Arts & Culture

It takes 200 (or more) to tango

6 min read

Dozens of participants and hundreds of auditors participate in conference on tango

Barefoot and dressed with thrift-shop elegance in a floor-length, taffeta gown with fingerless gloves and a discus-shaped hat, Marta Elena Savigliano read from her paper “Wallflowers and Femmes Fatales: Dancing Gender and Politics at the Milongas” with a tinkling Argentine accent and an air of fey imperturbability.


A professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Department of World Arts & Cultures, and the author of “Tango and the Political Economy of Passion” and “Angora Matta: Fatal Acts of North South Translation,” Savigliano had come to Harvard to participate in the conference “Tango! Dance the World Around: Global Transformations of Latin American Culture,” co-sponsored by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Humanities Center, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The conference took place Oct. 26-27.

Just as the conference broke new ground by bringing together popular music and scholarly analysis, so Savigliano’s presentation created a new genre by combining academic discourse with performance art.

As she spoke, four dancers paralleled her words with brief solos and pas de deux, interspersed with ambiguous movements and glances. Short films of tango dancers played on the screen behind them, and later, choreographer Susan Rose, dressed like a French schoolboy in black jacket and shorts and red boots, videotaped the live dancers with a hand-held camera, projecting their images onto the screen.

Meanwhile, Savigliano developed a thesis about the world of the milongas, Argentinean clubs where people go to dance the tango. Through the medium of dance, men and women enact a succession of roles that include performer and observer, chooser and chosen, victim and victimizer. “It takes three to perform the tango,” she said, “two to dance and one to watch.” Despite the self-conscious role-playing, the dancers are at the mercy of this sensual and overpowering music. “It is beyond your control; just try to make it beautiful.”

According to Homi Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and American Literature and Language, the conference represented an attempt to initiate a conversation among the performing arts and a range of academic disciplines, including literary and cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, philosophy, and history.

“Tango is an impassioned music that is indeed a world music,” Bhabha said. “It began in Argentina and Uruguay in the early 20th century and spread all over the world, even to places like Japan and Finland. Tango provides a lens through which we can study such things as gender, urban development, globalization, and other issues.”

Bhabha’s own history testifies to tango’s global reach. Growing up in Bombay, he was introduced to tango by his father, a great fan of tango music and an enthusiastic tango dancer. Bhabha said that listening to his father’s records, he was “completely captivated by the music’s combination of fragility and strength. And in that way that children sometimes experience, the music caused me to feel nostalgia for something without my really knowing what I was nostalgic about.”

Years later, when he was an adviser for the humanities at Radcliffe, Bhabha suggested the idea of a tango conference to then-Radcliffe Dean Drew Faust, who agreed that it would it would be an interesting way of bringing about dialogue across disciplinary boundaries. As Harvard president, Faust was, if possible, even more enthusiastic about the idea, since it coincides with her focus on intellectual discussions underpinned by new interdisciplinary and institutional alliances.

Just as Bhabha imagined, the conference did succeed in bringing together scholars and performers from many different fields and geographical locations. In some cases there was a melding of the two roles. Pablo Aslan, a bassist and composer and amateur tango historian, gave a presentation titled “In Search of Tango Music History.”

According to Aslan, the leader of a tango-jazz ensemble called Avantango, there are many myths and assumptions about the origins of tango that have no basis in fact. According to many sources, tango began in the early 20th century as a scandalously erotic dance of the lower classes of Buenos Aires forbidden by the authorities, which achieved respectability only when it became a fad in Paris just before World War I. But Aslan said he has discovered sheet music for tangos as early as the mid-19th century and that by 1900 it was being danced by all classes throughout Buenos Aires.

Aslan played several early recordings of the music, showing how it evolved from a complex style played by highly trained musicians to a simplified form accessible to the middle class. Certain features remained, however, such as the corte, a sudden halt in the rhythm that gives the tango its characteristic start-and-stop quality.

Conference participants got a chance to see Aslan the performer at a reception following the conference when he and pianist Octavio Brunetti, accordianist Victor Prieto, keyboardist Bario Boente, and other musicians played contemporary expressions of this still-evolving musical form. Two Argentinean-born dancers, Fernanda Cajida and Dario da Silva, demonstrated various styles of tango dance.

The second day of the conference also featured talks and discussions that covered a wide variety of subjects. Sylvia Molloy, the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University, where she teaches Latin American and comparative literature, delivered the keynote address on the influence of tango on the work of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Two discussions considered “Tango as a Cultural Form: Music, Dance, Film,” and “Tango as Politics: Gender, Class, Urban Life.” Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who recorded the CD “Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla” in 2005, participated in a discussion of tango with composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Bhabha said that he hopes the tango conference will serve as model for future conferences that will consider other cultural forms indigenous to particular regions and follow their development into global phenomena. He said that he was encouraged by the enthusiasm that has been generated by the tango conference.

“This was something that was literally a dream in my head, and now it’s become a reality,” he said.