Building an inclusive Tango community through Ubuntu in the era of social distancing

Nicole M Hill, PhD
Jun 19 · 8 min read

Attaining diversity and inclusion in the Argentine tango community

By Nicole M. Hill

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This piece was written as a Facebook post on May 31, 2020.

When I started writing this piece in September 2019, I could not imagine all of the suffering that people are currently experiencing from COVID and the murders of several Black people in the US. I had every intention to write about community building and the practice of inclusion, that is, until life distracted me. But now is the time to revisit this topic, as people are isolated from social distancing and divided passively through inequity and actively through bigotry.

Why is this a good time? Because now we all long for connection, a return to the dance floor, where we literally embrace people of all backgrounds. Brazilians have a word for this longing, specifically used for the longing of people, saudades.

We long, not just for dance but for our friends. At this moment, I believe the community is more open, more prepared, to think about the building and maintenance of the tango community, as we think about how to resume dancing in a time of social distancing.

And it’s not just Argentine tango, but all dance communities that should use this time for reflection, but I am speaking specifically to the community that I have loved passionately despite so much heartache.

I’d like to start with a story of a dancer, Pablo Guerreiro Ferreira. He is an Afro Brazilian samba dancer and teacher who dances tango and many other styles. Pablo thinks more about the technical, historical, and spiritual aspect of dance than the above average teacher and professional performer. I had the pleasure of hosting him at my house last summer.

Pablo and Nicole dancing after his workshop. Yup, there’s no music.

I didn’t expect our conversations to run that deep given my limited Portuguese and his limited English. And I had a plan, if things got awkward, we could just binge watch Brazilian series on Netflix. And we did a little, while I prepared dinner. But to my surprise, that weekend we talked about many things, including tango, despite the limitations of a shared verbal language. We talked about the African roots of samba and tango, and we talked about community. Through Pablo I learned about Ubuntu, which means, I am because we are. This African philosophy means many things, such as the idea that we are better together.

What makes tango so interesting and special is that it is a pastiche. It’s the kind of thing that only arises when many cultures mix, in a way, tango is the very embodiment of Ubuntu. Any tanguera worth her salt will tell you that tango has African roots, through its precursor, milonga, but I don’t think we reflect on it enough. In African culture, everyone has the right to dance, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the beautiful, the not so beautiful, the best dancers, and the worse. And though I am far from an expert in the vast diaspora of African dances, I do know that dance is so culturally important that it marks life’s milestones and occasions. Dance is inclusive, a way to bring the community together, to celebrate.

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I think we have lost touch with this at the milonga when we gather to dance. A milonga can be a magical place and a lonely place all at the same time. It is where we literally come together to embrace each other, but it is also where we too often reject each other and worse. In the real-world there is a lot of bias, intolerance, and abuse, and whether we realize it or not, this behavior follows us into the milonga and onto the dance floor.

Some things I’ve personally witnessed are dancers bragging about refusing partners that are “beneath them,” dancers failing to support teachers and organizers, a prominent male teacher who taught a sequence designed to throw his partner off balance if she “over-embellished,” dancers being harassed and even sexually assaulted in festivals, all sorts of fighting in the community among organizers and teachers. Tango is a microcosm of the world where some days, but definitely not all days, we think that in order to win, someone must lose. The true strength of a community is its ability to provide for everyone.

Humans don’t stop being human, for better or worse, because they are dancing or organizing social events. But we can strive to be better and we can absolutely build the infrastructure for community-centric behavior by paying more attention to one another and having a code of ethics. While I’m not arguing for the obligation to accept every dance, I am advocating for us to think about ways to ensure that we all dance, that no one is neglected, that no one is abused at a time when we are uniquely vulnerable, when we dance.

We have to acknowledge that some people dance all night while others sit all night. While it brings us comfort to explain it away with notions of “indescribable but inherent connection” and “technique,” the truth is who you connect to is often determined by personal or societal biases and nowhere in the world does there exist a true meritocracy. Furthermore, a true commitment to community and diversity does not strive for a meritocracy but access, true inclusion. Should we consider technical ability if a dancer is older, has suffered a stroke, or has Parkinson’s, …. or do we say that their value to the community is measured by what they bring in spirit? Is cabeceo, as beautiful and unique a tradition as it is, the gatekeeper to the dance when we know that conditions like Autism or low vision make it difficult for some to lock eyes? An equally applied rule says everyone must use cabeceo to invite another to dance. But a fair community does not allow members to be isolated at the milonga because they are less physically, neurologically, and psychologically able to comply. It doesn’t have to be either-or, we do not have to throw away traditions like cabeceo, we just need to make sure that there are alternatives so that everyone can dance. These are just a few examples of being excluded.

I’ve have since learned of a blind lady in Buenos Aires who is given a seat of prominence, is taken care of by the community, and an active member of the tango community.

To paraphrase Jamila Williams, we are trying to solve things that already have been solved in Argentina because we assume that things should be a certain way to be “authentic.”

Now is the time for empathy and sympathy as we all feel the pangs of isolation, as we all are sitting and waiting to dance, some of us for the first time in a long time. Remember what it was like to join the community, how nervous and inadequate you felt to walk on the dance floor. I’ve been dancing a long time, long enough to be a young and thin member of the community, while now I am a not so young or thin member of the community. And those things have determined how much I have been invited to dance, and most disheartening, how often my invitation has been rejected.

And beyond this I know that my race has played a factor, not because people are overtly racist, though this is sometimes the case, but because people don’t always feel a “connection” with those that are different than themselves.

Tango is a studious art form, and it is a wonderful thing that people take their technique so seriously. But we often go too far and exclude less skilled dancers some of which are new and others of which do not have the economic means to afford private lessons and fancy shoes.

Again we have to ask ourselves, what are we about? Are we a fancy private club where there are membership levels that determine how much access you have to the dance floor or are we a true community that does not exclude or discriminate against certain groups? We must choose with our actions, we can not be both!

Leaders of the community, advanced dancers, I task you with thinking of ways to ensure that everyone dances and to be vocal about these solutions at every event and every class. And not just at the beginning of the evening when only beginners are present, but at the middle of the milonga when there is a critical mass of dancers. Perhaps you invite people that have not danced or have danced little to come to the floor and pick your best dancers to dance with them for one tanda.

Leaders lead by actions, not just words, and although our teachers and organizers are busy they should spend at least one tanda nurturing an under-served dancer, just please do not choose the attractive newbie every single time. One tanda is a start, I’m sure we can do so much more. What ideas do you have for inclusion?

Those rich in invitations may not see the point or even believe there is a problem but I assure you that our community would be so much more prosperous if we were able to retain the dancers that we continuously lose from being neglected. And if the protests in the US have taught us anything, it’s that just because you had your needs met, it doesn’t mean that we all have the same privilege. Please sincerely ask yourself, how can you help to make the community better, how can you help it to grow?

Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so, in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?

- Nelson Mandela

Community is on my mind a lot, not just because I struggle with the tango community but because I’m trying to learn samba de gafieira, which at times bears some resemblance to tango. I want to build a gafieira community from scratch in the US. If I’m lucky, someday I will have to put my professed values in action as a leader, and my top priority is ensuring that I do so in an inclusive way, in the true spirit of Ubuntu.

Start the conversation where you dance! Please be respectful in the comments. Clap and share if this resonated with you.

Please note, I respectfully decline to respond to comments.

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Intentional Connections

A collection of stories, perspectives, and historic writings on social dance communities with a particular emphasis on diverse and inclusive spaces.

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Intentional Connections

A collection of stories, perspectives, and historic writings on social dance communities with a particular emphasis on diverse and inclusive spaces.

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