President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance the tango with tango dancers during the State Dinner at the Centro Cultural Kirchner, Wednesday, March 23, 2016, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

By Melissa Fitch

On January 21, 2017, in the final moments of the Obama era, I was dancing tango with a Mexican diplomat in Delhi, India. I watched over his shoulder as Donald Trump’s inauguration was displayed on every screen in the hotel café where we danced, the sound muted. Tango is connected to Argentina’s history of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century and the pervasive feelings experienced by the new immigrants upon arrival: rootlessness, sadness, nostalgia, and melancholy, as well as the need for connection and belonging.1 As a recent arrival in South Asia, after having spent seven months living in Buenos Aires, there were few things that mattered to me more. And yet, in the more than a century that tango has existed, these overriding associations so common in Argentina have been all but lost in the global imaginary. Tango became relegated to the realm of caricature. A perfect illustration of this misperception took place almost one year before, when outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama was derided by political pundits for dancing the tango in Argentina. The dance was labeled, predictably enough, “steamy,” “frivolous,” and “sultry.” Rush Limbaugh even chastised the president for having danced the tango in Buenos Aires with a woman “who was not his wife.”2 Limbaugh’s outrage was reminiscent of the scandal that greeted the start of the tango craze at the beginning of the last century, one which included efforts by the Vatican to prohibit the dance on the grounds that it was “offensive to the purity of every right-minded person.”3

President Obama hadn’t exactly been slipping into smoke-filled rooms down dingy back alleys in Buenos Aires to dance tango with women of ill-repute, as the cliché would have it. He was at a formal state dinner with the president of Argentina, Maurcio Macri. Macri spoke to the Obamas at length about the tango as they watched a professional couple perform. After the display, Obama, when asked repeatedly to dance by the ballerina, politely refused. She insisted. He finally acquiesced. Her male partner did the same with Michelle. The entire tango moment was over within two minutes. But the brevity was irrelevant. The images and video circled the globe almost instantly, and with them all of the clichés that circulate regarding tango in the popular imaginary: sex, deception, and scandal. A similar storm of tango controversy had engulfed yet a different U.S. politician the decade before, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.

Sanford had told his staff that he would be hiking the Appalachian Trail for a couple of weeks in 2009, but then disappeared. His aides were unable to locate him. When he finally surfaced, arriving in Atlanta from Buenos Aires early on the morning of June 24, reporter Gina Smith was waiting for him at the airport. He had changed his mind about the hike, he told her, opting instead to go someplace “exotic.”4 Later that day he gave an emotional press conference, saying that he had spent “five days crying” in Argentina about an ill-fated love affair he was having with a woman there. While there had been no mention of tango in anything the governor had said, numerous journalists, bloggers, late-night comedians, and readers were quick to make tango part of the story. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd mocked the statesman, saying that Buenos Aires had transformed Sanford into someone altogether different, “Marco, international man of mystery and suave god of sex and tango.”5

These characterizations have little to do with the role the music and dance serve in the lives of people around the world. Obama’s tango took place at a formal event sponsored by the Argentine government. That notwithstanding, it had included almost every salacious cliché associated with the dance. His partner for the brief dance was dressed in a shimmering gold dress slit provocatively up one side. She lifted her leg seductively next to the president’s hip as he stood there looking visibly uncomfortable. Why would the Argentine government intentionally propagate such a hackneyed image of the dance? The answer is simple: in large part to cater to global expectations. In countries such as Argentina that have a history of economic instability, tourism is one key, though by no means the only one, to economic survival. The government had watched the growing interest in dance following the international success around the world of the show “Tango Argentino” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It witnessed the renewed interest in the dance after it’s inclusion in popular films such as Scent of a Woman (1992), True Lies (1994), and Evita (1996), the last of which featured none other than a tango-dancing Madonna in the title role. Argentine politicians realized the economic benefits that an influx of dance-related global tourists could bring to the city and they acted accordingly.

The equation was simple: tango is about fantasy. Tourists want to have their tango fantasies confirmed. An entire infrastructure was put in place by the late 1990s to do just that. Tango became more visually present in the city than perhaps ever before—much of its presence revolving around the stock tango semiotic cues that circulated globally. The slinky dress. The fishnet stockings. The impeccably dressed man with slicked back hair, dressed in a black tuxedo. The overly serious facial expressions. Tango demonstrations became part and parcel of official visits by dignitaries to Argentina. It formed an integral part of the country’s pavilions in World Expos. Argentine embassies and consulates around the world sponsored local events and dance classes when the touring tango shows came to town. Tango began to play such an important role in the national economy that a neologism was coined, tangonomía, a combination of tango and economía (economy). The infusion of money that entered the city of Buenos Aires as a result of dance tourism went into many different goods and services. The tourists, mostly from Europe and the United States but increasingly from Asia, spent money on classes and clothing, shows and shoes, massage therapists for their weary feet, and “taxi” dancers (semi-professional dancers who accompany a dance tourist in the evenings so that she or he does not have to wait to be asked to dance or suffer potential rejection of an invitee). In 1998, Law 130 was passed that defended the promotion of tango in the country.6 In 2003, Argentina held the first tango world championship and festival, a three-week event in August that quickly became a focal point for a yearly influx of global tango tourists. In 2009, UNESCO declared the tango part of the intangible cultural patrimony of Argentina and Uruguay. The cityscape was transformed as old tango bars that had been closed or fallen into disrepair were renovated and opened. Statues of the tango greats—the singers, composers, and musicians—were erected in the city. The Argentine government’s aggressive global marketing campaign paid off. Tango tourists today form the backbone of the entire tourism industry in the city, accounting for the vast majority of all travelers.

To be sure, much of the new infrastructure was designed to educate tourists regarding the tango luminaries of yesteryear. But it also catered to a view that associated the dance and music almost exclusively with lust. And while lust is one dimension of tango, it is not the only dimension. It would be more accurate to say that tango is about longing. Sometimes the longing is sexual, no doubt. But just as often it is a longing for one’s childhood home, a nostalgia for the corner café, for one’s beloved mother, or for the old barrio (neighborhood). It is a wistful longing for one’s youth. As a social dance, tango is not characterized by flamboyant displays done by scantily-dressed women with their suave partners on a stage, but instead by a silent conversation that takes place between two individuals on the dance floor, both of whom are responding to each other’s subtle cues. Tango dancers find their artistic expression through the music, at times pausing completely in a song to appreciate a particular moment of musical virtuosity or of lyrical poignancy. In a third difference from the tango cliché, those who dance tango in Argentina and around the world encompass a range of ages and body sizes—tango is not merely the dance of the young and beautiful. Indeed, it is often the oldest dancers who are most revered at gatherings. I try to imagine if Rush Limbaugh’s moral outrage would have been as intense had he seen Obama dancing with the country’s grand dame of tango, 82-year-old Maria Nieves. But that, of course, would never happen. The Argentine government is careful to provide the global consumer and future tango tourist with an image that will always cater to the fantasy. It is an essential part of the country’s soft power on the global stage. The elderly, portly, or unattractive need not apply.

Yet it is this “other” tango, not the fantasy, that has provided an alternative channel for public diplomacy. Private tango diplomacy is quite literally heart-to-heart, and it happens between individuals from countries around the world. Like public diplomacy, it involves a constant negotiation. In Buenos Aires I danced with a Pakistani diplomat who had learned to tango while working at his country’s embassy in Argentina and has danced in every city where he has subsequently been posted. The Muslim country of Pakistan is not often associated with tango in the global imaginary, and yet there is a tango dancing community there, just as there is in many Muslim countries, including, until the onset of the Civil War, in Syria.

It makes sense that the longing for home and the melancholy of tango’s origins would resonate with so many individuals today. People are crossing and crisscrossing the globe today for myriad reasons, including work, study, and leisure, as well as due to political and economic upheavals. Thanks to social media, tango provides these individuals who are new to a city with an instant community and a common language. According to the UN Population Fund, by 2030 nearly 80 percent of the world’s population will live in cities of the developing world.7 This mass migration, both within countries and around the world, leads to a sense of loss and displacement, the most prevalent sentiments that led to the birth of tango more than a century ago.

Diplomats dance tango, to be sure, but so do bus drivers, school teachers, film directors, maids, construction workers, engineers, waiters, students, doctors, and journalists. Sadly, the dance may also be associated with terrorists,8 arms dealers,9 and even Nazis.10 Most of the time no one will ever know of the profession of the person with whom one is tangoing. What one does off the dance floor is irrelevant, as is how much money one makes, his or her race, language, or, in most cases, religion. The only thing that matters is if you can dance. In some ways tango serves as the ultimate equalizer. The global connections that have evolved over the last three decades rooted in a shared love of tango have in numerous cases also become a source of solidarity in difficult times, including those brought on by natural disasters, political strife and/or uncertainty, or when members of the global community suffer health-related emergencies. For all of the trolling and negative aspects that the internet has wrought, social media has also provided sublime moments of shared humanity. One example took place in Turkey in 2013.

In June of that year in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, protesters demanded the right to keep the beloved Gezi Park from demolition. The park was one of the last open public spaces in the city, and it was scheduled to be demolished and turned into yet another one of the monolithic shopping centers that dot the Turkish capital. But the protest wasn’t just about Gezi, it was about the sense that civil rights were being eroded in the Muslim majority country, a nation that seemed to be slipping further and further away from its secular roots.

As the protests wore on, images circled the globe of Turkish tango dancers, dancing in gas masks with protest signs on their backs. Within days, solidarity milongas were organized through social media in Italy, France, Germany, and the United States. Photos and videos of each event were posted to YouTube and Facebook and were immediately viewed not only in Turkey, but on every continent around the world. The videos, photos, and signs of solidarity, along with the posted messages to social media sites, offered a virtual embrace to the Turkish activists. “We stand (and dance) with you,” as one sign read.

The world’s first tango dancing politician was, perhaps surprisingly, the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). A photo of him dancing with his niece ran on the front page of major newspapers and a reproduction is often framed and found hanging in tango schools or dance venues in the country. Atatürk saw public dancing between men and women as part of the modernization effort following the demise of the Ottoman Empire. He was anxious to distance the country from the backward, Orientalized images related to that period that often depicted harems. With Atatürk’s encouragement, Muslim singer Seyyan Hanim (1913-1989) became the first woman to ever appear on stage in Turkey without a veil, singing a Turkish tango, “Mazi.”

It should be noted that Atatürk is not the only world leader to date known to have openly embraced the tango. Indeed, in December 2015, hundreds of tango-dancing couples converged upon the square in front of the residence of the current tango-loving leader of the world’s smallest nation, a man who had shared proudly with reporters, only years earlier, that the tango “comes from deep within me.”

And who was the tango-obsessed fanatic that the dancers were honoring?

Pope Francis, the Argentine-born sovereign of the Vatican City and leader of the Roman Catholic Church.11

(Endnotes)

1 Fitch, Melissa Anne. Global Tangos: Travels in the Transnational Imaginary. Bucknell University Press, 2015.

2 Dowd, Maureen. “Obama’s Last Tango” The New York Times. March 26, 2016.

3 “Tango Defeats Vatican Clergy’s Efforts to Suppress Dancing Craze in Italy” The New York Times. December 22, 1913.

4 Gina Smith, “Stanford met in Atlanta after Returning from South America,” State, June 24, 2009. Web.

5 Dowd, Maureen. “Genius in the Bottle,” The New York Times, Opinion, June 28, 2009. Web.

6 “Crean régimen especial de apoyo financiero a las milongas” Legislatura: Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires. 12 de julio, 2016. Web.

7 UNPFA State of the world population 2007: Unleashing the Power of Urban Growth. New York: United Nations Population Fund, 2007. Web.

8 A Finish reporter held by ISIS captors who made him dance tango as a form of humiliation or torture. Brian Todd and Dugald McConnell. “Ex-hostage: ISIS’ Jihadi John’ made me tango with him.” CNN October 16, 2015. Web.

9 On March 18, 2009, at an extradition hearing in Thailand, the wife of Viktor Bout — a Russian national who US federal prosecutors say conspired to sell weapons to rebels in Colombia — told the court that her husband was not an international arms dealer, but rather that he had only traveled to South America “for tango lessons.” “Merchant of Death or Simple Tango Lover?” Robert Mackey. New York Times. March 19, 2009. Web.

10 It was also associated with the horror in Concentration Camps, where tango was often played as prisoners went to the gas chambers. The tangos that were composed in Yiddish, German, Polish. “Tangele: The History of Yiddish Tango.” Czackis, Lloica. “TANGELE: The history of Yiddish tango.” Jewish Quarterly 50.1 (2003): 45-52.

11 “Couples Tango for Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.” BBC. December 17 2014. Web.

Melissa Fitch is a university distinguished professor of Latin American cultural studies at the University of Arizona. She is author of Global Tangos: Travels in the Transnational Imaginary (Bucknell UP, 2015) and Side Dishes: Latin/a American Women, Sex and Cultural Production (Rutgers UP, 2009). She is editor-in-chief of the journal Studies in Latin American Popular Culture and has served as a Fulbright scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin, SAR, China (2011-12) and at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India (2017).