For mother’s day, I DJ’ed at Milonga La Paz, and in honor of the occasion, I created a couple tandas featuring female singers. Considering the rarity of female-dominant songs in tango, the task was difficult, but I managed to create two danceable sets of music.
While researching las damas del tango, I was reading an article written by my friend Lidia Losavio-Graham, former Hispanic literature teacher at a college in Iowa, who frequently taught the history of tango and Argentine cultural history: “Neither Virgins nor Whores: Tango Lyrics and Gender Representations in the Tango World.”
Needless to say, during my reading, I discovered that tango lyrics are considerably less kind to women than I had previously thought. I mean, I knew they were mostly about women breaking men’s hearts, but some songs are just downright scathing.
In very black and white terms, the women of tango are either ruined ladies destined to lead a scandalous life, who do nothing but leave a wake of male victims in their path, or they’re submissive, sweet ladies that play to men’s desires.
And I don’t think that we’ve left all of that cultural weight behind us, even as tango tourists dancing here in the United States…
As a follower, conflicting messages are always given: just follow, but also be anchored and not so easily moved. You’re either too light, or the man complains that he’s pushing furniture. To embellish or not to embellish? Whatever you do, don’t disturb the leader during his one-sided dance monologue to this tanda.
Or, if you are a lady leader, then comes the prying questions or comments into your sexual preferences. Not even going that far, there are comments that you can’t lead or your following will suffer, or you’re back-leading men now when you follow.
Let’s not even get into the discrimination that ladies of a certain age receive at the milongas, and how an inexperienced dancer may be favored sometimes only for her looks. Not to mention the impolite dance invitations that, when refused, are taken as a sign of your snobism.
Being a lady in tango is a tough balance to strike, and I don’t know what the solution is. I do, however, find solace in icons like Tita Merello, who defied stereotypes in feminine cultural norms, standards of beauty and musical interpretation.
With a husky, half-talking, half-singing style, she merged music with the theatrical. Tita owned the contradictions and played them to her advantage.
And so, I dedicate the lyrics of her signature song to all the women out there who keep dancing to be part of the tango conversation, whether as a leader or as a follower, or both:
“It is being said about me, that I am ugly, that I walk like a hoodlum, that I’m warped, that I’m trying to be a tough guy, that I look like Leguisamo, that my nose is pointed, that my looks don’t help me, and that my mouth looks like a mailbox.
If I’m ugly, let’s assume that I haven’t noticed it, because I’ve only known that, when it comes to love affairs, I’ve dumped more than a few.
They may say; they may talk. They may mumble and bray. But my God-given ugliness has been the envy of more than one woman. And they cannot say that I’m stuck-up because I’ve always been modest.” – Tita Merello, Se Dice De Mi
Happy Mother’s Day, ladies!