, acknowledging their accomplishment.
“That’s what it’s like to have a kaleidoscope of emotions and feelings in the moment,” Lubisch said. “Dancing the tango is like seeing the world in color when you’ve only seen it in black and white.”
Joanne Furio moved to Berkeley because it has sidewalks. She specializes in design in all its forms, innovation and the arts.