On a recent Sunday afternoon at Finnish Hall, Mira Barakat, a tango instructor, demonstrated a connection exercise designed to help students be more responsive to their partner’s movements.
“Leaders, hands in the air,” she said, starting the music on her laptop. It was time for the students to pair off and practice themselves.
Though men have traditionally taken the role as leaders and women as followers in social dance, this was Abrazo Queer Tango, which means some women led, some men followed and a couple of students did both during the one-hour class. It still takes two to tango, but in a queer tango class, whichever role you choose will not be determined by your gender.
Abrazo is part of the Bay Area queer tango community, one of the largest in the country and an outgrowth of a worldwide movement.
“Queer tango is Argentine tango without the homophobia, transphobia and rigid heteronormative rules that exclude lots of people from the dance,” says Karen Lubisch, one of the founders of Abrazo Queer Tango, which has been offering classes and dances, called milongas, in Berkeley since 2012.
Tango has its origins in late 19th-century Buenos Aires, a style of dance and music that brought together the influences of Black Argentinians, Spanish and Italian immigrants and Argentine-born Europeans, according to Tango: The Art History of Love, Robert Ferris Thompson’s groundbreaking 2005 book, which formally recognized the dance’s frequently overlooked African roots.
The queer community has also been overlooked in the history of tango, though “queer people have been dancing tango since the beginning of tango,” said Lubisch. In fact, American and French postcards of women dancing tango in the 1920s promoted it as a same-sex dance.
Once tango gained widespread popularity in Europe and the U.S. during the 1910s and ’20s, it became more of a coupled dance for a man and a woman, fueled by films starring Rudolph Valentino. In the 1980s, Tango Argentino, a stage extravaganza performed by Buenos Aires barrio dancers, created “the strongest tango renaissance of the 20th century,” according to Thompson.
It took more than a century since its inception for the LGBTQ community to reclaim its connection to the dance. In 2000, classes and milongas in Queer Tango in Hamburg, Germany, helped codify the movement, leading to the establishment 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 to teach tango in 2009, she took her first steps and had an epiphany.
“I was bowled over,” she said, before quoting tango teacher and writer Iona Italia: “Tango is a delight in the physical body that comes from the joy of being alive.” To the soft-spoken Lubisch, a self-described introvert, tango was all that and more. “Tango felt like a distilled fusion of joy,” she said.
The queer tango community
Queer tango began in the Bay Area around 2006 by queer tango dancers who went on to become teachers and organized the first classes and dances. With the help of a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous), Lubisch began Abrazo Queer Tango in San Francisco. It operated briefly in Oakland before making Berkeley its permanent home in 2012. She chose the word abrazo, based on the Spanish word for embrace, encouraging the idea of embracing queer tango.
The Bay Area is the most active and largest queer tango community in the country, Lubisch said, because it has weekly queer tango classes, offered by Abrazo and individual teachers who hold their own classes, along with Abrazo’s monthly queer milongas.
Abrazo has an email list of 300 dancers. About 25 to 35 attend its weekly classes at the Finnish Hall, where a beginner’s class is followed by an hour-long practica, or practice, followed by an intermediate class. About 35 to 50 attend its monthly milonga. From 50 to 75 are regulars, but there are also out-of-towners “who make the Bay Area their queer tango destination during the year,” Lubisch said. Abrazo held yearly festivals until the pandemic, which have not yet restarted.
Abrazo is part of an informal network of queer tango communities both here and abroad that “supports each other, learns from each other and expands together,” communicating mostly through Facebook and newsletters, Lubisch said. Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia and Seattle have well-established queer tango groups, while Chicago, Portland, Austin and Santa Fe have more of a pop-up presence, Lubisch said.
David Lefkowitz, who drives in from San Francisco to dance at Abrazo each Sunday, said he also dances elsewhere, but because Abrazo is “more queer-oriented, it feels a bit more welcoming.” He dances both roles in tango as a way to improve his proficiency.
Compared with other social dances, tango requires a high level of partner sensitivity in order to perform the complicated footwork and physical contact. The open embrace creates somewhat of a separation from one’s partner, similar to a waltz. The close embrace is the cheek-to-cheek stereotype that requires full body contact. So issues of trust with a partner also become consequential.
In addition to dancers being assigned a dance role based on their gender, Lubisch said she’s seen other forms of homophobia, including a teacher not wanting to teach a woman to lead or a man to follow. Such incidents occasionally happened in Abrazo’s early days, but are no longer as much of an issue, Lubisch said.
“What do you do if you’re rotating and there are people who don’t want to dance with a woman who is leading? What if the man who is following wants to wear heels?” Lubisch asked. “This could be dangerous.”
Abrazo is run by volunteers, though the rotating staff of three queer tango teachers and three to five straight teachers and DJs do get paid. “They’re straight but not straightlaced,” Lubisch said. “All of them are wonderful.”
Although Abrazo is designed to be a safe space for the LGBTQ community, not all who attend are queer. A few of the older women have told Lubisch that they’re 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 “queer open,” has been coming to Abrazo for at least seven years.
She initially learned to follow but has started to lead. “You learn a lot more about the dance by taking the opposite role,” she said.
Cariad also dances with La Bruja at the Berkeley City Club, the Argentine Tango Club of (UC) Berkeley and The Beat on Ninth Street. “The thing that I like about Abrazo is the people,” she said, “with its diversity, and the fact that it is a very safe space, where I get to experience consent culture 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 showing off.”
Like seeing the world in living color
Barakat, a Berkeley native, is one of Abrazo’s main teachers.
After discovering tango, she moved to Buenos Aires in 2010 and lived there for two years, studying the dance. Since then she has hosted intensive immersion programs there, called BA. Tango Evolutions.
As a teacher, Barakat said she must have an awareness of everyone’s dance goals to make sure they’re supported in dancing the role they want in the way they want. To that end, she asked students at the start of class to state their preferred pronouns and roles. “I would try to do the same thing in a straight place, but the queer community is a little more explicity open to that,” she said.
As the lesson came to a close, about a half-dozen dancers trickled in for the practica. Some appeared to have been dancing together for a long time, based on their expertise. Men danced together, women danced together, straight couples, too. Barakat mingled with students as quick spurts of the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument that’s a mainstay in a tango orchestra, kept dancers aware of the beat.
A quicker, more rhythmic tango, also called a milonga, brought Lubisch to the floor with an accomplished follower. Each descended into a deep focus, as the pace required fast footwork. They danced flawlessly. When the song ended, the partners bowed to each other, recognizing their accomplishment.
“That’s what it’s like to have a kaleidoscope of emotions and feelings in the moment,” Lubisch said. “Dancing tango is like seeing the world in color when you’ve only seen it in black-and-white.”