— By Nicole M. Hill and Claire Smith
The Stereotyped Cabeceo by Claire
A few years ago, I was sitting at a milonga with a friend of mine who was a longtime dancer. He didn’t know this crowd that well and I was pointing out followers he might want to cabeceo.
I nodded toward a woman across the room. “She’s pretty good, from what I hear.”
I saw the wave of skepticism pass over his face.
“Ehhh…I don’t think so. She doesn’t look like she’d be very good.”
I was puzzled — and a little annoyed. He hadn’t seen her dance. What made him think she wouldn’t be very good?
I looked at her, trying to see what he saw. She was a sociable woman — white, a little older, in her 50s maybe. She was wearing tango shoes and a nice dress — although not a “tango” dress. Her hair was styled and neat, and she was wearing makeup. She seemed healthy and in good shape. She definitely looked like she’d showered recently.
“I mean…I think she is a good dancer, though. You should try, if you get a chance later.”
As luck would have it, there actually weren’t that many people at the milonga, and my friend eventually ran out of other followers he wanted to dance with. After his tanda with the woman I’d pointed out, I asked what he thought.
“I’m surprised — she’s probably one of the better dancers here.”
What does he think a “good dancer” looks like anyway, I wondered.
Once I googled “tango dancer.” Scrolling through hundreds of images, every single one featured white, Latinx, or Hispanic people. After dancing tango for 11 years, my mental image of “tango dancer” probably looks a little different — actually, it looks a lot different.
But what if Google was my image of a “tango dancer”? What happens when I get to the milonga?
[People] kind of look … They see dancer, dancer, dancer, Black woman, dancer, dancer, Black woman, dancer, dancer… They don’t see a tanguera, they see a Black woman.
— Anthea Okereke
We ended up at the same table at milongas often. … He just never asked me to dance … Fast forward … and he finally was like, ‘ oh Jamila do you want to dance’ and after the first song … he was like, ‘oh you’re a very nice dancer.’
And it’s not like he just arrived in town or hadn’t seen me dancing with his other friends … maybe that’s the point, maybe he didn’t see me.
— Jamila Williams
Several times … I’ve been asked, ‘Oh what are you doing here?’ in a milonga. Who goes to a milonga without the intention of dancing? …
They brought their friend to the milonga and so I was there and they introduced us … I’m in my dance clothes, I’m in my heels and he is like, ‘Oh what are you doing here?’
— Amanda Garley
Watch the entire Tango Round Table interview
Reflecting on these experiences, I was pondering: what makes someone look down a line of followers and see some of them as “Black woman” or “older woman” instead of “tanguera”?
In these stories, one of the issues these women kept coming back to is that they simply aren’t seen — literally.
So where does that come from?
From the Sidelines by Nicole
I’ve noticed a common thread across social dance in general — that Black women feel erased while their particular community seems largely to not have noticed or be aware. I’ve experienced support when sharing my story, but there are times when people proclaim that I am either wrong or my experience does not reflect their community. I’ve been fairly broad in my characterization that this is not just a “Black female dancer problem” — that others, particularly older women are also being discriminated against. Some older women have reached out to acknowledge their own discrimination while also declaring that I, a Black woman, was the one bringing racism into the community.
I’m not here to argue who is right or wrong about tango communities, but to talk about how people — even in the same community — can have very different perspectives. One example comes to mind from outside the tango community. Jené Lee, who is a Black salsa dancer, recalled being at a social, looking around, and saying to her friend, “look at this” in reference to the fact that every Black female in the room was simultaneously sitting on the sideline, not dancing.
Clearly these were salient and memorable experiences for the Black women in the room, but I imagine the other dancers — both on the floor and even on the sidelines — did not notice. The contrast between the sentiment that “my community does not discriminate” and the lived experience of Black dancers such as myself is not simply a matter of conscious willful racism, though that occurs as well. The reason the problem is invisible to many has to do with a very real limitation of humans to perceive, interpret, and remember situations.
When you are at a milonga, there is so much to take in — the smell of food, the music, the beautiful clothes and shoes of the dancers, the flow of dance across the floor, the wine. You might think you are soaking it all in, but there are limits to how much detail you can process. Every moment that you perceive of the world is shaped by the things you miss, the things you vaguely perceive, and the ways your brain fills in the gaps.
Don’t believe me? Play this 30-second experiment below before continuing.
This video is a powerful example of how when you are paying attention to something, you are limited in your ability to pay attention to something else. And here you had a single job: to watch the video. Now imagine you are back in the milonga full of music, full of movement, full of distractions.
You are likely unaware of who is sitting when you are not because your attention is occupied by dancing. That isn’t a bad thing — if you were consciously aware of everything, you would quickly become overstimulated and unable to dance. We are forced to focus on what is important in the moment, such as connection and navigation, because we simply cannot pay attention to everything.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time on the sidelines, undistracted, free to scan the room to see who else was sitting out the tanda — again. Of course I missed things, too. But my point is, no one should be overly confident in their perception of their community, especially if you dance a lot. The most popular dancer is likely the least aware of the inclusivity of their community because they are otherwise engaged at the milonga.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with another friend recently about a tango festival we’d both gone to several years ago. I loved that venue — it had a great atmosphere for dancing. The floor, the lighting — everything was perfect. My friend laughed, ‘You remember what that place looked like? I never pay attention to things like that,’ she said. ‘I’m just trying to dance.’
— Claire Smith
The Fair Ronda by Nicole
We need to believe that we live in a world in which people get what they deserve, or in other words, they deserve what they get. That is a very important fundamental part of our lives.
— Dr. Melvin Lerner
Those are the words of a social psychologist who studied the very human belief in a fair and just world. It is actually our commitment to the notion of justice in the world that paradoxically prevents us from seeing injustice in the world.
It explains how for some, tango can feel like a place where your time and investment pays off. Who hasn’t been told that if they study and practice hard, it will pay off over time in more people wanting to dance with you? We acknowledge that some people do sit a lot but we believe it is a consequence of them being unwilling to invest or grow as dancers. Simply put, we believe in a world where karma is always at work and good things happen to good people, while bad things happen to bad people. And so sometimes it’s hard for us to acknowledge inequity in our beloved tango communities because it contradicts the sense of justice that we personally feel committed to and believe is ubiquitous. That is not to say there isn’t skill, hard work, and reward. Every master dancer must put in the time, and they often work the hardest. But there is something about the human condition that tries to make sense out of the inequity in the world. Recently a dancer told me, “Tango is the closest thing to a meritocracy I’ve ever experienced.”
As much as I long for that to be true, not only have I never seen it, I’m not even sure I’ve been seen.
The Synopsis by Claire
I want to be aware of what I know — and what I don’t.
I know I don’t see everything that’s happening, even if it feels like I do.
I can be intentional about noticing them, my fellow dancers in the room.
I know I don’t know what other dancers experience, even if we are sitting right next to each other.
I recognize that I bring into every tango space images of who is a “tango dancer” and who isn’t.
I can deliberately choose to dance with people who challenge that image.
I can be open to hearing different perspectives.
I can seek them out.
This piece is about invisibility and the psychology of milonga.
- The Stereotyped Cabeceo is about how our biases and stereotypes shape our ability to see potential dance partners.
- From the Sidelines is about the psychological phenomenon of selective attention, which helps us to focus on what is relevant in the moment — our dance partner, the music, the line of dance — at the expense of everything else, including our fellow dancers ‘on the sidelines’ who seem to fade into the background. You can learn more about selective attention through this 7-minute Ted Talk by Dr. Daniel Simon, “Seeing the world as it isn’t.” Please check out more excellent discussions from Tango Round Table: Women led discussions on Argentine tango by Kristina McFadden.
- The Fair Ronda is about how we as humans reconcile the inequity we see in our community and is inspired by the Just World Hypothesis from the field of social psychology. Our desire for a fair world is evident in our language: “you got what was coming to you”, “what goes around comes around”, “chickens come home to roost”, “everything happens for a reason”, and “you reap what you sow”. Here is a short video on the topic by Myles Dyer where he connects it to political discourse.
Thank you, Claire, for being my partner on this piece and making the connection between the perception of inclusivity and selective attention. As a cognitive psychologist who studied attention, I wish I made the connection; I appreciate your insight
Thank you, Nicole, for inviting me to collaborate with you. Exploring the ways our perceptions affect our communities has been a powerful experience.
Claire Smith is a high school teacher who has been dancing tango for 11 years, primarily in Dallas and at marathons and festivals around the U.S. Her family of many teachers, counselors, and scientists — particularly her mother — always encouraged her to look beyond the surface to the origins of people’s perspectives and behavior, and to stand on the side of social justice.