An illuminating account of tango as a transnational practice: a review of Kathy Davis’s Dancing Tango

DongKue Lee is a current OHMA student. In this post, he explores Kathy Davis' account of tango as a transnational practice. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

In the costumes and faces of the dancers, in their movements and gestures, and in the lyrics of the music, tango reflects very traditional notions of gender. In her book, Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World, Kathy Davis, a senior research fellow at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, explores how tango became a global phenomenon both as a cultural symbol of Argentinean national identity and as a transnational cultural practice. In addition, through the methodology of global ethnography, the author explores how tango was transferred across national and cultural borders, specifically in Buenos Aires and Amsterdam.

To explore her questions, Davis primarily focuses on interviewing dancers. She recruited many of her interviewees from the dance floor. She watched them dance and speculated on whether or not they could help answer her research questions. This is admirable because Davis deeply engaged in the recruitment process and interviewed passionate dancers. She evaluated possible interviewees based on objective information as well as subjective judgment. She avoided interviewing those who only occasionally participated in lessons or who seemed to be there for reasons other than dancing. Because Davis is also a passionate dancer, she could interact with other dancers and figure out who might be suitable interviewees for her project.

Davis investigates how ethnographic researchers deal with the tensions between the passions of the insider and the criticism of the outsider. When a researcher has a passion not only for studying a subject but also for being a part of the subject, relationships between the researcher and interviewees, or between the researcher and her topic, become more intertwined, both actively and intersubjectively. This can present a challenge to an oral historian trained as, a sociologist, to value objectivity, like Kathy Davis. In a conversation with OHMA students Davis explained how she balances theory, objectivity, and an immersive approach to ethnography:

“I think as a researcher you have all of your theoretical and political and mythological baggage, you bring it along with you. But you have to be open to what the person, the people you’re talking to, what they have to offer, what they have to say. Sociologists used to call that “taking the members’ perspective,” but I actually think that's not a bad idea that you try to find a way to sort of believe what the person is telling you, make sense of it and find a way to make it plausible. And then of course you analyze it, you put it in a broader frame or do all kinds of things with it. But I think basically you have to do that.”

Taking her narrators’ perspectives seriously led Davis to challenge existing theoretical frames for thinking about tango, and produce innovative new ones. Conventionally, feminist and postcolonial thinkers have considered the worldwide popularity of tango, which has emerged in cosmopolitan centers around the world, to be the result of a stereotyped “politics of passion.” In their view, tango provokes a political economy of passion that draws upon the same rules of exoticism that are part of any colonial or imperial project. In this case, tango draws our attention to the desires of the white European or American colonizer for the exotic/erotic “other.”

However, in her research, Kathy Davis points out that the politics of passion are just one side of the story. Focusing on two geographical centers of tango, the historical and symbolic home of tango and a typical European tango center, she explores how people become connected with tango and mutually interact with it, and how dancers from different nations and cultures, as well as genders and classes, actively negotiate the tensions between their transnational sensibilities and their desire for authenticity.. In tango, especially, gender is negotiated, along with other hierarchies of difference such as class, generation and nationality.

However, the logic of cultural authenticity is expressed in different ways in different locations: authenticity in Amsterdam actualizes exotic space away from everyday life, whereas in Buenos Aires it is linked to its past. Davis concludes that tango salons in Buenos Aires and in Amsterdam play a significant role in helping dancers to escape from the realities of the present. Much of this escape happens through a complex renegotiation of gender roles.

Femininity is highly sexualized and exaggerated in tango and its subsidiaries. According to Davis’ research, contemporary tango dancers modify their performance of gender to the tango context. She explains that most female informants describe their feminine behaviors while dancing as antithetical to the behavior they adopt in their everyday lives. Tango, according to the author, is not a reflection or reproduction of traditional gender relations. It is a kind of deviation from dancers’ normal identities. Women felt the need to assert that this was not how they dressed, nor how they behaved, at home or at work. They enjoyed feeling like a woman during the dance but always described this as not being passive or subservient feminine behavior.

The author attends to the revival of tango from a global perspective as a form of mutually beneficial encounter between global citizens, creative hybrid practices, and new ways of imagining the world. She deals with tango as a contact zone for transnational encounters. By the turn of the twenty-first century, tango was a very familiar cultural theme throughout Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. The pervasiveness of tango blurs the notion of ownership in a way that reflects cosmopolitanism and the ambivalent mode of belonging that prevails in a globalized world. Overall, based on written materials, personal narratives, and extensive interviews, this well-written book offers an illuminating account of tango as a transnational practice. It also contains a compelling explanation of the dynamic negotiations that occur in the practice of dancing.