The Changing Codes

Changes in social behavior are occurring in most, if not all, circles of social dancing. They correspond to sweeping cultural transformations, most obviously the women’s and men’s liberation movements, and also include the influences of gay culture. They are also a result of the general mixing of culture throughout modern western society.

As dances are get further from their cultural roots there are inevitable clashes between traditionalists and innovators. Old-timers are motivated by their loyalty to the history of, the techniques of, and subtle sophistication of their forms. Newcomers are propelled by their enthusiasm, and will provide structure even when they have little information to guide them.

As these two groups grow and intermingle it is inevitable that the codes of the social dance gathering change. The relationships between and among the sexes are the cutting edge of these changes.

As little as a generation or two ago relationships between men and women at a tango salon in Buenos Aires mirrored exactly the strict codes of the society at large. Women sat at the edge of the dance floor, either in groups or with chaperones, and men asked for a dance signaling from afar. If the woman accepted, then the man would lead her for a set of songs, and then return her to her seat.

Gallant behavior followed the dictums of European chivalry, that of a strong and courageous man honoring the beauty of, and protecting the fragility of, a beautiful and dependent woman. Any deviation from these codes was usually met with expulsion from the social scene. Such displays as same sex dancing, or a reversal of roles were not accepted, accept in such instances where members of one sex were absent or severely deficient in numbers.

In Argentina such a male society was created by the gender lopsided immigration of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The resulting tradition of the all male dance academy created the conditions necessary for the tango’s sophisticated interrelation of lead and follow.

Wars also create precisely such imbalances of the sexes. In the all male barracks of the military men would practice dancing together. In the practically male-less communities back home the women would do the same. In the world wars of the twentieth century this forced separation of sexes’ dance practice coincided with the success of the women’s liberation movement in what we now call the “first world”. Following each war, the dance roles continued to remain the same, but the social roles had been forever changed. These societal changes have resulted in a far more liberal relation among men and women, and have slowly influenced the dance techniques themselves.

Social Changes in Argentina

In Argentina the feminist revolution has proceeded more slowly than in North America and in Europe, but has proceeded none-the-less. This has occurred during a cross cultural pollination of tangos that has been facilitated by the success of the great tango stage shows.

The social scene is now, both in as well as outside of Argentina, a mixing of free individuals in a way that was previously accorded only to men. The woman had been in the man’s charge. It’s now acceptable for a woman to ask a dance of a man. He had expressed the aesthetic design of steps therefore showing off both his own intelligence and her beauty. She expressed her beauty with her walk and her wardrobe. Now she has become an equal player, requiring her own technical expertise, and intelligence.

The technique of lead and follow has mirrored this greater evolution. The language of gesture of the follower is undergoing a rapid expansion.

Parallel to this history, a different story of the sexes has also occurred. In the past women were discouraged from having an education. Therefore, at the dance hall it was the men who were the athletes and the stars. Typically there were fewer women than men at dances, and therefore the competition between the men was strong, and it inspired them to improve. In these generations being a good male social dancer was a proof of manhood, an honor to display.

In the 1950’s, with the advent of rock and roll, it fell out of style to dance with a partner. Emphasis went from lead and follow to freestyle improvisation. Simultaneously, most young women of the next generation received lots of early training in Ballet or Modern dancing, while men’s training became focused almost exclusively on sports. The male role in dancing was therefore reduced. In fact dancing became associated with homophobia, and therefore prowess in dance would make one’s male honor suspect.

After several generations social dancing is now making a big comeback in Europe and the Americas. Whereas before there were more men than women, now there are more women. Where as before it was the women who lacked basic physical education for dancing, now it is the men. And, to top it off, we live in a society where the relations between the sexes, in homes and at work, is radically different than it was even twenty years ago.

So while the modern social dance hall still pays homage to its roots in chivalry, men still lead and women follow, it’s really not the same as it used to be. Often women are learning to lead, in part because of the lack of men, and in part because of the challenge of leading. Men are often beginning from scratch, leading is hard, and so it is becoming much more common for women to lead them or back lead them. Men are also discovering that the fast track to good dancing lies in practicing with other men, like the Argentines learned in their hey day.

Leaders and Followers

In the midst of this cultural scramble, a wonderful twist is taking place in the technical development of dance. More and more people, without regard to their gender, are becoming competent leaders and followers at the same time. The conversational aspect of improvisation is widening to include the follower’s asking for time of the leader, the leader giving time to the follower, and, sometimes, an exchange of lead and follow taking place within a dance. This is a gender free mirror of what Argentine men did, in only segregated company, before.

In the modern dance hall we will be seeing more and more of the kinds of behavior that characterize our modern society. Adept females will often be among the most admired leaders. Males will spend time following better leaders than themselves, and greatly accelerate their learning process. Same sex couples will be common and cause no more or less gossip than other couples.

There are still some voices arguing for the continuation of the old codes, and at this time it really depends on the character of the teacher or manager of any given social dance, as to how much change is permitted. This give and take between the traditional and new codes will probably continue for many years and dancing together, that age old ritual of community, will continue to evolve along with the culture whose language informs it.

Hopefully the result will include the most appealing aspects of both the old and the new. It is not a question of whether this generation’s dance culture is better or worse that of the last generation’s dance culture. It is rather a great time to be a part of our culture’s growth. The next generations of social dancers will dance through a tremendous and exciting set of changes.